“HIV Can Infect My Body, Not My Mind”
The clink clink sound of a metal spoon against a ceramic bowl brimming with lumpy, colorless oatmeal cuts through the silence. Sean* sits in an office space so sparsely furnished that it’s more of a warehouse. Tall, with round, kind eyes and a scratchy beard, he doesn’t look a day over 30. His plain charcoal grey t-shirt fits snuggly around his muscular arms and he crosses his legs while picking nervously at the crease in his jeans.
“Let’s make this quick,” he says in a tone that suggests he means business. The look in his eye suggests otherwise.
Sean is just one of over 3,000 people infected with HIV/AIDS in Forsyth and the surrounding counties, but he wants you to know he has a different outlook on living with the disease than many of his counterparts. After spending nine months caring for an uncle who ultimately died of AIDS, Sean vowed that he wouldn’t react the same way: “He was on a march to his own grave after his diagnosis and he lived his own funeral…HIV can infect my body but not my mind.”
Sean’s memory is a steel trap and never misses a step as he takes a walk back through the last several years of his life. He doesn’t talk about notable events in ambiguous terms like “last fall” or “Christmas-time a couple of years ago,” he rattles off precise days, months, and years. When was he diagnosed? September 10, 2009. But he didn’t seek treatment right away. The medications he was offered at the time were trial medications. Although under the regular care of a physician, “I didn’t want to be an experiment.”
Sean went to work for an agency similar to ACS. He led the “Healthy Relationships” group, where he coached clients about how to manage the stress of disclosing their positive status to loved ones. But here’s the catch: he hadn’t yet come to terms with the disease. His internal struggle to maintain his own healthy relationships led him to turn over a new leaf in 2013.
That year became about cleaning up his life. After losing his job, his truck, and having his heart broken, Sean said he “stopped avoiding his reality.” He disclosed both his status as a homosexual and as an individual living with HIV to his parents. His mother immediately took a vested interested in learning about the disease to better manage his care, and his father dismissed it as nothing more than a challenge he must man up and face.
“My pride kept me from disclosing it, and the shame,” says Sean. “But their reaction gave me confidence, because if the people who love me the most accept me then I can face anything.”
For optimal emotional health, Sean explains, a person needs eight hugs a day. At AIDS Care Service, Sean has found his support system. HIV takes a toll on a person, not just physically but mentally, and at ACS, staff and clients work daily to uplift and embrace members of this community so that they do not have to fight on their own. At ACS, Sean found his hugs.
*not his real name
Sean’s story was written by Katie Baker, participating in the “Writing for a Social Purpose” class, led by Mary Martin Liepold, at Wake Forest University.