Winter 2011/2012: My life before HIV infection…

Quite Positive - This is my life after the test came back.

Where do I begin?

This is my first post on this blog, and I’m guessing it will end up being one of my longer ones. How do I set the stage for the emergence of a life-changing event without giving the full dish? I’ll try to keep it to the point for the sake of keeping your attention.

This post will also perhaps end up being one of the hardest for me to write… for a number of reasons. Not only am I reflecting back on the lifestyle, situations, and  circumstances that led up to my HIV infection, but I’m also teasing my heart with an innocent, carefree life loved and lost.

Grab a cup of hot tea and a Triscuit, sit back and relax, and we’ll get started.

The Breakup

Until January 2009, I had been a quiet professional living and working in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sure, I was openly gay to most around me. And sure, I liked to have fun. But in general, I was very reserved and very ‘normal’.

Most of my family, friends, and coworkers knew and loved Allen — my partner of 7 years — and they all kept up to date on our latest dramas and adventures. I kept no secrets about my sexual preference, but I didn’t walk around advertising it.

My idea of ‘fun’ at the time was dinner at Applewoods — a popular local restaurant — followed by a couple drinks at an upscale wine bar… not four hours of dancing to ear-piercing music at a crowded gay club. I was in a relationship, and had no reason to impress my LGBT peers.

I’d had sex with approximately one person in 7 years… my partner.

But alas, as many do, my relationship fell apart. He was an alcoholic and was cheating on me with increasing regularity. I thought I could do better, and I ended it right after New Year’s in January 2009.

For the first time since the age of nineteen, I found myself single.

Descent Into Chaos

Chaos and instability engulfed my life throughout 2009. There were many verbal and physical fights with my ex in the months following our breakup. He begged me to take him back, and he promised me that he would change. I’d been down that road with him before. I’d heard all the promises and memorized his executions of them. I was not interested. Firm reiteration of my positions morphed into angry, dramatic explosions of frustration as he continued to pursue my forgiveness.

I did what all angry, depressed, frustrated exes do: I went to the doctor and got a prescription for Xanax. These magical little pills made the pain and complication go away. They made life better. And the more I took, the better things got. Pretty soon, I had developed a prescription drug addiction.

As my arguments with Allen intensified, and as my drug problem worsened, my ability to maintain a full-time job grew limited. I stopped working at my cushy, 40-hour-per-week creative position and began freelancing. It was an easy ‘out’: work on my own time when I needed the money, take time off when my personal dramas became intense and called for my attention.

Spring, summer, and fall passed as I lived a life lost in darkness and uncertainty.

Immediately following my breakup, I had also started dating my best friend Paul. He had came out of the closet to me shortly before I ended things with Allen. He had been there for me when I needed someone most. He had expressed his affection for me on more than one occasion. I almost felt obligated to give him a chance… and I did.

I had no idea how to live my life alone. I needed someone in my life.

Throughout 2009, I traveled back and forth from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, California — where Paul lived. As time passed and I continued to date Paul, however, my commitment to him waned and I realized something… my best friend had become my rebound guy. I didn’t have the necessary romantic feelings upon which a long-term relationship could be built. I was still in love with Allen.

But I refused to let Paul go. I didn’t want to be alone.

When I would visit California, I would ‘play house’ with Paul. I engaged in the lie that was our relationship because I had nothing else meaningful in my life at the time. I loved him dearly, but only as a friend. We had little in common and held conflicting beliefs on many core values.

When I would return to Oklahoma City, I continued talking and arguing with Allen. We would meet up for dates with the intention of working things out, but most of them ended up being little more than hot sex followed by vicious arguments.

My underlying reason for pursuing both Allen and Paul at the same time was pretty simple, and has already been mentioned twice in this post: I was lonely. I had no idea how to press forward in my day-to-day activities without a running buddy. I had no idea how to pass the evenings after work without someone to talk to. Had I been able to work things out with either of them, I would have gladly given up one and committed myself to a normal, happy life of monogamy with the other.

As fall 2009 gave way to winter, my attachment and involvement with both Paul and Allen had fizzled. I could no longer hang on to either of them. I forged ahead in my life without them, and they forged ahead without me. I no longer had my pretend relationship with Paul. I no longer had my toxic, jealous, baggage-laden attachment with Allen. I really was alone this time.

Dating Again

This time, however, the loneliness was different. I’d experienced so much drama with Paul and Allen that their absence from my life was refreshing. By March 2010, I had declared myself single and was dating again.

I also started to work again. The construction company that my family operated was growing. I went to work as Marketing Director and was making more money than I had made my entire life.

What I found as I immersed myself in the gay singles community, however, was that the scene had changed… standards and expectations had changed… men had changed. The world in which I dated when I was eighteen no longer existed. Nobody wanted the “Old Tim.” Nobody wanted that hardworking, loyal, clean-cut guy willing to give seven years of monogamy to the one that he loved. They wanted something trendier, more interesting, more fun, and less serious.

At least that’s how I felt. There’s an equal possibility that I had just been in a committed relationship for so damn long that I had just forgotten how to be single.

Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.

Failed date after failed date led me to the conclusion that my life needed to change. I needed to grow as a person and become more in tune with pop culture if I were to succeed in my quest of finding something meaningful. That’s what I did.

My old personality slipped away. By late summer 2010, I had become something completely new and different. I began going to the clubs. I began listening to Top 40. I was making friends in the gay community and becoming more social.

Although this would ultimately prove the beginning of a slippery slope for me, I won’t say that every aspect of this change was bad or harmful.

As normal, professional, and reserved as I had once been, I had also been somewhat sad and sheltered. In retrospect, I almost feel like 2010 was a divine gift… the year for me to ‘catch up’ and experience all the joys of life that I had missed during my early and mid twenties when I was in a long-term relationship and unable to do so.

For the first time in more than a year, I was actually happy.

The New Tim

I was a 27-year-old, single professional earning more than most people in my age bracket. I had a flexible schedule and disposable income. I was in better shape than I had been my entire life, and I was full of energy. I lived in a sprawling urban landscape with close to a million citizens and a large, vibrant gay community.

For a single gay guy, life couldn’t have been much better.

I became one of the hotter commodities on the singles market, and had more dates than I could handle. There were points during this period where I would wake up in the morning, check my phone, and find 20… 30… 40 text messages from various guys. For the first time in my life, I felt wanted.

I had a large enough dating pool that I could afford to be picky. The stereotypical gay man in me came out, and I started down an unhealthy path that would I would travel until my infection. I was picking the hottest, funniest, most energetic guys… which in my particular gay community equated to the youngest and most immature. The guys I always seemed to end up dating were boys that had no idea where they were going in life, or what they wanted out of a relationship.

I would meet someone cute and funny, talk with them hot and heavy for a few days — sometimes longer — before going on the first date. By the time we met up, I felt that I knew and trusted them. When it came to sex, that trust translated into not using protection. I guess I was too optimistic, and too naive. I always thought, “Why do I need to use a condom with the person that I’ll be spending the rest of my life with?”

But as it ended up, most of these “Mr. Rights” ended up being “Mr. One-Nights.” We’d have a nice dinner followed by hot sex, all the while expressing our devotion to one another. We’d promise each other second dates and sometimes even make plans for the future of our ‘relationship’. It generally never panned out. They usually moved on pretty quickly to the next great thing that they met on Adam4Adam or Manhunt.

More Changes

Eventually, though, one of my hot-and-heavy youngsters stuck!

It was early October 2010 when I began talking to Clay, a sweet, innocent 20 year-old that seemed to have a heart of gold. He wanted a relationship, and we seemed to have everything in common. By early November we were hanging out regularly. Each day, we’d talk on the phone and text from the time we woke up until the time that one of us fell asleep. He became my entire world, and I was in Heaven. We knew everything about each other and spent all of our free time together. By Christmas we had fallen in love.

As I pressed forward in my relationship with Clay, however, my professional life was changing. The construction company for which I was working began to struggle, and I began to earn less money. The dinners out and fun activities that Clay and I had enjoyed early on were becoming fewer and farther between.

I grew depressed as the social, vibrant lifestyle that I had worked so hard to achieve calmed and waned into the normalcy of a paycheck-to-paycheck life. By January 2011, I had stopped receiving a paycheck altogether and my employer closed its doors.

I was jobless, relying only on scant freelance opportunities to get by. But if nothing else, I was still in love.

In my heart, I know with 100% certainty that Clay loved me, too.  The fact, however, is that the lifestyle I was providing him was not what he had signed up for. Had we been together longer… a year or two… we might have weathered this short-lived storm and been fine. The strain of financial problems and depression on a newly formed relationship, though, quite visibly tore apart much of the bond we had worked so hard to forge.

Even with the increased strain, however, we might have gotten through this rough patch had my joblessness been the only issue. Around this same time, however, Clay was fighting his own personal battles. It was all too much for him, and too much for me. We began to argue.

By March 2011, Clay and I had called it quits.

Still unemployed and more depressed than ever, my life began to spiral down a dark tunnel… much as it had when I ended it with Allen. The difference this time was that I didn’t have Paul to lean on. I had nobody.

Living with my family at the time, I also became less of a commodity on the singles market than I had been before. I still had my looks… but without a dime to my name, I was just another unemployed gay guy living with his parents.

I searched feverishly for employment, but in a down economy I was just another faceless applicant in the crowd. Months pressed on. No luck on the job front, no luck on the relationship front.

I was starting to give up hope of ever getting my happy life back. As my motivation and self-confidence shrunk, so did my standards in romantic partners.

I did what I felt I had to do to keep from being lonely. I started ‘hooking up’ with guys for sex, just to have a warm body beside me for the night. These were broken, sad individuals with whom I could have never envisioned a serious relationship. Sometimes I used protection, and sometimes I didn’t.

At the time, I knew deep down that my life needed a change. Right as I was about to give up my last ounce of hope, however, an opportunity presented itself.

I had my reprieve.

Relocation

It was late July 2011 when — in the course of my daily job-hunting routine — I came across the perfect opportunity that seemed to have my name written all over it.

Having worked in media, Web, and advertising my entire adult life, it was a perfect fit. The job responsibilities consisted of everything that I loved to do. It was part creative, part Web, and part marketing. The salary was acceptable and I was vastly overqualified to fill the bill.

The only problem? The job was in a small oil town in rural western Oklahoma, 120 miles from the urban landscape that I considered my home.

Nevertheless, I submitted my resume on a Tuesday, drove out for an interview on a Thursday, and was offered the job on a Friday. I eagerly accepted the position.

Leaving the city was the worst decision I would ever make. At the time, however, I justified the move in endless ways in my own mind.

I was out of the workforce. I told myself, “Even if the job isn’t perfect, and doesn’t pay what I am accustomed, it will still serve as a stepping stone to get me back where I need to be.”

I felt like I had a decreasing number of friends and romantic prospects. I told myself, “It’s a small town. The gay men there are fewer and farther between, and will be more likely to reach out to me for friendship or give a relationship a chance.”

I had been living with my parents, and was feeling an increasing social pressure to get out on my own. I told myself, “It’s not really where I want to be, but it’s a step in the right direction for getting back on my feet and into my own life.”

And so it was, I packed my belongings, left Oklahoma City, and moved to this small oil town in western Oklahoma on July 30, 2011.

Life in Western Oklahoma, and Increasing Regret

My first day in my new hometown should have been forewarning that although surroundings change, behavior does not. I had a date.

His name was Randy. It was the same story that it had been with so many guys before. He was young, relatively fit and attractive, in a less than positive life situation, and desperate for some affection and stability. We had met online a couple weeks prior, spent endless hours talking and texting, and were meeting up for our first official ‘date’.

At the time, my definition of a date was pretty shady. If I met someone for dinner and a movie and the date ended with a simple kiss goodnight, I was pretty disappointed.  If I met someone and we didn’t screw all night, fall asleep together, and promise each other a committed relationship when we awoke the next morning, I wasn’t interested.

My date with Randy played out like many first dates before had: passionate sex that night, and promises of devotion the next morning before we parted ways. The relationship progressed just like the rest of them had, as well: we talked and texted for a few days afterward and then lost touch.

The following two months were a period of emotional conflict for me.

Professionally, I was succeeding. I had taken my position by the horns and made it my own. I improved procedures, developed and launched new media products, and became best friends with my coworkers. The job was proving to be a much better fit than I had ever imagined it would be.

Personally, I was a train wreck. I had no friends in the area, and was zipping through the ridiculously small pool of available local singles quickly. My life in western Oklahoma was becoming a shell of what it had been in the city. I woke up each morning, went to work and did my thing, then came home to a lonely apartment where I spent my evenings watching television or listening to music.

Romantically, I took what I could get. There were college kids, older men, alcoholics, and whatever else I could find at the bottom of the barrel. It was a small town and I just couldn’t afford to be picky. My dates played out as they always had: dinner, sex, and lots of promises that never amounted to anything.

By the time my birthday rolled around in late September, I had grown frustrated with what was supposed to have been my ‘fresh start’. It was then that I seemed to have an epiphany. I looked back at the previous few years of my life and realized that my heart had not been in the right place. I needed to slow down, spend some time working to improve my life, stop worrying so much about being lonely, and wait for someone special to appear in my life. And I did just that….. for a few weeks.

Around the middle of October — through sheer dumb luck considering I wasn’t even looking — I met a guy online. Heath was my type physically: young and thin with short hair and a “boy next door” smile that made me melt. But in certain important ways, he was also strikingly different from the majority of guys that I had dated before.

He had a good job in the healthcare industry. He had his own car. He had his life together. We could talk for hours, but it was never about Lady Gaga or American Idol… we’d talk about politics, our dreams and desires, current events, likes and dislikes, and the details of our lives prior to meeting. There was an instant connection that I had not felt since Clay.

I was head over heels for him, and he felt the same. We agreed to meet up and spend a weekend together at my apartment in late October.

Heath had made it clear from the start that he wanted to go slow. I had agreed readily, not wanting to mess up what seemed to be a good thing. It was not until he showed up that I realized the extent of what ‘slow’ meant to him.

We had a great time together. We had many deep conversations and tender moments, and there was obvious mutual attraction. By the end of the weekend, however, it was clear that he and I were moving at entirely different paces. He was very “Leave It To Beaver,” whereas I was more “Queer As Folk.” It was obvious that he and I would not be able to reach a middle ground upon which to continue.

The day he left was the day that would change my life.

Old Habits

I would not say that I was distraught when Heath left that Sunday, but I was certainly not in a good place either. Interestingly enough, though, I didn’t find myself dwelling on him specifically. That day, I found myself taking a very hard look at my life situation: I was 29 years old with more exes than friends, constantly alone and unable to keep a boyfriend.

Thinking you’re the greatest catch in the world, only to be confronted with the reality that you too are in some ways broken and undesirable… that’s not an easy pill to swallow.

In this depressed state, I did something that I hadn’t done in months: I logged onto Adam4Adam. I wasn’t looking to replace Heath, nor was I looking to meet friends or have a nice chat that evening. I was looking for a hookup. I just wanted a warm body beside me to ease my loneliness.

I found what I was looking for in a peppy, mixed-race guy in his late twenties named Andy. He wasn’t exactly my type physically, nor did he seem to be wanting anything close to what I wanted in terms of a relationship, but he was local. This would be a convenient, no-strings-attached meetup, which is what I was wanting at the time.

He arrived, and we got right down to business. Shockingly enough, when the sex was over, I started talking with him and found out that we had quite a bit in common. We had lived in some of the same places, knew a couple of the same people, and shared similar tastes in music.

Although I could not picture myself in a relationship with him, I fully intended to stay in touch. Andy seemed to have the potential of being a good friend with great benefits.

And I did stay in touch with him.

November & December, 2011

November 2011 would prove a dark month for me. After being deflated by the utter failure of my romantic attempts with Heath, I had pretty much stopped dating altogether.

It was also in November that we got a new manager at work. He refused to fit in, worked contrary to all of our established processes, and was causing tons of drama for my coworkers and me.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, a childhood friend with whom I had recently reconnected committed suicide.

My life at that point seemed to be at an all-time low… and to top it all off, I was developing a cold.

Through it all, I was still in touch with Andy. We would hang out and have sex, talk for a while, and then go back to our normal lives… none of our meetings every amounted to anything serious. They were simply fun times to pass the boredom and ease the loneliness.

As December swooped in, however, I began to feel a strange calm and contentment in my life. There was no dating drama, so I wasn’t constantly depressed or infuriated. The new manager ended up getting fired, so work returned to normal.

I just couldn’t get rid of that damn cold!

It was on a weekend trip to Oklahoma City in early December — to see my family — that I decided to take action and get rid of the bug. It was a Sunday morning. Fighting an increasing fever, persistent cough, and constant diarrhea, I made a trip to the Quick Clinic near my parents’ house.

After a short time in the waiting area, I went back to the examination room where I was greeted by a young Nurse Practitioner. A few pokes and prods later, he diagnosed me with sinusitis. He provided me with prescriptions for amoxicillin and prednisone and sent me on my way.

I returned to western Oklahoma, and was back to normal within a few days.

I drove back to Oklahoma City again the following Friday for a date. As the weekend progressed, however, my health began to decline once again and my symptoms returned.

This time, however, I pushed through the symptoms — which weren’t quite as bad as before — confident that I’d be rid of whatever bug was ailing me in no time.

I struggled with mild fever, persistent cough, and diarrhea through Christmas and New Year’s. My mother pumped me full of whatever leftover antibiotics she had in her medicine cabinet at the time, and I even took another round of prednisone.

I waited, self-diagnosed and self-medicated, and waited some more… but I simply wasn’t getting any better.

Quite Positive - This is my life after the test came back.

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