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Facing a lifetime with HIV - pt1

Mon 31 Oct 2011 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

What's it like to contract HIV when you're barely out of your teens and just coming to terms with life? Kris is now 25, and this is his story. Some identifying details have been changed to protect his identity for reasons which will become apparent. Like so many of our young gay men Kris has migrated from his rural roots to the city lights. “I'm the youngest of two boys and I was brought up in a small town south of Auckland,” he says, describing an almost idylic childhood. “School holidays I spent on a family farm... I would go to school, go to the beach. I played soccer and I loved it". He was a sociable kid. “I had my group of friends and stuck to that. In my teens I'd hang around with my mates, go round their places for a few drinks, go to random parties you heard about through someone who knew someone else, that kind of thing. Sometimes we'd jump in a car and go somewhere, standard small town stuff. I had school friends, mostly boys as I went to an all boys school, and a group of close family friends as well.” Kris enjoyed high school where he studied “art graphics, chemistry, biology, computing.” Friends, of either sex, were just friends. “I was never into having a partner or anything, I was more into hanging with my friends. The odd one of us had the big relationship things and they are the ones who are married now.” In his early teens he started to realise his passion might not be for girls. “You go through the lying, to other people but mainly to yourself. You never say it out loud. Probably at about fourteen it was: 'I want to look like that guy,' like with the muscles and the abs and whatever else. And then it was like: 'Oh... no, maybe I'm bi...' You go through the bi stage. And then about sixteen it was: “No way am I bi.” Did Kris have crushes on guys at school? “Yes.” Did he follow through on them? “No. No way would I ever have done that at school. At an all boys school and in a small town? No. But I had a small group of very good friends and I told some of them when I was about fifteen or sixteen but I knew it would stay between us." "Every single one of them" was ok with his sexuality. Kris didn't come out to his family until he had “my first proper boyfriend, when I was about eighteen.” It helped that he had become a little independent and was now living away from the family home. “But I was still living in the region. I'd started a job in the health field where I could get formal qualifications while I worked there and I'm still in that field even now. As soon as I got that job I moved out from home as soon as possible. I moved in with one of my workmates." How did the family take his coming out to them? “Ahhh... " He pauses, deep in thought before answering. "I had no real problems, but they are 'don't talk about it' kind of people. I mean, Mum's fine with it but my brother never mentions it to me or asks any questions. It's a non-subject... which works for me.” His boyfriend worked in Auckland "so I'd go up there every weekend.” The relationship lasted nine months and the pair had safe sex, at least at the start. “We both went and got tested and it came back ok. Then sometimes we would use condoms and sometimes we wouldn't. But at the start we always used them.” However, regular weekends in Auckland weren't enough to satisfy Kris's wanderlust. “I went overseas to do my OE. I'd been saving up for that for years... even when I was younger and had a paper run I was saving up to travel. It was something I was always going to do and my partner didn't want to travel... but I knew it was something I could not negotiate. I had to do it.” Although ending the relationship to head to the other side of the world was difficult it launched Kris into “the best time of my life and the time when I learned the most about myself.” Following a pattern familiar to generations of kiwis he flew to England “and went straight into bar work with the idea of getting into my usual work... but I fell in love with the bar job” and with the buzz of one of England's largest cities. “It was a great way to meet other people and I built up this amazing group of friends over there.” By now Kris was twenty and he soon fitted in very well. “When I arrived there I was still quite reserved because I still hadn't lived in a big city or anything. I worked in a gay bar... in New Zealand I hadn't had one gay mate, there I didn't have one straight mate. It was a completely different environment for me, I learned ridiculous amounts about myself. If I compare me when I was here in New Zealand to me over there it was a massive difference.” He learned independence and how to push back the limits to having a good time. “I learned that I can just rock up anywhere by myself and just get in there. When I look back on it I was just shy and pathetic before... I honestly cringe. I built up heaps of self-confidence going from a small town to a massive city then travelling out over Europe, generally by myself and not speaking a word of whatever language they were speaking... and I still managed to get around. It was a very steep learning curve but street smarts started to kick in." Kris avoided getting into anything resembling a close relationship on his travels. “You know how it is with your first boyfriend, you've always got a soft spot for them and I had left him to go and do my own thing and I knew that at the end of my two years working holiday visa I had to leave England so I didn't want to leave another partner at the airport... that hadn't been nice for either of us.” He was young, slim, fit, attractive, a little exotic to the Poms, and definitely on the pub and club scene. So Kris found it easy to find sexual partners. Again that question: was he having safe sex? “Yes.” Always? “Yes, that I remember.... Over here in New Zealand I'd done the odd drugs, like once every six months on a special occasion. But working there in a bar I was always off my twat on something because they are cheap as chips and you want to catch up with your mates who have been out all night... so I was probably off my face four or five times a week. At that time I was into getting off my face and having a really, really good time with these new friends. I mean, when I first got there I had sex with a few guys and then for nine months nothing and after that it was just now and then." As his two year visa neared its expiry date Kris prepared to return to New Zealand. “Before I left I went to Italy by myself, toured around, and in Florence got completely written off. One night I just walked out by myself thinking I'd just have a look around. I went to a bar, met a couple of people and then we were doing lines and lines and lines of coke and then I went home with one of them and did more and it just happened... and it was unsafe. Walking out of that place at about ten in the morning I was even wiping a bit of blood from my nose... it was a very messy night.” Kris put it out of his mind. “I didn't think anything of it and carried on with my trip." With his OE almost at an end he headed back to England. A week later he got sick. “Couldn't stand, couldn't walk, dizzy... my friends took me to hospital and they did checks for three days and said they couldn't find anything wrong with me. But finally I had to be on a flight home next morning so I discharged myself." The hospital staff tried to convince him to stay for more tests, “but I was like: 'No I can't.'” “I got to the airport check-in and I looked sick... pasty white. They said: 'We'll get a medic to come and check you' and I said: 'No, I'll be ok' and started trying to walk with my bag and they said: 'No, you're not getting on this flight.' They re-issued my ticket for a couple of weeks later so I went back to town and carried on my life there for a couple of weeks. l got better, had a few nights out with my friends and came back to New Zealand." Kris's arrival at the family home was “a massive comedown... no job, living at home for the first time in four or five years, all my friends had moved away. And now I had become a completely different person. Over there my mates had been everything to me... my friends, my family, my workmates, everything all rolled into one. And I came back to nothing. Not even any money because I'd spent every last cent over there.” As low as he was feeling, there was worse to come. Kris was about to receive a crushing blow which would send his world into an emotional nosedive. In part two of Kris's story, later this week, he tells us how he coped with the changes which were to alter his life forever. On December 1st New Zealand will mark the annual World AIDS Day to focus attention on this disease which afflicts the gay community, and to raise funds to assist those living with the debilitating and incurable virus. Jay Bennie - 31st October 2011

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Monday, 31st October 2011 - 1:59pm

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