Jason Thompson had just barely gotten his feet wet in the world of love and dating. He was 20 years old and still stuck in the rural landscape of Southern Illinois. The small town of Aviston was a far cry from a gay metropolis, but he had managed to find a couple of boys around his parts who were worthy of dinner and a movie.
At his age, a gay man is typically allowed a couple "do-overs" and "never-agains" until he learns to operate in the land of one-night stands and no-good boyfriends. But sometimes the wrong guy with all the right words can take away the frivolity that comes with youth before you get the chance to learn your lesson.
He was on his way to work when his friend called and told him the news--his friend was just diagnosed as HIV-positive. With little knowledge of the disease himself, he did the only thing he knew to do to support him. Jason got tested.
It was the day before Valentine's Day and Jason was planning something in the "pink and red" for his new boyfriend, Daniel. It was Friday the 13th (of course) and the doctor had received the results. After only two sexual partners before his current boyfriend, Jason was certain that he would land safely in the negative. But when his family doctor closed the door and gave Jason a quizzical glance before reviewing his chart, Jason's certainty became suspect. This was the first time his rural mid-western doctor had delivered a positive result. He simply admitted that he wasn't equipped to handle what came next and referred Jason to a physician in St. Louis.
Jason collected himself enough to get to his car and fell apart all over again.
The previous six months of his new relationship flashed before his eyes. There had been a lot of sparks and romance, but not a condom in a while. So, Jason called Daniel and arranged to meet with him immediately.
Jason told his boyfriend about his status within a matter of hours. To Jason's surprise, Daniel was handling the news quite well and assured his still-trembling beau that they were going to get through this together. His boyfriend was tested that day and the results came back negative at first. However, when his final blood test returned, another 20-something in small town Southern Illinois was now diagnosed with HIV. And just a couple days after the young gay minds of Aviston were focused on flower arrangements and dinner reservations, an HIV diagnosis had run through the lives of three young boys.
Jason and Daniel did stay together...through Valentine's Day. On February 15, Daniel opened his door with only a few words left to say to Jason.
"I'm sorry. It's over."
Apparently Daniel had another boyfriend inside of his apartment who wasn't too keen on his other valentine.
Then a month went by filled with... not a whole lot.
"I went through the typical 'woe is me' phase. I stayed in bed and cried a lot," Jason confessed. "But I don't know what happened. After a while something snapped. I just said to myself, 'I know I am going to die eventually, but I don't want to die like this.'"
So he stopped his incessant moping and tried a different approach. He collected himself and made the move to St. Louis. It might not have been New York City or San Francisco, but to Jason the thriving gay life of a larger mid-western city was what he needed to put him back in the driver's seat.
Jason became involved with the Guardian Project, an HIV awareness campaign for 18-to-29-year-old men. The project focused on outreach and testing and allowed Jason to become involved with his own disease for the first time. He engaged in group sessions about what it means to be HIV-positive and learned about the struggles of others while sharing his own tribulations. He was out about his status, and although still trepidatious, he began to understand the value of owning his story.
"Being involved in The Guardian Project allowed me the chance to be a role model," Jason said, "not just for others, but for myself. It forced me to start loving myself again."
But, as with any gay man in their early 20's (much less someone who is now positive), Jason had a couple of stumbles before he found his footing.
Jason was beginning to feel more confident in his new shoes when he met Garrett. He had been on a couple of dates since moving to St. Louis, and not much had transpired. But Garrett was different. He was young, attractive and didn't seem to care about Jason's HIV status. Naturally, Jason was in love.
Their relationship moved at a feverish pace. The combination of Garrett, the classic defected frat boy, and Jason, HIV-positive and still insecure, made the perfect cocktail for codependency.
For a while, the two seemed to master the art of domestic co-habitation. But when Garrett received a job offer in Dallas, Texas, a tough decision had to be made. Jason was fearful to leave the place where he had built his new life. After a couple of cajoling conversations coupled with the fear of being single and HIV-positive, Jason's bags were packed.
The funny thing about your first real relationship after becoming positive is you can tend to cling to your boyfriend like gum to a shoe. Even if you keep getting stepped on, you aren't going anywhere. Needless to say, when the couple moved south, so did their relationship.
Yet, Jason stayed with Garrett because being miserable together seemed like a better option than being forever alone. In St. Louis, Jason had friendships and support. In Dallas, he was isolated and began to lose his footing that he worked so hard to get. After a while, Jason convinced himself that Garrett was the only one who would accept him and the positive sign he would forever carry.
Self-doubt is far too common among young gay men. Our society does little to propagate the healthy psychological health of homosexual youth. As a result, many gay men struggle to maintain healthy romantic relations. After all, it is impossible to differentiate between what you do and do not deserve if you fail to recognize your own value. For an HIV-positive man, this feeling can be multiplied thanks to HIV stigma that can act like poison to someone's self esteem.
But Jason had pulled himself out of a much deeper dumpster once before. Again, Jason realized that a life of being miserable was a waste of a life altogether. He wasn't going to spend year after year thanking Garrett for loving him like some ugly puppy that was lucky to have an owner. Jason was young, smart and ready to take a risk on being worth something better, even if something better was being by himself.
So he moved out on his own and started all over, yet again. He went back to school and finally finished his bachelor's degree and is about to finish his master's in social work. He now works as a health unit coordinator team leader at the leading hospital in Dallas.
It's been four years since he left Garrett and nine years since that fateful Valentine's Day surprise. He has been single ever since but now realizes that his value isn't defined by his positive status.
"It's been nine years and now it's not even about being HIV-positive. It's about life in general. It's about being present, being in the moment, smiling, noticing things, and not let the past drag you down."
Now, at the age of 29, he looks back on the rollercoaster he's been riding since his 20's began. It began with a plummet that would make even the bravest 19-year-old wish they would have waited this one out. Yet, Jason weathered the twists and turns and survived with a little whiplash and a firm grip on who he is.
"I wanted to tell my story and I didn't want it to be sad," Jason said. "Ultimately, I want people to know that not every HIV-positive guy is promiscuous, that [HIV-positive men] don't have to fear being alone and settle for any guy that accepts our status. It wasn't until I ended the bad relationship and started owning my situation that my life really got better."
Just like any shot, we fear the prick of the needle. But a conversation about what it means to be HIV-positive today is just the medicine we need.
Get Pricked. Jason Thompson did.
TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project as an editorial 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 twitter at @iamtylercurry. For more on Jason Thompson, follow him on twitter at @jmejst.