I was 24. I was living in NY, was enrolled in film school, and had undertaken the first half of my film degree. I had been living there for five years, spent the first three married to an architect, and when our marriage floundered had found myself young, free and single in the Big Apple. HIV had dealt New York a harsh kick in the teeth, many of my friends were gay and I felt more aware than most of the threat of transmission and the realities of the virus. I remembered the campaign back home with John Hurt, the falling sickles and lilies on tombstones. I had been sixteen when those ‘infomercials’ were aired and I remember the rainy day when the flier came pushing through our letterbox at home. I had taken mine to school and it had been hotly debated in the girls’ loo. Suffice to say we breathed a collective sigh of relief when we felt that we had nothing to fear, after all, things like that didn’t happen to nice middle class white girls like us… Did they? I had always practised safe sex, had taken a test in NY when I got my green card and been monogamous in relationships.
That morning, I received a call from the doctor’s surgery at work, ‘odd’ I thought and called my boyfriend. We had been together almost 18 months by then, living together a year. It was he who had suggested I stop working. He told me he’d support me through my last two years at film school. For our future, he had said. We were serious. ‘It’ll be a routine test result, they want to talk stuff through with you before they change your health insurance policy.’ I remember him saying, ‘Baby, don’t worry!’ I still took my best friend with me. When the young doctor finally sat me down, he explained exactly which test had come back positive. He told me I may live ten years, not to have children, that there was no cure or medication and suggested I get support from a place called Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The shock was enormous. There were tears. I went terribly quiet and immediately retreated, withdrawing into a world that took me nearly five years to return from. Sometimes I feel as though I still exist there, even after all this time. A place that is lonely, shameful, and damaged, where my own body is my enemy and the person I blame is myself. I didn’t blame my partner for keeping quiet about his drug use. I understood that he thought I would never have looked twice at him if he’d divulged that side of his past. I believed he had not known he was positive and therefore had not knowingly taken chances with my health.
Despite that, we broke up and for the next few years, I embarked on a mission to live without future. I quit school, buried myself in work, career and the pursuit of money. I rented a summerhouse upstate, travelled extensively, bought a car and partied in the most expensive shoes God ever created, learnt how to scuba dive, ride a motorbike and jumped out of planes. I counted down the years before dying and worked through my own personal checklist of what I thought I should do before I went.
When I finally stopped to draw breath, I realised I was miserable, bruised and angry. It wasn’t working, this living in the moment malarkey. I decided to come home. I returned to London in 1996 like a person who had been chewed up and spat out. I avoided boys rather than let them reject me until I met someone who was different. When we found out I was pregnant I finally sat with my HIV diagnosis and faced it square. It was the most terrifying time of my life. I had to try and believe in the possibility of my own future once more, to begin to live with the fear rather than run from it. I faced the disease as best as I could and found the London Lighthouse and Positively UK who helped me meet others and put me on the track I have never looked back from. Finally, the meds came and I started them during my pregnancy, my father disowned me but others stepped up where he’d fallen away. My son gave me strength, my second gave me hope and together my little family have given me back the courage and the reason to stand back up, breathe and keep on walking forward.