It was 2009 and I had just finished graduate school. As I donned my cap and gown, the U.S. market was nearing the bottom of the drain in the midst of the Great Recession.
I moved home, started bartending, and waited for my luck to change. Six miserable months later, a friend introduced me to someone she thought I’d have fun with. He was kind of geeky, very handsome, and just aloof enough to steal my heart. The romance was fast and furious. It was the hardest I had ever fallen for someone. It was a fairytale.
I had decided to capitalize on the recession by applying to spend a year teaching abroad in South Korea. When my prince said he wanted to go with me, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of exciting travels and intimate moments in foreign locales.
Soon I was living in a shoebox, waiting for his plane and for our journey to begin — but culture shock does strange things to people. Three months into our Korean adventure, my Prince Charming morphed into a villain this princess was no match for. He could barely look at me, and when he did it was in disappointment or disgust. Back home, I was surrounded by friends, but alone in this foreign land I desperately tried to get him to see me the way he had when the alphabet was still familiar, and I didn’t live above a fish house.
Six more excruciating months dragged by before I fled — quite literally — back to the states. I took a department store job in Austin, Texas, just to have a place to land. I was home, in a sense, but my head and my heart were stuck in a spin cycle over the nightmare that was supposed to have been a dream.
I did what I thought any 20-something with a broken heart would do: I found new friends and hit the bars — hard. Alcohol tasted like medicine; the induced frivolity it invoked was the closest I’d felt to happy in a long, long time. In the midst of drunk and numb nights, I remembered what it was like to feel OK.
But every morning when the buzz wore off, everything would come rushing back. Days were unbearable and I lived for the night, the alcohol, and all that came with it — including sex. I just wanted to feel something, anything, other than the way he’d made me feel. I was desperate for intimacy, as though it would fill the hole in my heart. While dating, I would invariably rush the moment where we were comfortable enough to discard the condoms; as though that meant I was in something meaningful and finally over my ex. It meant no such thing: I was continuously placing myself at risk over a lie.
Alcohol is an incredibly dangerous drug because it’s legal, and marketed in a way that promotes abuse. What do the heartbroken do in the movies? They drink. And they drink to get drunk, and to forget. I followed cues from my favorite rom-coms and was drunk for nearly a year.
For the record, I don’t blame anyone else for my contracting HIV. I was 27-years-old and I knew exactly what I was doing, even when I didn’t remember all the details. Far too often we look at other people and proclaim that we would never do what they have done. We take them at their worst and compare them to our best.
It has been almost seven years since I returned from South Korea. In retrospect, I am incredibly thankful for the experience. It’s the same with HIV. I would rather be HIV-negative, but life doesn’t operate in retrograde and there’s no point pining over what could have been.
We are a collection of choices. After being diagnosed with HIV, I decided I’d only be defined by the choices I made from that point on — what I choose today — and by the life I want to lead tomorrow.