Living the Questions

By Tyler Helms

Originally published on Advocate.com November 03 2010 4:40 PM ET

With December 1 fast approaching, I've been catapulted into a place of reflection, looking back on this year. The questions are plenty. What had I hoped to be feeling in a year’s time? Had I expected that initial sense of freedom to last? Had I been prepared for all that would follow?

So much good — new friends, new issues, and perhaps a new perspective to a few. But as I thought back on the past year, something still seemed to be missing. I had, in many ways, a very full life, but I still lived a very lonely one. A life without true intimacy. I have had sex, I have been on dates, and I finally had that random make-out session I had longed for since going public last December. But this intimacy I wanted was something more — something beyond the physical, something we all long for, and something those with HIV often fear might not come their way again ... physical or not.

Essentially it's a connection, shared between two people, but one void of disease, absent of judgment. Pure. And so as the year closes on December 1, with this void, I can’t help wonder if the truth really did set me free. Introductions come often these days, a good thing. And so on a random Sunda,y another introduction seemed like nothing more than just that. But this introduction, this one person, has helped me to articulate what I spent almost a year trying to understand. His name is unimportant in this context; his presence and actions are what matter.

From the moment I was introduced to this guy at the door of my apartment, I was taken aback by his disposition, his mannerisms, and his seemly mysterious approach to life. He took a quick interest in my life, and in a few short hours I was caught in a gravitational pull that I soon found out was simply him. He is, of course, gay, a few years younger than me, recently out of a relationship, and also an advocate of living honestly. The Monday following our introduction, we exchanged e-mails, some of the most honest conversations I've had with anyone to this day, particularly so early in a friendship. He shared with me — failures from the years before, raw emotion left from his recent breakup, and his fear of all those things that left him feeling, in his words, “unsafe.”

And I shared with him — my past three relationships, the pain, the love that still existed, and of course my public disclosure and ongoing journey with HIV. Our relationship was built on transparency from the start, something he seemed to admire in me, something I had not expected from him. In two short weeks I felt like I knew him more than some of my closest friends. He and I went to dinner and then out on the town, not unlike any two friends might do on a Friday. Dinner, to me, was amazing — conversation like I had not had in ages. He challenged me, he captivated me, and he amazed me. He made me smile. It was more than a crush and more than an admiration. It was a state of being I didn’t know how to articulate.

That evening we went out and dropped in on New York City’s gay Friday night party Rockit. The scene was too familiar.  I had come to know New York on a level I wish I hadn’t. Many of the faces I saw that night had shared their stories — some in secrecy, some not so kind. This lens into the masses often kept me on edge in public settings. But I found myself quickly forgetting the familiar faces, dancing, drinking, and singing. I spotted a guy who had taken me on a date just weeks before but was shocked when he discovered my status. He waved from a distance. I nodded, I didn’t care. The night ended around 2:30 a.m. He came back to my apartment — the very place we had been introduced just three weeks earlier. It was late; both of us intoxicated, he lived far away, and the natural invite for him to stay ensued.

Before I could finish my nightly routine, he was fast asleep in my bed. He must not have noticed the sheets I had pulled out for the couch. I realized later that I didn’t seem to care that he had hadn’t showered (a prerequisite for most anyone who shares my sheets). I warned him of my tendency to have very bad dreams as result of my medication. He mumbled, “It’s fine.” It felt so natural, though so foreign. And as I crawled into bed, I realized why and tears began to well. For the first time in nearly a year I was sharing my bed with someone else. It was a sad realization, in part because for him this was just a place to sleep, crashing at a friend’s. For me, it was likely the most intimate I had been with anyone in nearly 12 months. The brush of a foot to a foot is as intimate as we would get; no kiss, no contact, no sex. But in that moment I felt for the first the time an emotion I thought HIV had long since killed.

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The following morning, as he sat in my living room reading a book, with me lying across my bed, I remembered how much I had missed the presence of another person. The ability to simply be but not say anything. I tempered my expression. I thought he might grow uncomfortable if I suddenly told him I would miss him when he left in a few hours. In just two and half weeks I had gotten to know a person I respected, who made me think, who made me smile, who to me was beautiful. And HIV had never been a part of the equation, or so seamlessly a part; it was nothing more than a mention.

Back in December, I acted with the need to start a conversation, but there was an underlying selfish hope, almost desperation, to get out of the lonely life it seemed HIV was creating for me. A life void of healthy sexual contact, one plagued with wondering what if, not dating, isolating from friends and family. I had hoped for the basics — to simply have a crush, a fun-filled weekend, fall for someone regardless of reciprocation. But like many with HIV, I had approached every relationship with an understanding that it would be nothing more than a friendship. I no longer found myself attractive, but rather a lesson to be learned. I had thrown myself into work, into my advocacy for HIV awareness, into this column. I didn’t go out to meet people; I went out so my friends didn’t think I was depressed. Each day and night in search of intimacy void of HIV, absent of judgment.

And suddenly, on that brisk Saturday morning as he left my Chelsea apartment, I had found it. We hugged, telling each other “You are amazing” almost in unison. It was no doubt a friendship, but one that would redefine intimacy for me. I could finally say with confidence that the truth I shared on December 1, 2009, had in fact set me free. I am still hopeful that it is setting others on the same path.

But that freedom did not come with a shortcut to life. There are no shortcuts, the pain must be felt, and lonely nights must be lived. Until that chance introduction to something or someone different. To the realization that intimacy doesn’t have to mean sex, that friendship is how you define it, that someone who is negative can love someone who is positive. And ultimately when by chance, someone you’ve only known for three weeks shows you it’s not really about HIV at all.

HIV is a truth not everyone will understand, but one that likely we can all relate to, if we try. If we are open to the moment and encourage the tolerance for others to be as well. We all deserve the tolerance of our own truths, because in those moments you find the freedom to feel. And that freedom to feel, whether you are positive, gay, straight, alone, or married — that freedom of feeling makes us human. And that truth no doubt will set you free.