HIV-Negative: How the Uninfected Are Affected by AIDS
Copyright © 1995 by William I. Johnston
New York: Insight Books-Plenum Press
I DON'T THINK gay men are doomed. I think the majority will survive AIDS. But I don't think I will survive it.
At the time I was most sexually active, I had maybe 20 or 25 partners in a month, maybe 150 partners in a year. This was in the late seventies and early eighties, first in Haiti and then in Boston.
I know some of my partners were HIV-positive, because a lot of them have died since. Occasionally I would hear that somebody had died, or I would read it in the paper, and of course I had not seen them in many years, and I would think, "Oh, my God. I went out with that person for a month or a few weeks."
I wasn't engaging in activities that would be considered terribly unsafe. Today they might be considered marginally unsafe. Definitely no anal intercourse. I didn't like that so I never really got into that. Oral sex mostly. It was more the numbers than what I was actually doing. No one can play around that much and not have his hand slapped.
I worked myself into a state of such anxiety that I was ill. I would wake up in the middle of the night, for example, and my heart would be racing and I would be sweating. I would not be able to go back to sleep, looking at the clock until six when I had to get up. I would get up in the morning feeling sick and thinking, "That's it. This is really it." Throughout the day I would work myself into a frantic state of anxiety where I was convinced that I was definitely HIV-positive. I'd feel exhausted during the day. I couldn't really concentrate and I couldn't work because I was so tired from not getting enough rest. I was convinced that all these things were symptoms of my HIV-positive status. Looking back, the symptoms I was experiencing were not HIV-related.
I didn't actually think about testing until 1987 or 1988. I thought I was probably HIV-positive and I needed to know. But I couldn't quite make that step. I wanted to know on one hand, but then I was afraid to actually confront the reality of an HIV-positive test. I thought, "What am I going to do if it is positive?" I didn't talk about it with my friends. I was afraid that they would say, "Well, why don't you go get tested?" I was not really ready to hear the results. This went on for about three or four years.
Finally a friend of mine got tested and his results were negative. We talked about it after he got his results. He said, "You should get tested, just for your peace of mind." So I decided that I was going to close my eyes and go ahead and do it. I got tested in the beginning of 1991. It was hell, waiting for the results. I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't eating at all. I had a knot in my stomach.
I felt an incredible weight being lifted from me when I learned I was HIV-negative, but in reality it didn't last long. It lasted maybe a month or two. And then I started to convince myself that the results weren't quite right and that even though at that particular time I was probably HIV-negative, eventually I would turn seropositive. It was just a matter of time. It's not really very rational. I would think, "I could turn seropositive overnight. Out of nowhere." But when I think about it, I could not turn seropositive in my sleep. Logically it's unlikely that I would turn seropositive five or ten years later. But I would go through this process of thinking, "Eventually I will turn seropositive."
I think I carry a little bit of guilt. I was very sexually active in my late teens and twenties. Looking back, I wondered, "How could I do all this and still be HIV-negative?" It was like some day there would be something that I would have to pay for. The day would come when I would turn seropositive because of all the things that I did.
I was raised Catholic. My parents stopped going to church when I was very young, but I went to Jesuit schools all my life. I grew up with a lot of guilt. You learn how to feel guilty. You learn how to be good at guilt. AIDS is like a punishment. I feel that eventually I will be punished. Maybe not. Maybe the punishment will never come. It's this lingering thing.
I often think that not very many men did what I did, whether straight or gay. I mean, slept with that many people. Why did I do it? How could I possibly sleep with so many men and do other things in life? My anxiety acts like a magnifying glass: I imagine sex took up more of my time than it really did. I feel guilty that I had so many partners. I think it's too many. There are some people who had fewer partners and they're dead now.
I've been in a relationship with a lover for the last ten years. He's negative also. We engage in oral sex without condoms, no anal sex. My partner doesn't ejaculate in my mouth. But I'm still afraid. My partner would probably like to explore more, but I'm not really willing to. I'm just too afraid. He seems willing to accept that.
Philosophically I don't see anything that could be damaging if two men are both negative and are in a relationship for many years and are exclusive. They could have "unsafe" sex if they wanted to, because they probably won't be HIV-positive. If they don't have the virus then they just don't have it. But for me that wouldn't work. If I think that eventually I'll come down with HIV out of the blue, in my sleep one day, it's not going to work for me.
I got tested about six months later. It was again negative. And the same thing happened. The issue died for about a month or two and it started to resurface again.
The problem for me is not the test. I realize now that I could have the test every six months and keep at it for 20 years. I realize that's total nonsense. Why should I go to the doctor every six months? It's something that I have to work out in my own mind. And stop going to take those tests. It doesn't really answer the question. I think the question is in my head. I have to deal with the fact that I can't be thinking that much about it. I spend time thinking about being ill all the time. I just have to live and stop fretting it.
I have anxiety problems anyway, regardless of AIDS. I'm a very anxious person. I'm constantly fretting things. That's just one thing. I'm anxious about work. I'm anxious about traveling. I'm anxious about everything. I recognize that about myself. HIV is just another issue.
I'm not sure that my partner is aware of my anxiety. I don't tell him all of it. He's not aware of the magnitude of the issue. I think he knows that I'm basically an anxious person, but he doesn't know really how anxious I am. I'm not sure that he would particularly understand it. It feels a little bit silly to burden somebody with this. The anxiety is not a rational anxiety. How do you make somebody understand that? I don't even understand it myself, so how can I communicate it? I keep it away from him.
As frightening as AIDS can be, I think there's an element of the population that think they need to belong. They need a sense of belonging to a part of the gay community, and to really belong they need to become HIV-positive. I think it's fairly rare, but I think there are people that actively go out and have unsafe sex to become HIV-positive. There could be a feeling of isolation there. They may look at the HIV community as more of a community than the gay community. In order to belong you have to join this group that is HIV-positive. It's frightening, just thinking of somebody who gets infected so that they can belong.
I have been tempted to have sex I feel is unsafe. I'm just tempted. I don't have it. I fret it. I break into a cold sweat, but I don't do it. I might come close, and then I'll stop.
I've thought about counseling. If I think I have a problem about something, I try to work it out myself first. If I realize I cannot, then I would go see a professional. How many years will it take me? I don't know. I can get by reasonably well. Of course, there are ups and downs. It's day by day. Some days it's just awful. Some days it's good. Some days it's in-between.
I exercise: I do aerobics. That helps keep my anxiety in check. My anxiety does go up, but the exercise helps it go down again. Intense physical output helps me be a little bit calmer.
I don't know why I went to the HIV-Negative Support Group. Maybe to hear some other people's concerns, whether they were like mine. Whether people experience anxiety over becoming HIV-positive without having unsafe sex. Whether people thought that even though their status was negative on paper, eventually they would turn seropositive. I actually didn't find that. Most people there were pretty comfortable with their results. They didn't think that eventually they'd come down with it. I think most people are able to manage anxiety better than I am.
I look back at the numbers of sexual partners I had and it becomes frightening. How could I escape? It's almost like you're being thrown into a pit that has 500,000 snakes in it and you manage to escape. But you know that somewhere in your pants there is a little snake that you didn't quite shake out -- that eventually is going to bite you.
Have you seen the Indiana Jones movies? There was a pit in one of them with hundreds of snakes down there. You can't escape that, you know. If you're thrown in there, eventually a snake is going to kill you. Even if you sort of manage to escape, there's a snake in your pocket.
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Conclusion · Appendix A B C · Notes · Contributors