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What I've learned from living with HIV

Ed. note: This is a guest column by our guest today, Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, the Dean of Multicultural Life at Macalester College.
What I've learned from living with HIV
What I've learned from living with HIV

Ed. note: This is a guest column by our guest today, Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, the Dean of Multicultural Life at Macalester College. Chris normally tweets this essay out every December 1 to commemorate World AIDS Day, but was kind enough to allow us to share it in this space.

My name is Chris, and I live with HIV.

I know some were here last year [on my Twitter timeline], so I’ll try not to bore you. I just want to remind us that we are here among you, living, thriving, sometimes barely surviving w HIV/AIDS. I’d like to tell my story: why I made choices I did and what I’ve learned-because I have learned a great deal about myself from this disease.

To start: I have been positive for 15 years. March 10, 2010 was  my anniversary. I am 41 years old. In fact, I was born exactly 1 week before Stonewall rebellion in NYC. I was born and raised in a working-class Boston neighborhood. I grew up in uber-dysfunctional family: brother diagnosed as sociopath in teens, dad an alcoholic, mom mentally ill. It was hell in that family, I was a little “sissy” who knew at early age he was gay. I was OK with it but knew others wouldn’t be. I was terrorized as kid-ass kicked a lot. My city didn’t like "femme" boys. Also, I am mixed: dad was white, mom Latina...long before mixed folks were cool. We just were odd. So I grew up alone, and lonely.

Still, I blew the doors off their hinges! I became popular and, most importantly, saw that men were attracted to me. So I became the BHOC (Big Homo On Campus) who also partied hard at clubs. I felt what I thought was acceptance for the first time. I was an activist, a feminist, just thinking I had to it together…but I was promiscuous. It filled a need. Men wanted me; I was desirable. Because of my background I mistook it for love. At 22, I was in my first relationship, with an AIDS activist -- and always used condoms. We broke up after three years, and afterwards I saw a man I'd dated briefly in college.

I still remember the night we met. His smile shut off every thinking part of my brain. I know you know those fine types-your brain disappears. He asked me home. I accepted after he asked my friends (we had a rule-we come together, we leave together.) They agreed-he was that fine. We went to my place & began to have sex. I noticed he wasn’t going to use condom. I thought about it but was afraid he would leave me. Yes, I was more afraid a man would leave than protecting myself.  We never talked about status until three months in; he said he was too scared. That made me pause.

I moved to Detroit and was in meeting where someone talked about HIV testing. I thought, “Let me go find out to stop worrying.” Got tested and went back three weeks later. I was working at a Catholic university and went to the center with friend who was a nun. (Yes, a nun.) A man walked in, sat down, and said, “The results say you’re living with HIV”.

I said, “What?”

He repeated himself. He asked if I need hug. I said, “Hugging strange men is what got me this disease, so no thank you.”

He laughed and said: “I can tell you’ll be OK. You can tell in the first moment..”

I went downstairs, put my head in Sr. Beth’s lap, and cried. I said “What am I going to do?”

She said “Live, that’s what you’ll do.”

I got retested because the test was 99% accurate. It came back. The woman picked up wrong sheet and said I was negative…then said, “Oops.”

I was devastated.

I went home and called all my friends. Because of my past, I never believed people loved me. I found out they did. One friend called after I told her and said, “I am at airport to take care of you.” People reached out. But I was scared. I remember the first time I brushed teeth and bled. I said, “People will be scared of me.” I told all except my mom -- my brother had died in jail and my dad died already-so it was just us two.  I couldn’t do that to her.

I moved to New Hampshire because I was convinced I would die. I worked at a very rural college-I had to reflect, think about my future. Dating there was hell: guys would fall for me and then say, “But I can’t deal with that.” I considered ending my life one night. I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone forever. I thought of my nan-she was just like Sophia Petrillo, a straight shooter. I pictured her saying, “No! Look at you. You will make some man the luckiest man in the world. You are too cute to go.” I went to bed and said, “No more pity.”

I went to get a doctorate and intensive therapy, which helped me to learn to love myself. It was hard-years of self-hate. Not about being gay though I felt so abnormal because of my past. Life was good, but I was lonely.

In 1999, I attended conference in Atlanta and sat next this guy. We started to talk, and I asked him if he was going to dance conference going that night. He said yes, so I took a disco nap.

I was talking to friends on the hotel veranda. I looked up, saw him, and my breath was taken away. He wasn’t like the “pretty boys” I had been with: here was an African American gay man who was shy, very Southern, and vulnerable. We danced that night and talked all night. I told him about my status, and he said “I’m a gay man, I knew this could happen. I don’t want best thing to end because of fear.” We hung out at the conference. At end, he asked where we’d go from this point. I said, “I can’t imagine getting on a plane and never seeing you again.” I fell in love in two weeks and in a month, I knew we’d be together.

I finally went home and told my mom about my HIV status. She fell in my arms and said, “Don’t die, baby.” I said I wouldn’t. We haven’t talked about it since. I love her, but she can’t be there for me. I have come to accept that.

HIV has been greatest gift for me. I’ve learned to face fear, conquer my doubts, and stand with my head high. I know I’m privileged when we look at people with HIV across globe. I have access to health care, good doctors, support. Many, many don’t have that. I have only been sick once-when my immune system destroyed its red blood cells in my fight with HIV. I take one medication twice a day.

But it impacts me today: many of you know I got great job offer in Canada. I went to a psychiatric hospital because of depression and declined offer. My fear? I would die in Canada because I wouldn’t know how to access health care. I know that wasn’t rational, but I grew up in family that only went to hospitals to die. I’ve had to overcome deep fear to take care of myself. But I don’t know the other system.

I also found spirituality because of HIV. My birth dad is Jewish, but I never knew him. After finding out, I walked into synagogue, and my heart found a home. I have now been a Jew for 12 years.

People ask why I am open. I’m open because I want folks know: you know someone living with the disease. I am Dean of Intercultural Affairs at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I talk to my students about this. If I can help one person remember: if he or she walks out the door, he or she wasn’t worth it. You are worthy of protection.