Living the Questions
BY Tyler Helms
July 26 2010 4:50 PM ET
COMMENTARY: I don’t remember much about the day I was diagnosed, but I do remember the first question that came to my mind. Who do I tell? Followed by, When do I tell them? My doctor, after giving me a prescription for Xanax, quickly took my BlackBerry away and said, “Be cautious who you tell and know once you tell someone; you can never take it back.” Now, three years later with a different doctor, an iPhone to replace that BlackBerry, and having told virtually the world my status, I still struggle with the question: When is the right time to tell someone you have HIV?
The first person I told was my best friend, Felipe. Over a glass of wine and sworn to secrecy, he would be one of 12 people, including my family, past boyfriends, and a few friends that would share my secret for nearly 2.5 years. During this time, I had researched at length about when and how to tell people. Medical sources encourage caution and honesty. HR handbooks encouraged privacy. And personal blogs ranged from openness to horror stories. I was finding that society expected full disclosure, would hold you accountable for any risk, but was virtually unprepared for the openness.
Accountability is evident through legislation in some 30 states that require you to tell sexual partners. But is the expectation to tell someone on that first date — or first hookup — realistic? Even if you don’t partake in sexual activity early on, how long is too long before the person across from you should know?
I remember being asked by someone at a bar if I was “clean.” Is that what everyone else thought — you were either "clean" or "dirty." I couldn’t very well say, “I am dirty”. Before HIV, believe it or not, I had never had an STD. I don’t let anyone sleep in my bed without showering and can often be found cleaning my office phone and keyboard simultaneously. We, of course, went our separate ways when I disclosed that I was in fact “dirty.”
Outside of the bedroom, the question is just as difficult. In the workplace, while privacy is encouraged and laws are in place to protect us from discrimination, I was often conflicted: Is it too personal, unprofessional, or an “over-share”? Regardless of where you work, there is an innate fear of being treated differently, being judged or simply feeling exposed, a fear that leads to secrecy.
The first time I had complications that involved a large infection on my face, I told coworkers an elaborate story that involved a spider bite while on vacation. I lied out of fear, to cover my greatest truth, a truth that was manifesting on my face, one I didn’t want to impact the career I was working hard to build. When I eventually disclosed my status, my company became one of my biggest pillars of support. The conversations I have had with some of my coworkers have been among the most compelling and valuable moments.