My brother and I were running through the warm waves, the baking sun beating down. Carefree, we welcomed every rush of water that caressed our skin.
In these waves, I came across a used condom in a wrapper that had probably been thrown into the sea. I decided to pick it up and throw it far from us so that there would be no hazard to my brother or myself. We carried on playing in our innocence.
But soon, something was very wrong. A sensation that I had never felt in my life before then: I became crazy with this idea that there may have been something infectious in that condom.
I called to my brother, still jumping in the sea, and we ran back to our apartment. I replayed the scenario over and over.
I whispered to my mother’s caring ear, who assured me that I had nothing to fear.
But it wasn’t enough.
Through worry over the next year, I lost 20lbs of weight, unable to eat regularly. Every bodily sign–sore throat, diarrhea, shivers, muscle pain, electrical sensations in the body–was a new symptom of HIV. Every bus seat, toilet, shop, hospital, was a threat. I was always on the lookout for used condoms, used plasters, vomit, urine…
I started washing my hands very thoroughly; I couldn’t touch my “dirty” shoes; I became a “checker” on Google Search every time a new, terrifying situation presented itself.
I looked around me and saw that nobody else was obsessed like I was. Of course, they were perfectly vigilant about HIV, but they weren’t so worried, or imagining novel, terrifying situations.
I had become a “magical thinker,” convinced that HIV might infect me without actually coming into contact with visible bodily fluids. If I saw ketchup on a napkin near me, it had to be blood and I would have to wash my hands incessantly!
I was so far from the “common sense” vigilance that normal people might have. But is it reasonable to think I would go from obsessed to unfazed?
In my recovery, it actually hasn’t turned out that way: alarming situations do concern me and I attempt to apply the appropriate level of vigilance. If I could describe my recovery, it’s more like living life on its own terms, and attempting to do so in a meaningful way. It is not the case that I never experience fear or anxiety–I most certainly do, but… I’ve stopped fearing the fear. I think fear is normal, even healthy in certain situations, but the endless worry I had was the result of wanting to be free from fear all the time.
I first searched all the different ways I could recover: meditation, mindfulness, prayer, therapy, exercise, social groups … anything that would get rid of my horrible, intrusive thoughts.
And yet, the more I progress in recovery (if I can really use that word “progress”…), my way towards recovery has been a via negativa, Latin for “negative path.” By that, I mean that instead of trying to add “good” things into my life, such as physical and psychological relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety, I have found it necessary to undermine all the escape mechanisms that my mind has created in order to avoid coming into contact with that crippling fear. This means that if I were in a situation where my wisest discernment (and that of others around me) told me I may have contracted HIV, I would need to go for a HIV test if that is right thing to do. For someone like me, who has lived with HIV OCD, that is truly terrifying, but that is living life on life’s terms and not on my own.
What this means is that I don’t need to add relaxation to my list of things to do. Indeed, those things above–meditation, mindfulness practice, prayer, social enrichment–are all inherently good things in themselves, but they can become avoidance tactics if they’re not done for their own right, but instead, as a way of running away from life.
What is so easy to overlook with HIV phobia is the fact that peace is actually in my very nature: in every breath I take, in every footstep, in every smile, in every embrace, in every mouthful of food, in every sip of tea.
The mind’s games are plentiful, but understanding them is not so difficult. It is the machine that helps keep us alive: without it, we would have no vigilance, and our ancestors never would have survived their tough environments.
But in spite of the mind’s games, I must live on life’s terms. If life tells me that I’m in danger, I must act appropriately.
Thus, physical action may well be necessary in certain situations. However, psychological action–manipulating how I feel, getting rid of unwanted thoughts–has done nothing but make my life worse as I wrestle with my mind.
In conclusion, my recovery has not involved adding a whole lot to my life, but rather seeing my mind’s games for what they are. I have thus become more willing to feel the fear in situations that evoke it. This willingness to feel fear and not run away from it has paradoxically meant that life has become so much richer. There’s more room for spontaneity and sensitivity; by the quality of attention that I bring to certain situations, even the most ordinary thing can be transformed into beauty.
Here’s a little poem on my HIV-related phobia:
Fear is a lonely wanderer: she wants to be felt, fully. She longs for a warm embrace, like a lonely orphan.
Have you ever looked into the eyes of a lonely child?
They’re full of pain. It’s hard to stay in contact with this poignancy.
But if you can’t, you’ll never be free.
Freedom is not to be found on the other side of fear.
Freedom is right now.
But you have to feel the fear.
Take the lonely child by the hand.
Walk with your head held high, your breath unsteady, your heart bleeding, to a life worth living: responsibly, freely, in line with the facts, not away from them.