I am Ben, and I have suffered from depression, and continue to suffer from chronic anxiety.
May marks ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’. I’ve only really seen this as an opportunity for people to attach yet another coloured pin badge to their collection. This year I feel different. I don’t know why? Perhaps it is down to the fact that during the last year, I have made more of an effort to research and understand these campaigns. Perhaps it is down to the fact that during the last year, I have made more of an effort to research and understand myself. Either way, I’m jumping on board.
Since being away, I have listened to a lot of podcasts, mostly those by Fearne Cotton and her show ‘Happy Place’. Fearne talks with people who are in the public eye about their insecurities and life hurdles in hopes of reassuring listeners that they are not alone.
Hearing renowned voices ‘remove’ their ‘veil’ and share their inner demons and struggles provided me with comfort and courage. They tell their story, and in some way ‘sacrifice’ their status in order to support the statuses of others.
I have realised that, for me, I have always been SO conscious of what others have thought of me. So much so that their views and opinions become my own views and opinions of myself.
In order for me to like, or even love myself, I’ve had to work for other people’s gratification and love so that I could achieve this ‘self-acceptance’.
I can not keep doing this. Sure, I want to be liked by people, of course! But I need to detach and disassociate people’s views about me with my own. I find that so hard. I have already had sleepless nights about sharing this story, and what people will think of me. Will this ruin my friendship? My career? Hopes of a relationship? Respect?
When I was out in New York, I met a psychic who told me of my past, present and future. She asked if I was a writer and whether I am writing at the moment. She said that I have something to say, which people need to hear; an important message. I believe this story and message is one of the most important and personal ones I’ve yet to tell.
So, here goes.
I would like to apologise to a man that I once spoke to almost ten years ago on a dating site. During our chat, he said that he felt he had to tell me something that may scare me off; that he understood if I no longer wanted to speak to him. He told me that he was HIV positive. I blocked him without hesitation and without a response. I felt scared and I also felt dirty. I didn’t know anything about HIV or what it meant, but I associated it with filth, death, and promiscuity.
How wrong I was.
How wrong I still am about a lot of things relating to HIV, which I have started to look much deeper into recently. How naive I was to think that people with HIV weren’t ‘normal‘, ‘clean‘ people.
How wrong I was to assume that HIV was a death sentence.
I have been living with HIV for the last six years, and I am very much alive.
HIV within the media is slowly surfacing, but the weight of the stigma continues to drag it down into the depths of the ‘open’ ocean.
There is not much uplifting, normalizing, or open discussions about HIV. People in the public eye are only ever known for their HIV status if they have been EXPOSED; contributing towards this ideology of it being a ‘dirty‘ secret; something to hide.
Do you know how much of a dark and decaying weight that is to carry?
Whilst I type this, I battle with anxiety about the repercussions that I may face once sharing this blog post. I want my story to create comfort, exposure, support and an emotional insight for people that are living with the virus themselves, or for people that are still so unfamiliar with it. But the panic about the possible hate, disgust, labels and distance that people may now associate with me is still very present.
If I don’t feel safe sharing my story, how many other people are there suffering from silence as well?
Sharing my story of sobriety received such an overwhelming amount of support for my personal journey, as well as my words offering support and inspiration for others and their own paths. How beautiful?! I hope that this can do the same.
This is my story.
Rewind to June 2013.
I was out one night….every interesting story starts with that line, doesn’t it?! I was drunk…obviously.
There was a guy that I always saw out. I really liked him. He seemed cool. Different. We got chatting. He came back to mine. I blacked out.
Waking up in the morning, I gathered my bearings, and any vague memory from the shattered, fragmented happenings of the night before. I noticed that my door was wide open, so I crawled over to shut it…still confused as to why I would have left it open in the first place. THE BOY! I remember the boy! He came over. I look around. Nothing. I try so hard to piece together the night but find no evidence to help me solve yet another weekend mystery. Did we? Didn’t we? I wouldn’t?! I couldn’t?! Would he? Did he? The beer fear was overwhelming. ‘JUST-EAT’ would help me out. It always did.
It didn’t help.
My friend Ellis was working at the local health clinic at the time and recommended that I went for a quick check-up. I have never really been the promiscuous type so this experience was all a bit new to me. The newest, simplest and quickest experience I could have done. I would get a text to inform me of the all clear within two weeks and I could continue with my life.
A text did come a day later, but it was from the man I spent the night with, informing me that I passed out as soon as I got through the door and that he left me to sleep. Thank God for drunk Ben…always the drunk and disorderly! The other text though…the text from the clinic? It never came…
A couple of days later, whilst at work, I received a call from an unknown number. This time it didn’t feel like ‘Mark’ who was calling me to inform me of a non-existent accident that I was involved in, and my chance to claim thousands.
The gentle voice introduced herself and who she worked for. Right then I knew. It was as if the police had arrived at my door, taken off their hats, and asked to come in. I felt like I was about to be informed of a death, and at that moment, I could feel myself dying. I was calmly asked to return back to the clinic.
At the time, I was working about a fifteen-minute drive from the clinic. I didn’t drive. I left my work, I took my shoes off and I ran.
I ran as fast as I could. I don’t know why. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I arrived within five minutes or five hours; what would be would be. But I had to know.
I ran. I cried. I screamed. I panted. I cried some more, and as I sprinted across the motorway, I could feel myself become more and more helpless.
I entered the clinic. They told me to sit down. I remained standing. They told me I was HIV positive. I collapsed.
My life was over.
Writing this has caused my palms to sweat. I sit here now reliving this terrifying experience, and no matter how many years pass, I will never forget that haunting moment where I wanted my life to end. I wanted to die. Was I dying?
I had been living with HIV for years I was told. My body had been fighting the virus for quite some time. I started to put the pieces together…
During my time in London, I came out in an awful rash. My skin felt like it was covered in acid. It continued for months on end. The doctors informed me that it was just my anxiety and that I just needed to relax. After pleading with them, they booked me in for an appointment with a skin specialist. That department shut down prior to my appointment. Obviously.
It would be easy for me to say that this traumatic experience introduced me to alcohol. That wasn’t the case. My alcohol dependency was contracted way before this virus. I was just able to use this new diagnosis as an excuse to label alcohol as medicinal. Medicine which I abused in order to drown out this ‘hell’. I drank and drank and drank.
My family were very supportive. They always have been. They drank with me. We were a team in that sense. I still felt a sense of isolation though. They still say to this day that they continue to forget that I have HIV, and that’s great, but I never forget.
Six months later, I met someone. Love at first sight. Coming to terms with having to disclose my status was terrifying. Saying the words ‘I am HIV positive’ meant that I had to relive that moment again and confirm to myself what I had. I told him.
He asked me how long I had left to live. He had to go away and think about whether he could continue speaking to me. I understood. Who would want to?!
We were together for over four years.
During those four years, he used my status as a weapon to harm me. Throughout the relationship, I was told that I was a ‘filthy c*nt’, that I was ‘riddled’, and that he would tell people of my ‘dirty secret’. None of this did anything to relieve my self-hate or to overcome the negative stigma that this virus comes with…it only amplified it.
During those four years, campaigns such as ‘ It starts with me‘ began to feature in tube stations, bus shelters, web advertisements and magazines. It really helped me to realise that I was not alone. I was normal. This was not some dirty secret that I had to live with, and I did not have to live with this abuse. I was told that no one else would want me because of what I had. I feared that I would not find happiness again…but I wasn’t happy; I was depressed. So I left the relationship.
Why am I sharing my story?
When I was diagnosed, there was no positive media coverage in the public eye. I literally had to look for it to find it. Someone without HIV wouldn’t go out of their way to research the virus, so how would they know about the AMAZING facts and treatments that have been discovered by doctors and charities?
There will be someone out there who has recently been diagnosed. Who feels like they want to end their life. There will also be someone out there that may not know much about the virus, and if not educated, may be frightened and use this as a weapon to harm someone who has it.
If my story can contribute towards further exposure of HIV and educate others about it, then I feel a sense of duty to tell it. I am petrified. I won’t lie. But I am becoming more and more at peace with being the person that I am, and what I have, and I hope that I can help others to feel the same about themselves. IT DOES GET BETTER.
During the past eight years, I have suffered from depression, anxiety, HIV, alcoholism, drug abuse, and self-harm (mentally). I would spend ages on investing in my wardrobe, or my hair, or any other beauty product which celebrated the shelves in order to make me feel better. I never considered my mental health being something of importance to invest in. People only see your exterior, so why faff around with anything else?
I’ve realised that who you are within, projects on how others see you. How you really value yourself, and how you take care of your core, is the best feature of yourself that you can invest in.
Mental health thrives off shame. Shame has thrived from this diagnosis which I have chosen to keep as a heavy dark secret. This diagnosis has been kept as a heavy dark secret because of my insecurities and overwhelming fear of judgement. My insecurities and overwhelming fear of judgement feed my mental health such as chronic anxiety. Catch 22. But we are getting there; me, myself and I. We have become a great team.
I ran the London Marathon back in 2015 to raise money for The Terrence Higgins Trust. I volunteered over in Uganda, where HIV still develops into AIDS. I put down the bottle and picked up the juicer. I read. I listen. I sleep. I am trying.
I have been single now for nearly two years. During the last year, I have taken the time to condition myself physically and emotionally. Being single has allowed me to develop a relationship with myself, but now, in my thirties, I feel ready to meet someone. For me, it’s not about finding someone in order for me to feel ‘happy‘ or ‘proud‘ of myself, but rather, to have someone to enjoy these moments of happiness and pride with. And maybe the occasional gift. Come on.
So this is me. Cue the music.
I am not defined by what I have, or what I take or what I no longer consume. I need to accept this, and this is my hardest challenge in life.
I no longer suffer from depression. I can’t say that I never will again, but for now, I don’t. I still suffer from anxiety because I am Ben, and it is in my blood. Alcohol is no longer my medication; listening is. Listening to myself. Facing my emotions as opposed to drowning them, and seeing the pride in overcoming them.
I don’t want to lose any more time. I’ve lost so much time already. It is such a valuable gift. I’ll never be able to make up for the time that I’ve lost through drinking, self-abuse, all-nighters, or days in bed with ‘Just-Eat’, but I can safely say my time left won’t be wasted on those anymore!
I am still learning to accept things in my life that I have to live with and that I have to live without. I believe that we will all experience this in one way or another. I no longer hate myself or blame myself for what has happened. Nothing can be achieved when you hate yourself. If you find yourself talking to yourself in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, then ask yourself how you’d feel if you overheard someone speaking like that to someone else. Would you allow for it? No! So why should you treat YOURSELF any different?
I sit here now, in Bali. One year sober. Six years living with HIV. I am on my own. My finger continues to hover over the ‘post’ button. Shame, fright, doubt and worry cloud my intentions. But something much stronger breaks through them like the warm bright sun; pride. *POST*.
Over on my blog post, I have added some interesting facts about HIV and mental health for those who you like to understand a bit more about it. If you or someone you know has HIV and are suffering in silence, please, reach out to someone you love. Break your silence, and I hope my story helps to break the stigma.