Editors' Note: Michael Eichler lives in Washington DC and works in urban planning. When he's not designing new bus rapid transit lines, he enjoys nearly-vegan cooking, cycling, making music, his rockin' boyfriend, and contemplating deep questions about the queer experience at The New Gay.
I distinctly remember, when I was nine years old, stumbling across an article in my parents' Newsweek magazine. It was about a recently discovered disease that was infecting gay people, destroying their immune systems, and then leaving them to die with no defenses. If I remember correctly, I later found out that this article was the US mainstream media's first coverage of HIV or AIDS ever. Of course, it was the Reagan administration and the rest of the world was worried about the Cold War. Any other kid probably wouldn't have even bothered reading this article, but I read it very intently. Feverishly. See, I knew already at that age that I was gay. I didn't know yet what it meant or how it would shape my life, but I knew it. And then I read this article, and I made a earth-shattering realization: This is how I'm going to die.
Fast-forward 11 years. At 20 years old, I had my first sexual experience with a guy. It was a hot night during my first summer in DC. I went to my first gay bar with a out-and-proud gay friend. I met a guy, and my friend "got lost" without me suggesting or wanting him to. The guy came on strong, got me drunk, got me drunker, and then walked me home where he invested about 20 minutes sitting on the steps of my O St. NW house with me, trying various techniques to convince me to invite him in. Eventually, I succumbed. I'll spare you the details, but just know that we didn't do anything "risky" but between the time he came in and the time he left the next morning, he gave me reason to doubt his trustworthiness. A few days later, a mutual acquaintance of both of ours happened to stop by the group house I was living in. Soon after her arrival, she asked to speak with me alone in the kitchen, where she disclosed to me that she knew that I'd been with "John" and that she knew that John's ex-boyfriend was positive and had gotten it from John.
Suddenly, I couldn't breathe.
She tried to reassure me, saying that she was sure that I hadn't done anything that would have put me in trouble, but that I should just be careful in the future.
I tried to fight back the initial wave of adrenaline and anxiety that uncontrollably welled up inside me. I told her that, no, we hadn't done anything unsafe, and that I appreciated her telling me. I think I stayed up a bit later that night, watching TV to keep my mind away from what would soon become an all-too familiar pattern: thoughts cycling over and over again around the fact that, true to my earlier prediction, I was going to die of AIDS.
This is how it started. The next three months were filled with sleepless nights, or nights when I'd cry myself to sleep, or 2 AM phone calls to the HIV/AIDS hotline where they'd refuse to tell me the one thing I needed to hear, that I was going to be okay.
The process was always the same: whenever I had a few spare moments of undistracted thought, I'd replay a flip-book version of my experience over in my head, and with a feeling of a spike through my chest, adrenaline-laced anxiety would shoot through me as I imagined all the opportunities where his blood, semen or saliva could have gotten into my blood stream. I honestly couldn't find any, so I started making them up, convinced that, for example, he'd bitten his finger to draw blood and infected me with it.
This thought pattern continued to visit me multiple times per day for months and months. I'd waste 20 minutes at a time staring at the wall frozen by fear and anxiety. I started seeing a therapist. I took transcendental meditation classes. I invented meditative visualizations, picturing microscopic fishes swimming through my veins, gobbling up viruses and cleaning my blood. I started praying to God for help, a God that I'd convinced myself years earlier didn't exist. Nightly prayers were followed by a gentle, unvoiced plea, "Clean my body and heal my soul," repeated over and over until I found the peace of mind to fall asleep.
I got my first HIV test three months after my first and so-far only encounter. Negative. A weight was lifted. Sleep returned effortlessly. I started to thaw as a person. I could again focus on schoolwork and friendships. I was reborn, free and clear.
About a year later, I was in the first few months of my first real relationship. A good friend of mine had turned into the third guy I'd ever been with and subsequently into a boyfriend. Almost as soon as we began getting intimate with each other, the feeling started coming back. I started to convince myself that I was indeed infected with HIV and that I was going to give it to my new boyfriend. It started only as notions at first, but when I got the flu and was home sick for 3 days, I started to get really worried. I knew that I hadn't gotten anything from John, but worried that maybe worrying about having HIV could actually give it to you. Or that maybe it could be spontaneously created through gay sex. My boyfriend tried to attend to my needs, but they were greater than I was prepared to share with him. Finally, I told him, through a veil of tears, what I was so afraid of. I told him the whole story, and his reaction? He told me I had nothing to worry about. He said that we could go get tested together once I'd gotten over the flu. We did: negative and negative. But that's not the end of the story.
I've had several other bouts with HIV anxiety since these experiences, over the span of 10 additional years. Never have I had any rational reason to fear that I was genuinely infected. But my rational brain could not convince my emotional brain that I had nothing to worry about. What was really going on here? Is this fear simply Catholic guilt dressed in HIV's clothing? Or is my emotional brain trying to resolve a deep-seated fear that began back in 1983 when a nine- year-old in his pajamas convinced himself that he was destined to die young of a sexually transmitted virus?
I know I'm not the only one who has problems with anxiety related to HIV. The internet is filled with stories of HIV anxiety and HIV phobia. While the answer to solving the HIV/AIDS crisis is difficult and costly, it appears there's another epidemic that, while more prevalent and spreading more quickly, may be easier to cure: fear and anxiety of HIV-negative people who are convinced that the've contracted the virus. Is this the fault of over-zealous health educators trying to scare kids into having safer sex? Or the human brain's natural tendency to fear the worst possible outcome? Has my personal experience with HIV anxiety caused me irreparable damage, or saved my life?
For anyone out there currently experiencing HIV anxiety, please remember the following:
- Your partner must be HIV+ to transmit the virus.
- The virus is present in the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk of an HIV-infected individual
- The virus must enter your bloodstream through a cut or abrasion, or through some mucus membranes.
- Though HIV infection can occur via oral sex, it's often associated with poor oral hygiene and bleeding gums.
(Please note, while it's true that much HIV anxiety is irrational, you'll give yourself one fewer thing to irrationally worry about if condoms are always used during anal sex with a partner of unknown status. When in doubt*, roll it on.)
If you are worrying about possible HIV infection and none of the above criteria are met, please seek counseling. There's absolutely no reason to go through life riddled with anxiety for no good reason. If you need someone to talk with about our fears and anxiety over HIV, please don't hesitate to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Clarification, 1/8/09, 2:55 PM: Meaning, unless you're monogamous and get tested together...
Cross-posted from The New Gay.