I hope you’re well. It’s been a while since I’ve written, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge you as another year begins.
You’ll recall the contract I required you to sign seven years ago when you took up residence in my body. In this contract, I conceded that your continued tenancy comes with these parameters:
You will be quiet.
You will not procreate.
You will not aggravate, vex, poison, or in any other way influence the cells and functions of the other organs and processes in my body.
You will occupy a small, windowless, doorless space approximately the size of the tip of a stickpin in a deep reservoir inside my body, where you will have no nourishment, no visitors, and no hope of escape.
Thank you, HIV, for respecting the simple parameters of this contract. It has been a healthy and productive seven years, and I look forward to your continued cooperation. I’m aware you don’t get out much, if at all, and I thought it might be sweet of me to provide an update. Here’s what you’ve done for me — without even knowing — in the past few years.
You’ve given me a keen sense of intuition about my body. Now more than ever, I can monitor how I am feeling. I’m aware of every sniffle, ache, pain, head cold, and swollen gland much faster than in the past, and I stay connected to my health care provider more than the average person might. As a result, my doctor has informed me that I have the lab results of a perfectly healthy 30-year-old man, except of course for HIV. Did I mention I’ll be 44 this month? Makes every birthday pretty sweet. Thank you for that.
You’ve given me a sense of compassion for others I had previously lacked. I’ve been able to speak to others who are newly diagnosed or who have been living with HIV or other chronic medical conditions and understand what it means to “walk a mile in their moccasins.” I am a better listener and a better counselor. I am grateful for this gift.
Because of you, I live in the moment. When I was faced with my mortality, I began to see how important it is to be grateful for each brand-new, baby day. I see now — all that matters is this moment, and the next, and the one after that. I’ve slowed down, I’ve stopped stressing about what I now call “First World problems.” I breathe in, I breathe out, I discover, I discern, and I direct.
I speak compassionately. I don’t engage in hateful speech, gossip, or drama. I am impeccable with my word. I don’t take things personally anymore. In fact, I don’t even take you personally, HIV. You’re here, and for the foreseeable future, “here” you shall stay. There’s nothing I can do to get rid of you, at least not presently.
But I can suppress you.
Thank you for your cooperation with suppression. Suppression has found its way into many areas of “my one wild and precious life.” I have suppressed “negativity” in favor of a positive and affirming life. I have suppressed fear and embraced curiosity and love. I have ended destructive habits in favor of creative endeavors. I have sought to connect rather than isolate. I have stepped way beyond my comfort zone, because I have realized that my comfort zone isn’t comfortable at all. It’s safe and contained, but like the place where you live inside my body, HIV, it’s a small, dark windowless room. I prefer the uncertainty and adventure of wide open spaces. I prefer to visit the edges and the fringes, the outskirts of town where God lives.
I’ll keep you there so I can venture out and live life in spite of you and yet because of you. My life as an HIV-positive man is a positive life indeed. I have no need for negativity, no need for self-loathing, no place in my life for the stigma so often placed on me by the larger community because of my status and my homosexuality. I have embraced love in your wake. I am positive. I am a beautiful and divine child of God. It may have taken your residency inside my body to get me to realize this, and for that I am grateful.
I forgive you, and I also thank you. You sought to destroy me from the inside out, and instead you have made me stronger than I ever thought possible.
KEVIN VARNER is a North Carolina–based writer and educator. For more visit his blog, Life With a Plus Sign.