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December 02, 2014

Guy, Interrupted: How Being HIV Positive Opens My Eyes

When he was diagnosed with HIV, life seemed to be falling apart and he hit rock bottom. But it led him to making the best decision for his life: to take care of himself and to know the people who really matter in life.

by Amahl S. Azwar

It’s an old cliché, but like all cliches, it’s the truth – your life can change in the blink of an eye.
Looking back, I should’ve been able to avoid HIV. I mean, I watched Philadelphia when I was still in elementary school so I was pretty much familiar with the matter. In the 1990s I watched several episodes of Kupu-Kupu Ungu (Purple Butterfly). In case you forgot, Kupu-Kupu Ungu is a local TV series that attempted to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and funded by Ford Foundation and the Health Ministry.
 On top of that, when I was barely 17 years old I attended an HIV workshop. I know all the dos and don’ts.  
When one of my relatives got infected with HIV through drug abuse, I immediately convinced my mother to treat him fairly. I told her that it was nothing to worry about – it’s not like we can get HIV just because we shake hands with him, letting him use the loo, or inviting him for dinner!
So why did I still get the virus?
I think it’s time to point out that one thing that some might still overlook: low self-esteem.
No, I’m not talking about depression and self-esteem of when one is living with HIV. I’m talking about the low self-esteem among gay men themselves ­­– HIV positive or not.
It’s bad enough that gay men are rejected by the mainstream society. Our dating life is also a battlefield, literally. Like it or not, the “perfect” gay is currently defined as “adonis, real-life Ken Dolls” otherwise (thanks to K-Pop wave) abs like Siwon from Super Junior.
(Sidenote: if you watch Lucky Kuswandi’s CONQ webseries, you’ll get it).
Yes, as a gay man with layers of fat, I must compete with guys with six-pack abs or defined biceps and, to be honest, I didn’t feel like I even stood a chance.  

Apps like Grindr, Scruff, Hornet, and Growlr did not help, either. Whenever someone ask about my weight and I was being honest (nope, I won’t disclose it here), I usually got blocked, ignored, or, if they were polite enough, the usual “I’m sorry but you’re not my type.”
I used the mantra that Gabriele taught me: “Keeping busy everyday, I know I would be okay.” So yeah, I became obsessed with work. I became bitchier and bitchier at work. I believed making my job as a relationship is the only way to heal my pain. Pain of being rejected.
But that was only on the outside. Inside, I was still hungry for attention.
After finishing the day job, I immediately opened the phone apps again or simply went to famous gay hangout places in Jakarta to get lucky. But to no avail. I became desperate to the point of being careless.
When a slightly more attractive guy wanted me, and he didn’t want to use a condom, I caved in. It happened too many times I lost count. So when my health began to deteroriate late last year (I lost weights easily but not in a healthy way), I already knew what happened to my body. What my stupidity just got me into.
The doctor did say that I was lucky because I found out about my HIV status during early stages: they could prevent it from getting even worse. Still, after that, everything seemed to be falling apart. And the side effect of the drugs that they gave me was unbearable for me. It affected my sleeping habit (which wasn’t good from the start), mood, on top of making me feel nauseous.  
I finally hit rock bottom when I got fired from the office after making a huge mistake (I took the full blame for the mistake, though. This ain’t Philadelphia). And then I thought to myself: this was it.
If I didn’t even have a career that I could be proud of, what was the point of living?
I didn’t know what to do. I missed my parents who live in a different city. Every night I just wanted to scream. It was like I lost my will to live.
And then, I called my mother, and I asked her if she would be happy to have her son under the same roof again. It was not easy, a case of a bruised ego. Then something magical happened: she was thrilled! And so was Dad. They were happy that their youngest son would be back at home again.
That was the moment when I realized I’d been ignoring the more important people in my life who I believe won’t judge me for my weight, and who accept me for who I really am. All of me.
After a few weeks, I told my parents about my situation and they were fine with it. They were glad that I immediately took the right medicine and I took care of myself more. My parents could not be more supportive of me.
I got in touch with my old friends again and told them about the big news. I wanted them to know about my situation because my biggest fear was (is) to be alone on my deathbed. I deleted all my gay phone apps (it took some time to let this one go, though) because I realized that it wouldn’t make happy anymore.
I’ve decided to work as a freelancer now so that I have more free time for myself (to have fun, to relax, and to enjoy life). I quit alcohol. I quit smoking. I began meditating and do yoga (not religiously, but still). I even began to work out three times a weeks and eat more healthily, not to build muscles, but to become healthier and because I want to live longer.
I even met someone who I finally can call my ‘husbro’ (more on that later) who, amazingly enough, is negative but he accept me for who I am. He’s so handsome – inside and out. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in life. (Seriously, I feel like Ted Mosby when he finally meet The Mother on How I Met Your Mother! Perhaps one day I will tell my kids ­– or dogs – the story of how I met their father).
Now, after more than a year of being diagnosed HIV positive, I could say that being diagnosed with HIV in a very early stage was the best thing that could ever happened to me.
I did make some mistakes, though. Had I been wiser enough, I might not have to leave my old office on sour terms. Had I been mentally stable to endure the side effect of the anti-retroviral drugs, I would be strong enough to endure.
I owed an apology to my former bosses and old mentors at the old office and, hopefully, if they could read this article, they could forgive me. 
And finally, I want to tell all those young Indonesian gay guys out there to read my story as a cautionary tale. You can read all the information about condoms and other means to protect yourself from HIV positive but, at the end of the day, it’s your heart and your mind that make the difference.
Please, love yourself before you even expect someone else to love you (again, it’s a cliché, but like all cliches, it’s the goddamn truth).
And for all other people who live with HIV. Things will go our way, eventually. Just hold on for one more day (yes, I just quoted Wilson Phillips).
Amahl S. Azwar is an openly gay writer who lives in Bandung, West Java. Follow @mcmahel on Twitter and blog www.mcmahel.wordpress.com