Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Saurabh Sethi, MD, MPH
I often grapple with the question, ‘Why didn’t you tell someone you had an infection?’ As someone who’s also learned the hard way when to tell someone and how to tell someone, I receive quite a number of questions from readers asking me how to overcome the overwhelming sense of denial and fear that has lead to behaviors they’re not particularly proud of.
That is why, for the STI Interviews, I always ask participants if they’ve ever engaged in sexual activities with someone without telling them in advance about their status. In order to alter behaviors, we must first understand why those behaviors persist.
This interviewee eloquently breaks down the thought process (and sometimes the lack thereof) that occurs when someone does not tell a partner about their status before putting them at risk. Instead of villainizing the individual, which serves no one and only exacerbates the issue, we need to promote a more comprehensive understanding, so that we can move past those initial stages after a diagnosis into a more empowered and healthy place, as this interviewee as done!
1. How old are you?
2. What do you do for a living?
I am, currently, a Client Services Associate at a community-based organization in Chicago. My professional time is spent providing HIV testing/counseling as well as group facilitation.
3. What STI/STD do you have/have you had?
I am someone who is living with HIV.
4. How long have you had or known you have an STI/STD?
I was diagnosed July 23, 2010. I am approaching 4 years of being consciously infected.
5. Do you know how you contracted this STI/STD?
Yes, through unprotected sex and sharing the fluids that cause transmission.
6. How has your life changed since you contracted an STI/STD?
My physical appearance hasn’t changed since my diagnosis, but I think my approach to the world is different.
I’m more supportive of my intuition, and I listen to my instincts more.
I treat my diagnosis as an opportunity for self-development, community awareness, and self-advocacy.
I feel empowered to live more authentically and intentionally. Not that I wasn’t living with purpose before, but one of the things that disease reminded me of was my mortality, and I try harder, now, not to take the life that I do have for granted.
7. Do the people who know you have an STI/STD treat you differently than they treated you before they knew?
Not in my experience; which isn’t to say that no one has treated me differently or left my life because of my disclosure, but what I will say is that if anyone has left me, it’s been no one that my heart misses.
The same amount of love I began this journey with I still have, and having a dedicated and authentic support system has been better than the medication for me – and the medication has been GREAT!
8. Are you currently under treatment for your STI/STD? If so, please share whether you have explored prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, or holistic and natural approaches.
Currently, I take a single tablet daily to treat my HIV, which has been quite manageable, knowing that in previous generations, treatment options were known to be more toxic and did more damage to one’s body than good.
I am proud that the science around treatment options has grown more client-focused and that medications have become simpler to take with many single tablet regimens available that are less toxic and more tolerable.
9. Has having an STI/STD hindered past relationships?
To my surprise, it hasn’t, and the even bigger surprise is that it hasn’t hindered future relationships either.
One of my many concerns after my diagnosis was who was going to love me as an HIV-positive man, and maybe it’s because I’m more visible with the advocating I do via social media, but I’ve been approached by negative and positive men alike.
In a very backward way, I feel my property value has spiked, which doesn’t mean I condone HIV, rather, it’s nice to know that HIV isn’t or shouldn’t be the barrier to having successful relationships, including the loving relationship you should cultivate with yourself.
I wake up to consciously love myself every day now.
10. Do you have a significant other? If so, how has this STI/STD affected your partner?
I am single, as of current, which, again, probably has more to do with where I devote my energy than my HIV status.
Since my diagnosis, I have comfortably dated without any issue in regard to my HIV status.
11. Have you been sexually active with someone since contracting an STI/STD whom you did not tell you had an STI/STD?
The short answer is yes. To add a little context to my behavior, let me first say that, especially in the beginning of my diagnosis when this occurred, disclosing wasn’t easy and is, to this day, a different stage every time I, or anyone, stand on it.
I didn’t always know how to admit ‘I have HIV’ to people, because I also didn’t know how to internalize it for myself. No one teaches HIV: Internalization 101. Instead, what is taught about HIV is to fear it, which is precisely what most people do; and that fear doesn’t stop with infection, because people with HIV can live in fear too. In fact, having HIV can amplify that fear to the point of overwhelming grief.
So, there was a time I lived in denial, as most do, because I didn’t want to be reminded of how terrified I should be of myself every day. How could I admit to having HIV to someone else when I didn’t know how to admit it to myself? Emotionally, HIV didn’t exist to me.
Of course, I don’t believe this excuses my behavior; however, I do believe context is key to learning the role stigma can play in the lives of people living with HIV.
I’m not a monster, and I’ve never been a monster. I’ve been broken and I’ve done some broken things but never with malice or ill-intent.
Sex with an HIV-positive person doesn’t guarantee infection, yet that is usually the assumption made. Thankfully, I did have the conscious-wherewithal to utilize safer sex practices. Condoms are our first line of defense against HIV, and being adherent to my treatment keeps me less infectious. Though there was a time when I didn’t know how to admit my status, I did, however, know that I didn’t want to risk catching anything else or giving what I had away.
12. How have you changed as a result of contracting an STI/STD?
I feel full of purpose because of my diagnosis.
13. Why are you choosing to participate in this interview and/or is there anything else you would like to share with us?
I have known about my status going on four years, and sharing my experience has been my greatest teacher. After finding the courage to disclose I began to heal…and healing, for me, has happened in such a way that has manifested community around these types of conversations about stigma, shame, and fear.
I share who I am to remind myself that I can be my own safe-space – but also to provide others with an opportunity to enter this space created, so that they may feel safe enough to share who they are and build havens for others.
Can you relate to this interviewee? Did it help you to read someone else’s story? Have you experienced something similar or do you have some feedback to share with this individual? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!