The closer I got to my stop, the faster my heart thumped. I wanted to turn around and forget it.
I was 19 years old, going to see the man I'd had a crush on since eighth gradeÃ¢â‚¬”but I never wanted to feel the way I felt in that moment again. In retrospect, we'd always been more than friends, somewhere in that gray area where you're not quite sure how the other person truly feels. Most recently, we'd reconnected after a two-year silenceÃ¢â‚¬”so it seemed like the right time to put everything out in the open and see what would happen next.
Our date that day was lovely. We did all of our favorite activities in Brooklyn, eating pizza, visiting St. Mark's Comics, and walking the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. I was starry-eyed but filled with dread at the same time, sensing the reason for my anxiety edging ever closer: Today was the day I planned to tell him that I was born with HIV.
The summer heat was getting unbearable, so we went to his family home and cooled off in his air-conditioned room. I spun around in his computer chair, trying to avoid eye contact, delaying the inevitable. Finally, I took out the note cards I had made to ensure I wouldn't miss saying anything importantÃ¢â‚¬”this was the first time I was disclosing to someone I could see myself dating. My hands were shaking and sweating.
I had gone over my monologue in my head for weeks. Naturally, nothing came out as articulately as I had planned, but it went a little something like this: "Um, so... my father died from AIDS. He probably got the virus from IV drug use. And since he was unaware of his status, my mother also has the virus. And since my mother was unaware, I got tested. And I came back positive. And..."
There was silence after I stopped speaking. I remember wishing that it was all just a dream, that I hadn't just done this to myself. I didn't even think about his response; I just wanted to take back everything I had said and get out of there, but I felt paralyzed.
Then he asked if he could hug me.
I answered his questionsÃ¢â‚¬”ones I've come to expectÃ¢â‚¬”in a bit of shock that things were going so well. "So you have AIDS?" No, I have HIV, which is the virus that can develop into AIDS. "Are you mad at your dad?" No, I find it very difficult to be angry at a man who lost his own life because of the lack of treatment and support during his lifetime. "Do you take a lot of pills?" Yes, my medication has changed multiple times throughout my life, and yes, some have had terrible effects on my health. "So, about that sex thingÃ¢â‚¬Â¦" They're called condoms, and they should be everyone's best friend, not just people living with HIV, since there's a whole list of infections and viruses that all sexually active human beings should try to protect themselves against.
After he finished asking his questions, we left his house and took a late-night walk on the Promenade, just talking and admiring the Manhattan skyline. Then he walked me to the train and I finally went home. I felt so relieved, but I was also still nervous: I had gotten past the hard part, but I didn't know what to expect next.
At this point, my boyfriend and I have been dating for two and a half years. It hasn't been easyÃ¢â‚¬”not only because I am HIV-positive, but also because relationships aren't easy in general. He has to get tested regularly, and I have a strict medication schedule to help me stay healthy. There are also other looming difficulties: I know I want kids someday, for example, and that will mean a different set of obstacles, such as conceiving without risking transmission to my partner and decreasing the risk of giving HIV to my child before, during, and after birth. But I'll cross that bridge when I get there.
When I first told my mother about my fears of disclosing, one thing she said was that it would take a strong person to be with me. It's the truth. But I've come to realize that I also have to be a strong person to be with someone else. Throughout this relationship, I've learned that this virus is part of who I am, but it doesn't define me. There are people out there who wouldn't want to be with me because of my status, but there are people out there who want to be with me regardless of my status. I used to struggle with that because I felt like I had to protect other people from me. Now I know I don't have to choose between protecting others and loving someone.
If it weren't for my amazing friends and familyÃ¢â‚¬”and countless positive reactions after previous disclosuresÃ¢â‚¬”I don't think I would have had the courage to disclose in a romantic setting so willingly. Disclosure is never easyÃ¢â‚¬”whether it's disclosure about your HIV status, family history, mental illness, sexual orientation, or anything else. But opening up is the only way you can find support from others. And sometimes, if it's with the right person, that moment of anxiety can lead to a lasting, loving relationship.
Christina Rodriguez, 22, is the co-founder of SMART Youth, a non-profit for youth living with or affected by HIV/AIDS that promotes sexual health education and HIV awareness. She lives in New York City.