A day in the life of

Tell/Told – Winner of the BASELINE Short Story Competition

His voice had the optimistic and disjointed intonation of a railway announcer.

“One test came back positive. It’s for HIV.” Final stop. All change.

Shit. “What’s life expectancy?” “Normal. Eighty to eighty-five.”

There followed something about viral load, CD4 count, oral swab test, false negative, flu-like symptoms, treatment, charities, help groups, blood tests, something, something and something else.

“Ooooh listen to me, blathering on….”

I stared, narrow eyed and angry, not understanding. It wasn’t his fault though. Must be a horrid part
of his job. Without warning, I got ambushed by adrenaline and gripped the side of his desk.

“I think I’m having a panic attack, have you got a bag or something I can breathe into?”

I sat on the too low soft chair, breathing in and out, until I felt calmer and a bit stupid. I’ve got HIV and I’m not going to fall apart.

I’ve got to tell my parents first. I want to tell them rst. Together. In person. I can take Tuesday and Wednesday off work and go and see them- wait- no, boss first, explain about the time off. I don’t want my first person to not be family. No way around it. Boss, parents, sister, then friends. Or, sister first on the phone? Before mum and dad? I phoned the charity.

“Hello. I’ve, erm, I’ve just been diagnosed with HIV. Erm, I don’t really know what to do.”

She was kind, understanding and straightforward, had been diagnosed in the late 1980s and looked as fit as a fiddle. And here I was, thinking they were all dead. It wasn’t the first time I cringed at my ignorance. Her advice: you don’t have to tell anyone yet and, if you choose to, only tell them when you’re ready. I didn’t tell anyone else for a few weeks and it helped me to contain it, to keep myself together.

A course for newly diagnosed people was the first time I’d really felt comfortable in the company of other gay men.

It was caring, vulnerable and safe as opposed to competitive, substance-fuelled and exciting. I liked it. They say knowledge is power and knowing about HIV helped me to help those I told which, in turn, helped me. I don’t think I felt powerful but I did feel more in control. I could answer questions now.

I read in a leaflet somewhere not to tell people at emotionally testing or busy times, such as Christmas. I went back home for the festive break and told my sister and then my parents. I knew about the virus and could announce that I was on treatment: essentially presenting a solved problem.

It felt good to offer some reassurance after breaking the news and there was visible relief. I was hugged and looked after.

With my family sorted (and my boss) I thought I’d stop there. Perhaps just a few friends. But it gathers pace. It doesn’t quite feel as though I’m lying but I’m not really telling the truth either. An unsatisfactory half-way house. Neither one nor the other.

I started to tell people quickly.

“I’ve got HIV but I’m on treatment, there’s a great charity, CD4 count is this, viral load is that…” I might have sounded a bit blasé. Maybe I blathered on, not giving time to adjust.

I told one friend in a pub and he said the news would keep him awake in bed that night. I think it affected him more than me. I try not to forget the shock of finding out.

Another one said, “Ah, I know loads of people with it. You’re nothing special!” It was a clumsy attempt to normalise and make light of it. It was way off the mark for my generous and considerate pal. Knowing someone well eases an ill-judged remark back into context.

I emailed a friend overseas. Out of all the love and kindness in her response, it stood out that she wrote, “Did you have to ring everyone you’ve ever shagged- like in the movies?”

It would have been less crass if I could have seen her face, heard her voice and had a sense of body language. Then I might have laughed.

I had worried about telling sexual partners to the extent that I didn’t want to be in that position for a while. It was unexpected when I was. Telling someone, just with pants on, could go either way. I’m touched and relieved it was ok. I’m not sure how I would have reacted in the same circumstances which has given me something to think about.

I’m actively avoiding telling any couples when they’re together. Worst case scenario is sitting across from them. Two heads, simultaneously cocked to one side in sympathy.

“Aww, poor you.”

Pity is the one response I’d lose my rag at. It probably says more about me than any of the couples I know that I’m so on edge about something which hasn’t happened.

It’s still pretty nerve wracking but tomorrow I’m going to tell people that I’ve written a
short story about having HIV.

by Tom

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