nine years ago, today

Every year, on this day, I write about having been diagnosed with HIV. It happened nine years ago today. I got a call from the clinic telling me to come over to receive the results of my HIV test in person. I didn’t know about the procedure back then. I complained about having to go out that day to the clinic when they could just tell me over the phone but there were protocols to follow.

I went to the clinic, annoyed, but my world changed when the doctor told me that I tested positive. That day, on this day, I became a person living with HIV.

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Telling my story — at the Candlelight Ceremony (2009)

It’s been a crazy nine years. The hour it took me to get from the clinic back home was filled with thoughts about dying. Not knowing what I know now, I thought I wasn’t going to make it to Christmas.

Since then, I’ve had nine Christmases, nine New Year’s celebration, nine birthdays. I’ve written three feature length films and several short films. I’ve worked on an original Filipino play as dramaturge and head writer and contributing one monologue. I’ve published an e-book of poems. I’ve gained so many new friends. And I can add HIV advocate now to my profession.

I’ve also had three brushes with death. Countless visits to the hospital. My vision is blurred, affected by HIV retinopathy. I’ve suffered kidney failure and had five months of dialysis. Multiple spinal taps and had bone marrow extracted from my hip to test if I had leukemia. I’ve had two minor strokes. I spent a whole year and a half vomiting twice a day that it didn’t even hurt anymore.

But I’ve also shared my story and I’ve had people tell me that I’ve inspired them to take the test, to tell their friends and family about their condition, to keep fighting and to keep trying to take control of their life.

I’ve said good bye so many times but I’ve also done some good.

And there’s still so much more that I can do.

After nine years, it has become very important for me to really do everything that I can do to live the most meaningful life I can. It is so important now, more than ever, to become the person I have always wanted to be. I’ve spent nine years (give or take hospitalization and recovery) being an advocate and trying to spread the message of HIV prevention. I really think I’ve run out of things to say. What I haven’t run out of is the thrust to succeed because my life can be used as an example that something like HIV will not stop me from making my life mean something.

I was hospitalized twice at the beginning of this crazy journey and it took my whole family by surprise that we couldn’t afford to pay for the medical bills on our own and people from all over came to help out. Family, friends, and even strangers came and helped us out. I’m alive today because of the love and support and encouragement from the world.

I am still alive because people have been kind to me.

My life since 2010, my second brush with death, has been about being kind and generous back, paying it forward, living with this weight of gratitude and a need to pay it back and to pay it forward.

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Nine years later, a self reflection (Photo by Shaira Luna)

But what if I could be grateful by living my life completely and wholly as my own? What if I work hard at achieving my dreams and ambitions because this is the life that people have returned to me? What if that is an act of gratitude as well? To fully live this life that I’ve been given and to use it to make the world a better place?

I’m a writer. I’m a story-teller. I should be telling stories. Not just my own. I’ve been doing that for nine years now. It’s time to create new ones. Stories that can inspire change, enrich lives, make people question and think.

That’s what I want to do. Maybe that’s what people wanted from me when they kept me alive? Maybe they helped me out without expecting me to pay them back? What if they just wanted me to live? And what if they were sad to find out that I’ve spent my life putting myself second because I felt I had to bring others up as payment for their goodness? What if I had been wasting the precious gift they’ve given me by being so beholden to that act of generosity?

Had I misunderstood everything?

Nine years is a long time. It’s a lot longer than what most people get in this violent world of ours. And they were good years, when I look back at it now. There were dark times, for sure, but there were good times too. There were moments of insight and learning and growing. There were moments of true joy.

It’s been nine years since my HIV diagnosis. I can’t take any of that time back. But I’ve learned what to do with the rest of my life from that day forward. And just like life, you learn new things, you gain new perspective, you gain understanding, and you gain something like hope.

You gain something like peace.

It’s time I gave that to myself.

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