By Jamie Gentille
Jamie Gentille earned a BS in Biobehavioral Health from Penn State University, a Masters in Public Health from Walden University, and completed her child life internship at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband of six years and works as Director of Child Life Services. Jamie has been living with HIV for 30 years and is an experienced public speaker on the topic. She is currently penning a memoir about her life as an HIV advocate and survivor.
Relationships aren’t easy. Anyone who has ever listened to a Taylor Swift song knows that. Even on the best of days, meeting new people is complicated. Throw a chronic disease into the mix, and it can be downright nerve-wracking. I spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood trying to figure out how to navigate the social scene, while secretly being HIV positive.
I was born with a serious cardiac defect called Tetrology of Fallot, and underwent open-heart surgery at age three to repair it. During this surgery, I received a blood transfusion that was unknowingly infected with HIV. We didn’t find out that I was infected until years later, when I was eight. At that time, it was a death sentence. Doctors gave me two years to live, and my family prepared for the worst. Thankfully, phase I drug protocols came to my rescue and I was able to begin an HIV medication regimen at age ten. These medications have kept me amazingly healthy and allowed me to grow into the thriving thirty-three year old that I am today.
When I was a kid, no one ever thought that I would live long enough to have to worry about dating, and what to tell people. But lo and behold, I was surviving, entering college, and facing the dating scene. Now what do I do?
While I had a million “what ifs” floating in my head, of one thing I was certain: I needed to be up front with people before it got too physical. I had to have “the talk” before I had “the sex.” I also knew that I had to tell prospective dating partners before we got too attached. Let’s face it — this kind of news could send someone running for the hills, and I didn’t want to be already in love with that guy who was running in the other direction.
One thing that I’ve learned is that there was never a perfect moment to tell someone that I was HIV positive. It’s not the kind of subject matter that I could slip in somewhere between political beliefs and favorite movies. So I just had to bite the bullet and put it out there. It was a leap I had to take early on, because it haunted me until I could get it out.
After the “there’s something I need to tell you” conversation, came the waiting game. For a brief moment, I was in charge – in charge of telling my story, answering questions, setting the facts straight. But when that was over, I had to let go, and let him react. This was where the paranoia set in. Is he going to freak out? Is he going to tell our friends? Is he going to shun me? Only time would tell, and this emotional purgatory was torture.
What I discovered was that most guys took it surprisingly well. After processing it, all but one guy decided that they could deal with it. It was heartbreaking to see this guy walk away after admitting that he couldn’t deal, but I didn’t hold it against him. I wasn’t in his shoes, and it would do no one any good to judge him for his decision.
While having a chronic condition like HIV presents many challenges, it also offers silver linings where you least expect them. These nerve-wracking conversations, for example, were fantastic litmus tests for a relationship. When I just knew that a guy would not be able to handle this kind of information and I was able to make a graceful “it’s not you, it’s me” kind of exit, without wasting too much of our time. On the flip side, when a relationship did pass this test, it was that much stronger, and the feeling of relief is intoxicating.
When I told my now-husband, Paul, seven years ago that I was HIV positive, I knew he was a keeper and that I would never have to have this conversation again. He took it in stride and knew that it was something that we could deal with together. And we’ve been doing that ever since.
What got me through the tough stuff and to my happy ending was the support of my loving family and friends. It also required a very conscious effort to realize that I am not flawed or broken. There is nothing wrong with who I am. I am someone living with a chronic illness. Yes, my life is different, but different works