If you had asked me five years ago where I would have seen myself today, well, let me tell you, the answer would have been nothing like reality. In fact, I can say with confidence that at the time, I wasn’t even able to muster the strength to look that far ahead. For me, there was nothing there, possibly the absence of life itself. I didn’t think of my life as something to be valued, let alone celebrated.
Like a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community, growing up my family wasn’t as accepting as they are today—namely my parents. My mother was and still is the most loving woman I have ever known, but like some other mothers with gay children, her beliefs led our relationship to become estranged. Cutting all ties with most of my friends and family, I fell into relationships that were abusive and controlling in an attempt to fill the void of love that was left. These relationships only further solidified those negative thoughts that I carried with me most of my life—that I meant nothing. Love wasn’t unconditional, it would always come at a price.
All of these slights, all of these chips and chunks taken away from my confidence and personality by false love, left me in such a dark place I couldn’t see anything around me. Everything felt suffocating, it was almost unbearable. This inevitably led to random sex with an array of characters and questionable decisions that to this day I regret—but don’t dwell on. I needed to get out.
They say that friendship is one of the most valuable and exciting parts of life. Friends make things understandable, bearable. They can change perspectives with just an opinion and affect lives with small or grand gestures, at least mine has. My best friend, Fletcher, saw the struggle and knew where it was headed. With one selfless decision on their end, I moved from California to Indiana in search of a fresh start—it is still the best decision I ever made.
Being in a new city in a state I had never visited was overwhelming in the best way possible. Although I was ready to begin anew, I still felt the need to seek that attention, and like most gay men I know, there’s no better way to get attention than through dating apps. So, I downloaded Scruff and immediately started the search. Within those messages I found a man who turned out to be the love of my life, my now fiancé Rich, and although there is a bit of a backstory of our love filled with excitement and minor scandal, I knew that this was the start I needed to rebuild my life.
I thought nothing could bring down my high. I was wrapped up in such a whirlwind love scenario I missed the signs. The fever, the aches, the night sweats—I could feel something in my body changing. I knew this wasn’t a cold. Terrified, I confided in Rich about my symptoms. At the time I didn’t have any insurance; I was new to the state and didn’t know where to go for care. That’s when Rich told me about Damien Center. We made an appointment immediately and they were able to get me in for testing within that same day.
I’ll never forget the appointment, but at the same time the whole experience felt like a blur. “The rapid result does show as positive. So, we’re going to schedule you for confirmation testing and care before you leave today. This isn’t what it used to be. This isn’t a death sentence, and we have options to take care of you.” The impact of those words still gives me chills to this day. My toxic California life had left me with one more going away present—I was HIV-positive.
I wasn’t sure how to feel in the days that followed, but I do remember contemplating the value of the opportunity I had been given—and the outlook wasn’t too good. I thought, “This is a sign. I’m not worth even taking this medication. I did this to myself, and I have to live with the consequences as long as I can.” It was all too much for me to handle, emotionally and physically. I didn’t want to get up, I didn’t want to try. I made the appointment with every intention of not keeping it. Of lying in the bed that I had made with decisions that were placed in front of me. If only I had known that there were options that could have helped me prevent this, like PrEP or PEP, which can prevent it after the fact, but no, because I was in a relatively conservative Mexican-American town, I didn’t know to look for this information. I didn’t even know it existed. You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re from a liberal state like California, your community dictates what you have access to, and where I’m from prevention was just another word for sin.
After making my decision to refuse care, I tried to shut down. I tried to ignore the topic altogether hoping no one would notice that I’d casually missed my treatment appointment. I was met with no such luck. On the day of the appointment, Rich did everything in his power and will to get me there. He got me up, made me get dressed, and even drove me to the appointment. He stayed with me throughout the entire process. This was in the fall of 2017.
Flashforward to today. I am a man living and thriving with HIV, who has been undetectable for four-plus years now and going strong. I have an amazing fiancé who is HIV-negative and is so loving and accepting of my status. Over the years I’ve struggled with mental health revolving around my HIV. For the first few years I continuously had negative thoughts about not only my HIV but about my life itself. Through much love, support, and therapy, I was able to climb out of that dark place I was trapped in for so long. Now, I am a telePrEP navigator for the same organization that gave me my life back, Damien Center. My life is something I would never have imagined for myself. I never would have imagined that all of those tribulations would lead up to who and what I’m supposed to be—just happy.
I know not everyone who is HIV-positive has that kind of support system. I know that there are people who are still alone and afraid of what’s happening to them, but I’m here to say that it’s possible to be comfortable with your status and live an amazing life. I’m here to say for the first time publicly, and without shame, that I have HIV and I deserved my happy ending. And to the people living with HIV reading this who are still a little lost, it’s okay. If my story can have a happy ending, maybe yours can too.
Vincent Valdez loves to write in several genres and says expressing himself through writing brings him a sense of peace. He is from Madera, in Central California.