"I was a proud gay man, but I hid a terrible shame." Photo: Stocksy
The first person I told about my HIV status was a complete stranger. Despite that initial confession, I spent the next years mostly in the HIV closet, like a bird in a cuckoo clock that only comes out every third hour.
I met the stranger at the bar in New York, where I live. It was a scant 30 minutes after my doctor had delivered my test results over the phone: "The good news is you don't have gonorrhea. The bad news is you're HIV positive. But these days it's a manageable condition." That was 2002 and I was 34. I came of age sexually in the mid-1980s, when AIDS was a deadly epidemic and safe sex was protocol for gay men.
Feeling as if I'd been hit by a two-by-four, I headed to a bar near my apartment in New York. My face must have looked like a Picasso, all the features in a tortured jumble. A stranger asked me what was the matter, and I told him. Through sobs that would put Lucille Ball to shame, I melodramatically cried, "And the worst part: No one will ever have sex with me again!"
"That's not true," he said with a smile. "I will."
He took me around the corner to a porno bookstore and proved he was a man of his word.
Afterward, drunk and shell-shocked, I went home and waited for Michael, my longtime boyfriend and partner. (We have an open relationship.) As soon as he saw my Picasso face he asked, "What's wrong?"
"I had an HIV test. I'm positive." The dam broke again.
"Oh no." His face cracked – a hairline fracture – but it cracked.
I guttural cried as he held me and caressed my head. Michael, who remains negative, has stood by my side ever since.
A week later I told my best friend since college.I made him promise not to tell anyone else. "Of course," he said. "There'd be some clucking." The implication was that friends would judge me for my promiscuity. I silently promised myself to never tell my parents.
After that I kept the news in the figurative bottle for the next four years until my problems with the literal bottle forced me into rehab and a step farther out of the HIV closet.
At rehab, everyone was required to testify before the group their 10 consequences of drinking. I rattled mine off in ascending order of importance: biting my assistant on the neck at a party; shouting "I piss on my inner child!" in a crowded restaurant; getting rolled by handsome strangers; losing my job; attempting suicide. "And No. 1 of the Top Ten Consequences of Jamie's Drinking … Becoming HIV-positive!"
I felt ashamed that I got it, because I should have known better. I felt ashamed that people would know how I got it. I felt ashamed of my self-pity when so many before me who were not lucky enough to be alive when anti-viral drugs became available and died miserable deaths, lived angst-ridden lives in fear of miserable deaths, or suffered the hellish side effects of early drug regimens.
I shut up about HIV for another six years. I told people with whom I hooked up, but even then I thought, I'm telling a complete stranger what I won't tell my mother. But then again the first person I told was a complete stranger. HIV makes strange bedfellows.
When friends would mention they were positive as casually as I might say "I'm a Capricorn" I felt like a fraud and a coward, a liar by omission.
My mother went to her grave without knowing. I thought the news would kill her and I couldn't bear to hear her say "I told you so". I regret my decision. It robbed us both of our fundamental roles: me admitting I needed her and she loving me unconditionally.
A year later, I knew it was time to belly up to the bar and tell my father. Like many men, he was uncomfortable talking about the uncomfortable.
I decided to tell him over one of our daily morning phone calls. I ran my fingers through my hair and walked around my apartment in circles for several minutes before I could hit send on the phone.
He answered. "I see on 'Regis and Kelly' that y'all are having some pretty weather up there. So what's happening with—"
I cut off his small talk. My words came like an avalanche. "I never wanted to tell you this, but I need you to know since I may be writing about it in my book." He already knew the book was about my alcoholism. "I'll just blurt it out. I'm HIV-positive. I have been for 10 years. I never told you and Mum because I didn't want y'all to worry."
I spoke so quickly I was almost talking over myself. "And you don't have to worry. I've never been sick. I take one pill a day. I don't have any side effects. You know these days it's a manageable disease."
There was silence on the other end of the line. And then. "But you're OK. You're going to be OK?"
"That's what I'm telling you, Dad. It's not like it was. I'll die some day, but probably not from this."
He cleared his throat. "Yeah. Yeah. That's what I've been hearing about it. That it's not even anything big anymore. Nowadays they have some good medicine for it, don't they?" While Mama Jean would have shrieked melodramatically and fired a barrage of questions – what, when, how and who gave this to you? – he glossed over the virus and jumped to the good news part.
Then we moved on to the celebrities "Regis and Kelly" interviewed that morning. We both ended the call with a "love you". Done. A month after that call, he sent me an article from the Houston Chronicle about the progress in AIDS treatment and the different kinds of HIV meds. His Post-it note read, "Which one of these are you taking?" In one of our phone chats he told me he was going to the annual "Paint the Town Red" gala AIDS fundraiser. It was a casual mention, but it was loud enough for me to hear.
Telling Dad freed me. If more positive people are open about it, the more people will see it for what it is in this country (a chronic condition) and the less HIV will be weighed down by shame and stigma.
I'm relieved that my HIV status is no longer a secret I have to manage. Not something to be pitied or celebrated. It's simply a part of who I am.
Jamie Brickhouse is the author of the memoir Dangerous When Wet, recently published by St. Martin's Press.
This was originally published by Salon.