This piece originally appeared on Role/Reboot. Republished here with permission.
An email arrives from an old friend with the name of your ex-boyfriend in the subject line. In the body of the email, just this: “I’m totally shocked. When was the last time you talked to him?” You sigh, what now? Is he getting married? Having a baby? You head to Facebook, the one-stop shop for dirt on old flames. No wedding announcement, no ultrasound. Instead, there’s a video. Same crooked grin, same floppy hair, and this:
“This is a clip of me taking my first dose of Atripla, which is a combination antiretroviral drug. My name is Jake Earl, and on May 13, 2013 I was diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).”
There’s chaos in your brain for 30 seconds before you’re able to make some sense of what you’re seeing. Order descends and you start a convoluted march through a series of reactions: Self-preservation. Nostalgia. Anger. Fear. Curiosity. Admiration?
Self-preservation: How long has it been? That’s the first thing you inevitably wonder when you see the words HIV next to the face of someone you’ve slept with. Am I safe? It suddenly feels like yesterday that you woke up in his twin bed in an apartment with pizza boxes on the floor and philosophy books stacked on every surface. But it wasn’t yesterday, it was five years ago. It was many partners ago. It was many clean STD tests ago. You’re fine, breathe easy.
Nostalgia: You read his Facebook post 10 more times. Then you read all of the comments. You look at familiar and forgotten names that have liked it. You wonder who he is close to these days. You wonder who he confides in. You drift into a daydream about a particularly blissful week in the spring of 2008. When you follow the train of thought, you remember that it ended in a fiery crash and middle-of-the-night tears on your roommate’s shoulder.
Anger: You remember feeling betrayed, manipulated, outraged. You remember trusting him enough to ignore 10 years of safe-sex lectures and forgo condoms and then abruptly realizing that your trust was misplaced. You’re furious all over again. When it ended, you knew you would never make that mistake again. For the most part, you’ve kept that promise to yourself, never treating your sexual health with nonchalance. For the most part.
Fear: You have had unprotected sex with people you cared about after long, mature, sobering, not-at-all-sexy conversations about past partners and testing habits. With people you trust. Do you really trust them? Can you trust anyone? People forget. People lie. People cheat. People are terrible. You start a map in your head of your partners, branching out to their partners, and their partners’ partners. It’s gigantic, a many-headed monster of potential infection, and it’s only as sprawling as your very limited knowledge allows. You think you should probably never have sex again.
Curiosity: You haven’t wanted to start a conversation with him in a very long time. But now your ancient hurt feelings are easily dwarfed by the monstrous size of his emergency. His very public post, frank and eloquent, reminded you that there were reasons you enjoyed his company. When he wasn’t being an asshole, he was an inspired conversationalist. His online candor opens the door for virtually any conversation you want to have, so you start one. You wonder if his safe sex habits, or lack of them, have changed since you knew him. You wonder how this happened, and how he feels about it. How would you feel about it? Would you share with the world, as he is doing? His post holds some clues:
But this post isn’t about me: It’s about you. When were you last tested? How sure are you that you haven’t been exposed? How much are you willing to risk, for yourself and your partners, by not knowing for certain? Needless to say, I was surprised at my test results. I don’t look like your stereotypical HIV-positive person. But now you ought to ask yourself: Are you really so different from me? If I could have it (along with 1.2 million other Americans), then why not you?
Admiration: He gives you permission to write this essay. After all, he has already posted a letter and a video of himself taking his first dose of an antiretroviral. How much more transparent can you be? He writes this:
It’s interesting how people like us rationalize their way out of thinking they’re at risk for HIV. The stigma has a lot to do with it, as well as the feeling of power; in order to think I might be at risk, I have to think at least one of my partners might have it. “I don’t fuck people like that though,” is a thought I’ve often had, and I’m sure lots of people like me have had.
You have had that thought. Haven’t we all?
Why share something like this where mothers of friends and first-grade classmates and old math tutors can read about it? The Internet is a megaphone that we usually use to broadcast cat videos and memes of crying children, or to prod our “friends” into validating our every observation. It doesn’t have to be that way; instead we can use it to encourage each other to take care of ourselves, to turn misfortune into an opportunity, to transform shame into something productive. “People like us” need a reminder that we are not immune; we need it to come from within the ranks, from a familiar face. Someone has to be that face, and he nominated himself.
Nearly 1.2 million Americans. Twenty percent of them don’t know they’re infected. Imagine the map of your partners’ partners. Five or 10 becomes 50 very quickly. Add another degree of removal and 50 becomes 1,000. Three degrees and you’re at 10,000. How long before your map intersects with the 1.2 million?
Jake let me share his story and I’m going to end with his advice: Be unashamed. Be unafraid. Know your status.
If you need help finding testing locations, or just want to know more about HIV/AIDS, go to hivtest.cdc.gov.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.