A Search for Solace
He sits in the office room, silent as a sunday morning before the sun rises, and looks up at the ceiling to see the strokes of greens and pinks that form a cherry blossom tree. Something washes over him, maybe not a sense of calm, but a reassurance. In his mind he sees those same strokes of green and pinks, vivid in one of his favorite pictures with two of his best friends as they pose in front of a similar cherry blossom tree. On that day, he was getting ready to dance and perform alongside his friends in front of hundreds of people. In complete contrast to that moment, he now sits alone in this doctor’s office, nerves curdling in his stomach for an entirely different reason. This is February 22, 2021. Just two weeks ago Ryan received a call out of the blue, requesting that he come in to the doctor. He received the call from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC), explaining that someone had submitted his name and phone number recording him as a previous sexual partner, and he was being called in for secondary syphilis testing. That initial call was unexpected and shocking. That call led to this moment in the SCDHEC office waiting for news that would’ve been unthinkable just three weeks before. That initial call didn’t even begin to prepare Ryan for the news that he was HIV positive.
When the nurse explains results and treatments, Ryan’s thoughts swirl like lost fish in the sea. He recalls just a couple months before when a mentor and friend, Austin, mentioned to Ryan that something seemed wrong. He couldn’t place it, but he noticed changes in Ryan’s demeanor that were unlike the normal. As words tumble from the nurse’s mouth describing his future health regimen, Ryan now recognizes those changes. Oh, how he’d rather be performing, sharing his passion for dancing while letting the music flow through him rather than the alarming words he hears now like “viral load” and “retrovirus”.
Inevitably, there is a downward spiral. A diagnosis like this doesn’t come with rainbows and unicorns. In fact Ryan has since faced the opposite. His mental health dripping into a decline, depressive episodes coming like clockwork, loneliness scraping through the surface to confiscate relationships he once had. Behaviors and performance changes lead to concern from others. He quits jobs, applies to more, moves across the country, moves back, processes the idea of going back to school, applies to more jobs. He finds out his case is counted as a disability when filling out job applications. No question of whether his work is actually affected, just if he is characterized as a disabled person. How does this change the decision of employers? While legally it isn’t supposed to affect their decision, there must be an obvious back-and-forth decision process. Yet another setback he must face. Ryan is left with a feeling that he is just being forced into a statistic. His diagnosis has forced him to jump over hurdles and scale walls he never expected. A diagnosis is never just a medical issue, it can be life-altering. This particular one leaves Ryan thinking, “I don’t understand a lot of what’s going on in my world.”
Along his journey, he reaches out to previous partners, trying to find clarity in how he contracted this disease. He describes not feelings of anger, but of obvious curiosity. To process what his life has become, he searches for transparency. Doing the math through discussion with his doctor, his date of contraction was in May of 2020. When he calls up an old friend, he is only met with denial and protestation. How does one move past this roadblock, when they are met with dishonesty and cannot find the answers to their questions? Ryan prides himself in how selective he is with his sexual partners, which makes this acceptance even harder. He is stuck in the quicksand of his thoughts, constantly wondering “where [his] choice went wrong.”
Ryan is a very spiritual person– he strives for connection with himself and the earth. As a naturalist, he doesn’t regularly get the flu shot each year or even take ibuprofen for occasional pain. Now, he has to remember to take a pill every day. There are obvious days filled with anxiety, the usual concern whether his case is just a false positive, and also his adjustment to “a new way of living.” Though in typical Ryan fashion, he strives for better and searches for peace amongst his hurricane of bad news. He finds reassurance when he finds out it is not detectable in his bloodstream, and cannot transmit it to any future partners. He even recognizes his same diagnosis in people close to him. This does not fully distract from the emotional and mental pain that knocks on his brain like an unwelcome stranger, yet he is able to temporarily alleviate this with his passion for dance and performance. With each relevé he is lifted from brokenness, each tendu points to opportunity, and each plié centers him towards comfort. Every song, choreographed dance, or improv moment , is a step, if only the tiniest, but still a step in a direction towards living with this diagnosis.
Ryan’s diagnosis may be a barrier, but it doesn’t stop him from searching for the love he has always aspired to find. He knows he wants to be in love, and wants to do it once. He craves a lasting love, and wants a one-lifetime partner. He recognizes his diagnosis as a sign to let go of lust and continue his pursuit. His diagnosis is less than ideal, but his spirituality shows him he was meant to be where he is today. For this reason, he has maintained an honesty about his condition, and doesn’t shy away from sharing his illness and his inhibitions.
Ryan’s case brings up a point that most often don’t consider, that there can sometimes be worse mental health effects from diagnosis. Physical effects plague people’s bodies and are most often used for evaluation, while mental effects are the complications never visible to people on the outside looking in. Ryan recognizes that he is better with his emotional self, and his diagnosis forced him to take a step back in order to deal with it; however, the anxiety, loneliness, and feelings of stagnancy still infest his brain like an unwanted termite, tearing away at the woodwork of his stability. The fact is that the stigma around HIV disregards how its victims are really affected. Ryan, though, is creating his own story despite this diagnosis, and dancing down a life path to find the happiness he deserves.
Belle Coffman is a sophomore from Columbia, South Carolina double majoring in Spanish and Public Health. She intends to receive her masters degree and certification to become a Child Life Specialist.