Telling my parents I have HIV was absolutely one of the scariest things I’ve done in my life.
After my diagnosis- a surprise to all concerned- I initially managed to cope with the news thanks to the love and support of a few close friends and my ever-supportive, negative partner. But, after a few health complications and increased social isolation, it began to get me down.
I’ve never felt any shame about being diagnosed HIV positive. Many of my friends had already joined the club way before I got ushered in. But, I was overly aware of the stigma that exists towards positive people. Suddenly there’s an invitation for judgement, an opportunity for opinions; “Oh, he has HIV, it must be because he’s Gay; because he’s a bottom; because he’s a slut; because he’s dirty; because he’s reckless with his health and other peoples”.
I didn’t want my mother and father to think that of me. I didn’t want them to think I’d let them down. And, above all, I didn’t want them to worry about me.
Those I confided in, including my doctor and counsellors, were quick to tell me that there was no need to disclose to them. With treatments as great as they are these days, and the prospect of a long and fulfilling life, why upset them unnecessarily if I worried what they may think.
My parents lived through the AIDS crisis of the 80’s and 90’s and viewed it through the spectrum of scary right-wing media reports and demonising news coverage.
Both in their sixties, and from a generation of stiff upper lips and buttoned-up shirts; sex is not only a dirty word in their house, but even kissing on TV elicits a quick change of the channel and a shake of the head. When I came out as Gay at 17, their reaction was… less than favourable- within a few weeks, I moved out of home and left couch-surfing with friends.
That was more than ten years ago. We’ve built bridges since then and ties stronger than we’ve ever had. They’ve only ever wanted the best for me; worked hard and fought even harder for my siblings and I to have it better than they did, to escape the small town of dead-beat jobs and closed-minded people and have every opportunity for a great life.
Whenever we discuss my leaving home these days, they tell me that they were just heartbroken that I hadn’t confided in them sooner. And, to be frank, I was a little shit back then.
“Just don’t lie to us” they tell me, “be honest and we can deal with anything”. Even as I type these words a tension builds in my shoulders.
Now, as an adult, I feel a responsibility to do them proud. Make them happy. So I never told them because I worried too much about them. It was a burden I didn’t want them to bare. And worry I did. Like a kid cramming for an algebra test, two minutes before it’s about to start. All day, 24/7. The anxiety started to consume me.
Whenever I seemed down or depressed, I would lie and blame it on a multitude of other reasons. If I wasn’t lying to them about it, I was omitting the truth- and that felt worse. I knew I was doing the right thing, and ultimately I was protecting them, but at the very pit of my stomach, it felt wrong. A secret. And, through that secret, a shame.
In 2010, I was on holiday in Mykonos and phoned home, just to check in. With tears choking her voice, my mother told me something was wrong and she needed to talk to me when I got back. Queue panic mode!
It was cancer. After sitting me down to tell me, she, my father and I, opened a bottle of Scotch and continued to drink through the night and talk about the future and her options.
To begin with, everything was very matter-of-fact, our language almost clinical. We poured more whiskey and my Dad and I started trying to get my mother to open up- which was a difficult ask. So we poured even more whiskey.
It was during this booze-filled night of “deep and meaningfulls” that I told them I had HIV. That’s right, my mum had a cancer diagnosis and I managed to make it all about me. If it had been planned, it would probably have gone down as the worst timing in history.
My mother was speaking about how, after she told everyone about the cancer, they started to treat her like an invalid. And, being the epitome of a Matriarch that she is, she hated it. “I am a mother, that’s my job in life, that’s what I’ll always be” she said.
Add this statement to the copious amounts of liquor I’d consumed, and the unprecedented sharing of feelings between my parents and I, and the result was my response; “I have something to tell you…”
Oh God, what was I doing? There was no going back. She looked me dead in the eye, that kind of soul searching gaze that only a mother can give, and before I could have any second thoughts, those three little words were out of my mouth; “I have HIV”.
In that second my Mam reached out and gripped her arms around me. She hugged me to her so tight and I began to cry. And boy, did I cry. Tears I didn’t know I had. I gasped and howled as if the tears were being dragged up from my very core. And she rocked me and hushed me and told me everything was going to be okay. For that moment I was a kid again. My Dad stood over us, soothing us both.
“Don’t you dare keep things from us again” I was told, “you are not alone in the world. We love you”.
And that was that. I am not alone. We went on into the night talking about HIV and cancer, and childhood and family; each of us sharing our fears and hopes. I told my mother that she is not alone. And it was truer after this night than it could ever have been before.
I realised then, that in all of my worry about upsetting them, I had done my parents a disservice. I thought that they wouldn’t cope with the news or that they were too old, too frail to deal with it. But in the end, the truth was, by telling them I gave them the capacity to act as my parents. Ultimately, it allowed my mother to be honest with me. And, maybe for my Mam and Dad at least, it is better for them to know what’s going on with me, than worry about what I’m hiding. Five years later and my Mam is going strong. And so am I.