It's been a tough year - but I'm back & fucking awesome

It’s been a tough year – but I’m back & fucking awesome

The past year my HIV and I have been through a lot. I’ve been broken, I’ve been overjoyed, I’ve started over – and I’m discovering who I am all over again. 

I suppose I should start with an apology – I’m very aware that I’ve not written anything in just over a year.

Life since I got back from South Africa has been a challenge. It has felt, at points, like I have been living in a hurricane and barely holding on.

The last 12 months have seen me buy my own home with my partner, watch that relationship collapse and, to my great humiliation, have to sell the home I had so much pride in within a year of buying it, only to return to base to gather my strength.

It’s been a really tough year.

That said, nothing worthwhile was ever easy. But it has been worthwhile. The end of the relationship, which, to be fair, I knew was coming, provided an opportunity to reconsider parts of my life.

I’ve always known that being diagnosed at 19 had an enormously detrimental effect on my self-worth. To contract HIV in the way I did, to be made to feel as though I was worth so little… it’s hard to admit, not least to myself, – but I felt damaged.

Back then, almost 12 years ago now, there was much less of a visible ‘community’, particularly in rural Hampshire. I felt alone, hurt and so, as I have written before, I threw myself into my relationship with my ex-husband, settling for the first man who didn’t have a problem with the fact I was positive, because, in truth, I did. I hadn’t accepted myself.

It has taken a long time to accept, but the reason I felt damaged was because I was emotionally self-harming. I used situations, events and circumstances, my reactions and interactions with others to confirm, consolidate and reinforce a singularly negative self-image wherein I was dirty, damaged and not worth the effort of my friends, my family, or anyone else.

My ex-husband did a brilliant job of keeping me down, reinforcing the image I had of myself that I wasn’t good enough, reminding me with choice phrases like – “you’re damaged goods” and “no-one else would take you on”.

It took six years to realise that I deserved to be happy, that being HIV positive did not mean I had to accept a bad situation because, as my ex was also fond of reminding me, – “this is all you’re good for.”

When that relationship ended, I knew I deserved better, but because I hadn’t yet come to terms with being HIV positive, (by this stage, eight years into it) I stuck with what I knew, and jumped into a new relationship with my now ex-partner and never took the time to develop a support network of my own that wasn’t dependent on a relationship.

After it all tumbled down early this year, I finally accepted that I was going to have to make some changes to my life.

I accepted, finally, that I had sought relationships that enabled me to settle. I had committed myself to relationships that were limiting and enabled me to withdraw because that was all I felt I deserved.

I knew I wasn’t happy in either relationship, I’d had my doubts, but I persevered. I persevered for 9 years in total because I believed that was all I deserved.

I finally realised, at long last, that I needed to accept who I was, and discover what I wanted.

First off, I accepted how lonely I had felt for a long time, even within relationships, how I longed for a wider circle of friends and wanted to challenge my isolation, and so I started to think about where I could meet other like-minded guys, it was then, when watching some videos of various pride events, that I realised a fundamental error I had made in life. Community. I didn’t feel part of it, I didn’t have a tribe.

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I watched these videos of pride events and I saw people who all felt part of something, who supported each other and I realised what I was missing. I watched the video of the cast of the Lion King and the London Gay Men’s Chorus singing the Circle of Life and had a little weep.

One of the ways I decided to try and recover and integrate into a community was to throw myself into work and dating, I went out, I drank more than I had in years, but I still felt very alone.

In September I went to Brussels for a conference for work, I chaired a session at the European Committee of the Regions on Inclusion Policy towards 2020 (don’t ask) and by night I would go out to the clubs and bars of the city and discover that I am considered hot in Belgium (seriously, don’t ask).

By the time I got back I was exhausted and ill. A lingering chest infection was refusing to budge and suddenly I developed a mild case of pneumonia, – I decided not to make a big thing of it, I just kept going and didn’t tell anyone.

It just so happened that the same month was the first time the town I lived in began doing some pride events.

After having a grumble that there was very little for the gays in my town, I couldn’t then not go and support them! Even if I was feeling rough.

It was a case of ‘use it or lose it’, when these events arrived and it felt like this was the opportunity I had been missing.

I was terrified, but I went and I chatted, I laughed and it felt natural. I felt welcome.

There were some guys I knew from other events there, and quite quickly I realised that I’ve been lucky enough to make friends easily enough through my life, but I had never connected this with the possibility that it might be because I am a decent guy.

I realised how much I had held myself back, both alone and through choosing bad relationships and I made the decision that I would not do it again.

In India with my friend Samantha. Meeting a beautiful elephant. Click to enlarge.

I had always wanted to go to India and so, one day, when walking past a travel agent, I spotted a picture of Jaipur in the window. Within the hour I’d made a provisional booking and started planning to get away. It was an incredible experience, one that will stay with me for a life time.

I was invited to address the board of the Solent NHS Trust and spoke about the importance of the relationship between patient and clinical staff in the management of people with long term health conditions, I was terrified, but I went and I did it anyway.

Not for nothing am I writing most of this on the 5th of November, which was coincidentally, the day I moved out of the home I built with my ex husband.

The 5th was the day I got the keys to a rented place and moved out and it has always felt like my own personal independence day, when the fireworks remind me of the elation I felt at being free.

The problem was, I never adopted it completely. I continued to be afraid.

Now, finally, it was time to start living my own life, not other peoples, not my partners. Mine.

So now, I’m going to do it. I will live my life. The sale of the flat will complete soon so this Christmas I’m going to go away, alone and have some time to myself somewhere.

The Great Wall of China

In just under a year, I’m going to go to China and walk part of the Great Wall for charity.

Why? Because it’s my fucking life and if I don’t meet someone, I’ve still got to live it and have my adventures, if I do meet someone, then at least I’ll have some amazing stories of my own to tell. – my time in South Africa started that.

One evening recently, while chatting with family, I said that I couldn’t believe I was this lucky that this was my life, it was only then I realised, it had nothing to do with luck. I wanted to do these amazing things, and so I am doing them.

I have realised, at long last, at 31 and having been HIV positive for nearly 12 years, that I am still what I have always been, and that, lovely people, who have read this far, is: fucking awesome.

You can follow Steve on Twitter as @PatchworkSteve

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