February 12, 2022

Dear HIV

Dear HIV,

Like all relationships, ours will come to an end. I’m telling you this from the now, from your future, though back in 2007 neither of us would have believed it.

Some relationships finish because of a break-up and so one half of the partnership leaves. You aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable, that much is certain. Some relationships end because one dies. I ain’t going anywhere for the foreseeable, even though you tried your damnedest to push me outta life. Some relationships end simply because the pair have nothing in common anymore and the ending is decided mutually and amicably. This is how we’re parting, or… this is how I would like to think we’re parting.

I thought we’d be together for ever; you as a part of my very definition. Once you were discovered, once you’d announced yourself, I assumed we’d be inextricably linked until either you managed to finally do me in or I partied myself to death. You nearly did finally do me in and because of that I nearly did party myself to death. I had a new label once you’d been drawn out into the light. I was HIV-positive. I wasn’t just a gay man anymore, I now had an extra layer of the strange and fearful about me. That’s why I partied so hard. Who wants to deal with an extra layer of the strange and fearful?

Let’s be honest about this, too. When I was given my diagnosis of you, it was so much more. You’d been nibbling away at my insides for so long – a whole decade, probably – that it turned out you were giving me a few more letters. You gave me an AIDS diagnosis. In doing so, you took away the thing I’d been most proud of: my youthful good looks. But here, I have to insert a thank you. Because I didn’t want to look at myself in a mirror for the first time in thirty years, I had to look inwardly. I looked into my very soul because of you, HIV. I looked inside my own mind and saw how powerful it was.

You changed me, physically, but you also changed me artistically. I had always been a writer but I’d written in the manner of somebody who had spent thirty years looking in the mirror. I wrote about me me me. With the onset of you, I suddenly had a tribe, a family, to write for. I wrote about my newfound community.

I’d never had a standard to bear before, but almost immediately on finding you cowering within my bloodstream I picked that flag up and waved it high. Or at least waved my pen over the page and wrote furiously about you. I still write about you, but the fury’s gone.

I should apologise about that, because I kind of think a virus feeds off the fury. The angrier we get, the stronger you become. But now, there’s a certain part of me that isn’t furious with you. I love you. I love you for the man you turned me into. I love you for sifting all the shit out of my life. Not just personal shit – because believe me when you’re given a terminal diagnosis, your threshold for bullshit becomes a mighty fine line indeed – but also the shit personage. You became a constant and faithful litmus test for me. So many times did people turn their back on me because those three letters you wear brazenly simply scared them too much. Either they didn’t understand you. Or they were ashamed of you, on my behalf. Or they wanted to prove how noble they were by simply knowing somebody who – gasp! – lived with HIV. In the end, these people only misunderstood themselves, or shamed themselves, or showed the world how ignoble they were. Most of the time, they were just plain scared. As if they had any right to be scared. They weren’t the ones living with it.

And live with you I did. And yes, you’re still here but something’s changed. You live within me still, but I don’t live with you anymore. I don’t need to. You’re like the UK at Eurovision: nil points. That’s the power you hold over me nowadays. Nil. I refuse to give you any points and therefore I’m dropping you from conversation. I don’t need to talk about you. I’m not beholden – legally or ethically – to inform anybody about you because you’re not leaving my body ever again, not to vacation in somebody else’s. You chose this host and I bet you’re kicking yourself now because you’re trapped. Welcome home, HIV.

You shouldn’t be upset that I’m dropping you from conversation. I spoke about you for fifteen years, nearly. Quite vociferously, too. I changed you in the process. I’m sorry you got given such a crummy acronym, but it was so crummy that I had to change it for myself. We’re allowed to change the language of anything that’s associated so intimately with us, by the way, before you get on your HIV horse.

Humanimmunodeficiencyvirus? It doesn’t trip off the tongue, it ties it in knots. So I got rid of that dry scientific lingo and called you ‘Hope Is Viral’ because I knew I couldn’t spread you anymore, only hope for those newly-infected with you. Hope that it wasn’t over. It wasn’t the endgame. Hope that it would be alright.

And you became alright for me, too. So much so that the activist I’d been for almost fifteen years had to change. Just as I changed you, so you changed me. The ghost of you left the building, even if only metaphorically. Fittingly, it happened on Hallowe’en of this year.

Because I love getting in touch with my Irish roots, I have to acknowledge that Hallowe’en derives, probably, from the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which is a time of transformation. Together, you and I have transformed me, HIV. On the 30th of October my portrait was taken down as part of an exhibition centred around the HIV-community. The visual metaphor was perfect.

If you ask anyone who knows me for five terms that describe me, invariably you will be one of them. Back in 2007, I didn’t need a Hallowe’en costume. I looked like the walking dead and to be honest, I was. It was a miracle I came out alive. Because you didn’t kill me, I kept on telling my story. Our story. Therefore I’ve been reliving the trauma of it and herein did I discover that a pretty serious paradox lay within my activism.

The nature of my activism has been the fight to not be defined by my status. To not be defined by you. However, the more I talk about you in the hope of normalising you, the more I do become defined by you. Now, I love me some symbolism. And as Hallowe’en is all about releasing terrors into the night it was time to release something that’s no longer terrifying for me off into that metaphorical night. I released you. I will not be defined by the absence or presence of you.

You gave me an AIDS diagnosis. Then we worked out a sort of balance and I became HIV-positive. Then I got the upper hand and decided to label myself HIV-neutral and very proud I’ve always been to say it too. Because of it, I neutralised you. Which means all there is left is… Me. Our story is done, for now. There are so many more people in the HIV-community that need help telling their stories, so I’d like to be a part of that instead. And you can’t stop me.

I don’t even wear you anymore, HIV. Your red ribbon is off my lapel. I think the most telling and possibly rebellious action I could have taken – and maybe a controversial one too – was to take your red ribbon off. I’ve worn it upside-down for years as a sign that I’ve wanted to turn the ideas of HIV/AIDS on their head, but… I don’t want any ideas about any aspect of you to be the thing that people first think of or see when they think of or see me.

The relief is palpable. I feel like you’re… gone. I’m relieved and oddly, impatient. I’m impatient for the next stage and this is something that drives me on. This is something you gave me before I knew you were living in me: impatience. I was ill for two years without being told it was you making me so and that tested my patience to the limit, so please allow me to now go and test my limits. On my own, without you. I’m impatient for some kind of enlightened phase with regards to your story, the story of HIV. One where you’re no longer the major player.

Some relationships end simply because the pair have nothing in common anymore and the ending is decided mutually and amicably. All I have left is your autograph in my bloodstream. Nobody need know you’re there. There is nothing you can offer me anymore, so – in the most amicable way I can think of, if not mutually so – it’s the end for us.

In signing off with this letter, I’m signing off from you. You’re not dead and buried. You won’t be until I am, though as a Burns that’ll probably be dead and torched. But I am allowing you a happy retirement. Enjoy the years you have left within me, please. Just don’t tell me how they’re going.

Thanks for all the memories and all the life and all the inspiration.

Best regards, Your host, Martin.