He told me that it was "worse to be alone or rejected" than to find out you're positive. This young, beautiful, gifted black man before me--having just found out a day before, that he was living with HIV--spoke words that had once rested in my throat, too "invulnerable" to admit it. We live in a self-help world where it's sexy to embellish independence and minimize co-dependency. It's fashionable to talk about being the only one you need, the attainment of happiness with oneself, or any other number of "independence" themes that continue to be marketable in American culture. Oddly, romantic relationships are depicted as things "good people" achieve, even if more than half of them end in divorce. I sat with this young man's statement, almost impulsively wanting to reprimand him for privileging his romantic needs over his health. After all, this is how many of us arrive at an HIV positive status: the rapture of love overwhelms common sense and unprotected and vulnerable, at those magical moments, becomes more logical than the use of condoms that remind of distrust, disease, and danger. Loneliness has been referred to as "the disease before the disease" that is all too seldom addressed when we talk HIV prevention.
This time, perhaps against my stubborn will to share the joys of independence, I simply listened. I listened to a young man in love. He had just discovered the person he believed to be the love of his life and was immediately concerned about how his partner would receive the information--even if their risks with each other were minimal, at best. I encouraged his disclosure and their openness. Not long after, both men came to my office so that the partner could test and they could receive some support around sero-discordant dating. Hand in hand, smooches every few seconds, reassuring smiles, it became harder to ignore my own truth. Just months before I'd ended a relationship with one I believed was "the one". Depressed, I'd gotten so sloppy with medication adherence that for the first time in my 10+ years of being positive, I'd encountered HIV drug resistance. Because of my inconsistency, my meds were failing. So the pep talk to the young man about the value of independence and privileging one's health and well-being, came head to head with the illogical determination of a heart that most longs for love.
I remembered that when I was in love, I seldom, if ever, missed doses. I had someone else to be accountable to. I found value in that, beyond understanding its value to friends and family members. I remember the late Dr. Robert Scott telling me that partners who are positively partnered simply "do better". I don't think he told me this so much as a way of suggesting that I prioritize romance over all else. A man in love with his own partner, I believe that Dr. Scott knew, for all his medical expertise, that the inner-workings of the heart have spiritual and emotional dimensions that are not so predictable. Acceptance from another, particularly when this can manifest romantically, is something most of us seek towards the fulfillment of a happy life. Acceptance also involves an admission--against the more self-determined and self-sustaining tide of "I can do bad by myself"---that "I'd also like to do good with someone else". Being okay alone does sound really courageous and self-gratifying. Still, I'm not sure humans are quite made that way. I can less about why this is the case. I'm more concerned about its sometimes shrewd reality for those of us struggling, positive or not, with the prospect of a life alone. There should never be any shame in desiring that kind of acceptance. No matter how educated or aware I have become, the fact that love is a driving force for me is NOT something to feel bad about. At my best, I can use failures in love toward better discernment when I decide again to date, understanding that while I may not NEED a romantic relationship, I can ACCEPT that I desire one.
While I am currently "in recovery" from a relationship that didn't start as toxic but ended that way, while I am enjoying a vacation from the serial monogamy that has defined my 30s, I have to be careful not to demonize the decisions many make that don't follow the supposed logical, protective order of things. Was it such a bad thing that being in love motivated better adherence than I experienced when not involved. Non-adherence wasn't simply about self-hate or negligence, but about the very powerful reinforcement that happens when another person in the world cares that you are healthy, happy, and determined to be around for a minute. The strange bedfellows of acceptance and HIV do not follow what some would call common sense or good logic. HIV negative men will fall in love with positive men...and will sometimes negotiate practices that involve some HIV risk, believing that there are variables more important than T-cells or viral loads. People will sometimes choose to lie or not disclose HIV status because being accepted provides their last hope for normalcy. I am now working on the other side of the desk. I'm the one, more often than I would prefer, giving positive results, instead of receiving one. By being empathetic, I can humanize my clients by sharing experiences about decisions I made with the same love-influenced logic.
I continue to heal the wounds of rejection in a relationship where being HIV positive wasn't so much an issue between "just the two of us", but because the public knew. I work to balance HIV prevention and care messages with the reality of decisions I have made and still make with acceptance as a critical variable. Would I prefer to be HIV positive and partnered than not? You bet! It's not a sexy admission, but it's the truth. Will I endure the pain and neglect of a bad relationship just to stay partnered? Never again! I now know and understand my worth. I believe we can encourage self-care among those living with HIV without negative juxtapositions between a life alone and one with a life-partner. Acceptance is about striking a healthy balance between the desire (want) for love and the drive (need) to love. Still in touch with the young man and his new partner as they grow alongside one another, I'm reminded that we learn from those we teach, receive wisdom (if unintended) from those we counsel, and find the courage to face our truths, however "unsexy", so that we can enacts lives in full color. We should all be celebrating our independence, owning our interdependence, creating a life where we eschew an either/or dichotomy for a both/and holism. Yes, I'm damn good by myself. I also glow a little about the prospect of another's acceptance of me. The happy notion of a life with a romantic complement is something I can own as proudly as my positive status.