Note to my younger self

Dear Jeff,

It’s 1989, you’re 30 years old, and you are about to hear the most terrifying words you’ll ever hear in your entire life: You are HIV-positive. Your world will come crashing down around you, and you’ll feel alone and full of shame.

I want you to know that you’re going to be okay.

I know it doesn’t seem this way right now, but you’ll be all right. Telling the people closest to you, your partner, your family, and your friends, will be difficult and emotional for you. But they will still love you, just the same. They’ll support and lift you up, in good times and bad, even when things seem darkest and you are forced to face your demons.

You’ll find a good doctor, but right now there is only one drug to treat HIV, AZT, and it doesn’t really work when taken by itself. So your doctor will refer you to a therapist to help you deal with your diagnosis. While in therapy, you’ll reveal to another human for the first time that you were abused as a child by your father, a secret that you swore you would take to your grave. You won’t be able to even look the therapist in the eye, and your own eyes will be full of tears and sadness. But he will comfort and guide you, and from there you will embark on a lifelong journey of healing and forgiveness.

You’ll continue with your college education in the midst of your diagnosis, and finally get that degree that seemed so elusive right out of high school. The joy you will feel at this accomplishment will be like no other. You did it! And your family and friends will celebrate this life achievement with you. You will be happy.

When you go to an HIV support group for help, you’ll be put on a mailing list to receive this magazine, where you’ll read and learn about the virus. You’ll start volunteering for the agency that produces the magazine, and eventually be hired to answer phones and perform data entry, and one day become editor.

It will become your life’s work, and your proudest achievement.

Your partner Jim will propose to you, and you will say yes! You’ll have a commitment ceremony and buy a condo together. Eventually your 16-year relationship will end, but you will remain friends for life. But life will once again turn dark and scary.

Soon after you and Jim break up, Mom’s long fight with cancer will come to an end, and you and your family will be by her side as she draws her last breath at home in bed, her final wish. While your biggest fan and one of your greatest teachers in life will be physically gone, she will live on in your heart and your memories. Her love and her grace will continue to guide you throughout your life.

Your future husband, Stephen, you’ll meet at a bar not long after you move out to live on your own. You’ll fall madly in love and eventually move in and build a life together, and will one day legally marry (yes, you will be able to do that!).

You’ll live long enough to take advantage of effective antiretroviral therapy, unlike many of your friends. Warning: those early drugs have some pretty severe side effects. Hang in there! The kidney stones from Crixivan and diarrhea from Viracept will eventually be replaced by medications that are easier to take with fewer and fewer side effects, until one day, decades later, you’ll be on one pill, once a day.

The greatest gift and opportunity in life is when you will be given a platform to share your story, and help others share their own stories, of survival. It is not something that you will take lightly. You understand that you have a responsibility to get the facts right, and to be willing to admit when you are wrong or have made a mistake. You will be given great license to be creative in the work you do, and you’ll travel around the world and meet amazing advocates and researchers who are working to end the epidemic.

While there will certainly be bumps along the way, know that you’re not alone on this journey. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and when you give back and help others along the way, you’ll get so much back in return.

The world will be very different in 30 years, but hope has sustained you this far, and so it will continue to do so. Don’t ever give up hope.

Take care of yourself.