Avoiding intimacy can be the easy way out. We tell ourselves we're too busy or we need to be strong and independent because it's hard to take a chance on someone. Everyone's been burnt before. The question is whether you shut down or open your heart even more.
While I enjoy my independence, sharing time with someone appeals to me as well, especially when I see others reaping the rewards of partnership. Living with a chronic illness has complicated things. Being diagnosed HIV positive shut me down completely for a long time. My self esteem took a battering, particularly with regards to sexuality. It felt impossible to go out there and find intimacy with the added burden of the virus. The fear of rejection was overwhelming. For the first few years, I could barely say the words without sobbing uncontrollably. The reactions I got were far from encouraging, so I crawled into a shell.
I had found intimacy pretty tough going even before HIV. I spent most of my youth shut down with drugs and alcohol and found it very difficult to connect with anyone, let alone dive into a relationship. I rarely sought out companions and certainly never made the effort to follow anything up. I was too afraid of rejection, being hurt or abandoned. I was cynical about relationships and thought they were all based on co-dependence or physical gratification. The notion of healthy sex and intimacy was completely foreign to me.
If I did attract a partner it was always someone highly dysfunctional who only served to destabilise me further and reinforce my tainted view of human relations. I had no idea that my beliefs were creating my reality back then. I expected abuse and that's what I got. I expected things to go wrong and they did. Most of the time I thought I deserved it; there was something wrong with me that couldn't be fixed.
Drugs and alcohol were always a part of these encounters. I wasn't able to communicate, let alone be intimate with anyone. I was too afraid of what they thought of my looks, my lack of confidence, what I did for a living. I was too afraid to be myself. So I kept it short and sweet. As soon as things got too close for comfort, I was out of there. I wasn't interested in anyone nurturing or kind. I didn't trust them and I'd sabotage their efforts. I was drawn to those who were emotionally distant, unable to commit. I acted as though I valued my own space too much to consider a relationship, yet I was incapable, afraid.
I didn't have a healthy attitude towards sex either. It felt awkward unless I was intoxicated. I was self conscious about my body and my performance. The whole thing made me cringe. I only saw the physical dimensions and never understood it was something that could bring you closer to someone, something that could nourish and heal you. Sexual encounters left me feeling empty, as though something was lost that couldn't be replaced.
The diagnosis made it harder to overcome this. The guilt and shame around sex was hugely magnified, probably the cruellest aspect of living with the virus. For a long time, HIV was all I thought about; it consumed my identity. I could no longer use drugs and alcohol because I had to care for my immune system. So I tried to face the world clean and sober, but it was hard to break out of my shell - the fear and anxiety were paralysing.
I wasn't prepared for the stigma associated with the virus. I heard people say we were "dangerous", "irresponsible", "we deserved it". Comments like these reinforced the sense that I wasn't worthy of sex or intimacy. I felt contaminated, unlovable. The fear of infecting anyone outweighed the desire to get close.
I lived for several years with no intimacy at all, too afraid of the consequences. Once in a while I'd break out and find comfort in the arms of a stranger, only to run a mile before they asked too many questions. I stopped thinking about sex and relationships. I stopped flirting, I looked away if anyone caught my eye. I was still in my twenties, but my body felt so foreign to me.
Sometimes I went for a massage to remember what it was like to be touched, but most of the time I just learned to live without it. I shut down that part of myself and pretended that I didn't need it, or I threw myself into spiritual practice to "rise above it". I didn't realise how much it affected me; I was lonely, frustrated, depressed. I saw people in relationships all around me, kissing and holding hands in the street. I thought it wasn't possible for me.
Ten years after the diagnosis I started putting myself out there again. A bout of serious illness made me realise that life was too short to live this way. HIV certainly makes you aware of your mortality. When I recovered, I started going on dates. Some were disasters, but I had fun as well. My feelings did get hurt and it felt ridiculous at times, but at least I was breaking down the barriers. I wasn't the only one who found it tough; everyone I met felt awkward to some degree. I gained a little more confidence each time until the fear dissolved and I felt like part of the world again.
True intimacy is something I always wanted to experience. Now in my thirties, it was way overdue. I wanted the kind of intimacy that makes you feel nourished, alive; where you trust someone completely and you can open up and be vulnerable; something beyond the physical. I wanted to meet someone who'd care for me, even though I was HIV positive. I told the universe I wanted to go on a journey with someone, to learn from each other and encourage each other; the kind of intimacy that inspires growth and respect. It took a long time, but the universe heeded my call.
Perhaps it took HIV to bring me to this point, a point where I believed I was worthy of another person's affection. I had to put the fears and doubts aside and trust the universe to guide me to the right person at the right time, when I was able to open up without fear. I had to wait till I could face the demons a close relationship would bring without denying it or running away.
I promised the universe I'd accept whatever came my way and see it as a learning experience, something to be cherished no matter what. I'd spent a long time wondering why I never met anyone, why the universe left me high and dry. Now I can see that I wasn't ready. I couldn't cope with something "real". I would've sabotaged it anyway.
Now the time has come, I'm trying with all my heart to engage with this relationship consciously and sensitively. I'm trying to be as open and honest as possible. It is nourishing and healing and provides a whole new dimension to my world. It's something I'm grateful for, something I wish sincerely for others. We've all experienced loneliness. It's endemic in our society. Even though we live in close proximity, people are more lonely than ever.
I've had plenty of wonderful moments in this relationship, but it comes with its challenges too. It brings emotions and beliefs to the surface that are uncomfortable, but something I'm ready to contend with. It's strange new territory and I'm taking it slowly, with my feet firmly on the ground. I don't know where it's going, but I'm trying to embrace it without fear or expectations. It's a journey I chose and a risk I'm willing to take.