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More and more frequently we are hearing the rumblings of HIV research that seems to be getting oh-so-close to that small but powerful word: cure.
Last year, plenty of attention was paid to vaccine trials and scientific breakthroughs in social media, causing quite a discussion. There were reports of two Boston men who were seemingly cured of the virus after a bone marrow transplant. The buzz sparked a wildfire among those invested in the HIV epidemic, and an AIDS-free society felt more tangible than ever. But with hope comes skepticism, and many pointed out that some of the specific research was flawed in this way or that way, and much more work is to be done until a cure is found. Even so, it is now a popular belief that one day people living with HIV may just be, well, living ... without any label or pretense.
Yet it's hard to believe that any simple pill or shot could fully restore a person to who they were before that fateful day when they first heard "You are HIV-positive." And in my case, at least, I am not so sure I would want it to.
To be fully cured of HIV would suggest that the virus is purely a physical one and that all symptoms could be ameliorated with one vaccine or a definitive cure. As we head toward the fourth decade of epidemic, we know that HIV is just as much of a psychological disease as it is physiological. So when the body is healed from this horrid virus, what residual side effects will linger in the mind?
Prior to being diagnosed, the stigma of HIV can seem to exist inside of a bubble. No matter how sensitive you are to the issue, it is one that stays on the periphery of your world. For me, there was always an unconscious feeling of immunity even though I was clearly aware of the reality of transmission. Although many individuals who are negative work just as hard to end the stigma surrounding the virus, there will always be a disconnect with what "stigma" actually means. And I am so thankful for that.
Post-positive, the bubble that held all of the fears, assumptions and misconceptions concerning HIV no longer stays safely separated from logic and reason. Once diagnosed, you become instantaneously terrified that someone you know will notice the transparent film that superficially separates you from everyone else. Now you assume the worst about your friends. You assume they are ignorant -- that they will judge you and consider you less than them. This is often because you simply never approached the topic with the people in your life before and now you believe the worst. This is psychology that often permeates the mindset of newly positive men and women. And if it is left untreated, an individual will stay in this headspace for years causing severe damage to their psyche.
Even if a person chooses to live an open life with HIV, there is still the slut-shaming. No matter how a person has contracted the virus, they will inevitably endure a healthy amount of character assumptions from acquaintances. If they choose to keep it quiet, it is because they are trying to avoid being labeled a default skank who deserved what they got. Of course, there are many HIV-negative people who deplore this kind of thinking, but look at any national story regarding HIV and you will find it blaring in the comments section.
OK, so this is all of the negative that comes with being HIV-positive. But there are symptoms that arise from being diagnosed that are truly life-changing in the best way.
HIV isn't the only scarlet letter that people in our society have to bear. There are countless groups of people who we constantly make assumptions about that deserve to be recognized for their individual worth instead of their demographic or disease checkbox. In most cases, HIV is a disease of the human condition, and a side effect of living with the virus is allowing other people to make human error without requiring that they wear that error on their forehead.
If an HIV-positive person is single, it is inevitable that they will run into at least a few instances of rejection because the other person fears them for one reason or another. In the gay community, this fear is often based on ignorance surrounding the disease and how it is transmitted. But to be able to understand that and not take it personally is practically impossible when you are in the moment. Many people experience periods of low self-confidence and self-worth until they find their way back to loving themselves again.
So, if tomorrow there were a cure for HIV, would the guy who once rejected you now want to go on a date? Would the friend who felt uncomfortable around you call you up for coffee again? Maybe. But the symptoms that linger from the virus will most likely keep you from accepting these dum-dum invites. One thing that will always remain is that you will know you deserve better than someone who would deny you for being positive, regardless of if you have been cured or not.
One day, we will have a cure for HIV. But those who have taken a journey with the virus will forever be changed. It would be a travesty to forget the physical and emotional battle that so many people lost to get us to the end of this epidemic. Fortunately, no vaccine can erase our memories or make us forget the struggles that defined a movement.
In the future, I will no longer have to write about HIV stigma in the present. But this epic battle of both the body and the mind is definitely one for the history books.
So, here's to the cure. And for all of us to be able to eventually say...
TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project as an editorial and visual campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV-positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit Facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on Facebook or Twitter at @iamtylercurry.