HIV / Case History: John finds the strength to be positive: Liz Hunt meets a one-time yuppie who lives with the legacy of a San Francisco summer

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The Independent Online
THE HEALTH advice for British gay men worried about Aids in 1984 was simple; don't go to bed with a North American, or anyone who has been there.

For 21-year-old John Harvey (not his real name) who had done exactly that, there was no one to turn to. 'In the United States there was some information about this thing, but here there was nothing, just 'gay plague' scare stories . . . It was frightening because I knew what was likely. I knew something was wrong.'

John, a student, had spent the summer of 1984 in San Francisco. In February 1985 he had an HIV antibody test, which had just become available. It was positive. 'There was no counselling at all then. They said 'you'll probably be dead in three years' and that was it . . . It was my final year at university, I had a career and life ahead of me and I wasn't going to give it up. I was an Eighties child: I wanted it all, the house, the job, the money.' He opted for a life as normal as he could make it, and a decade of being 'body positive' has not changed his view. Now classed as a 'long-term survivor', he remains in good health. He has qualified as an accountant, has long-term goals, contributes to a pension scheme and saves for his old age.

His 'yuppie' aspirations have been tempered and the greed is gone. 'Facing up to the possibility of dying in your thirties is a strange experience . . . It is a cliche, but it puts life in perspective. It is horrible to draw a line through someone's name in your address book. I leave it as long as I can. Some people have had to throw away their address books.'

Having endured the roller-coaster ride of hope and despair of Aids research - of wonder drugs that were not, and unsubstantiated claims that HIV was harmless after all - John is realistic about the future. A cure, he says, is unlikely but better understanding of the immune system and how to protect it from the ravages of the virus will continue to lengthen Aids-free survival. There will be a shift in the public perception of HIV, but it will never lose its stigma, he says. His employer and work colleagues do not know he is HIV positive.

John's greatest dilemma was when and what to tell his parents. They knew he was gay, but it was not until last year he told them he was infected. 'It is hard to tell your parents you will probably die before them. They would carry the burden more heavily than me, but if you don't tell them until you have Aids, they feel betrayed. My mother said 'I thought we'd been lucky and you'd escaped'. They'd considered it, read up about it. They knew what to expect.'

However, that didn't stop false hopes when some newspapers said Aids was a myth and that a dissolute, promiscuous, 'druggie' lifestyle rather than HIV was responsible. 'My mother would send me these articles from the Sunday Times; she would say 'look it is going to be OK, you don't live like this'. I am bitter about that.'

Weeks go by when John Harvey does not think or talk about HIV and he insists the diagnosis casts no long shadow on his life. What he hates most is the uncertainty. 'That is the hardest to cope with . . . Sometimes I'll wish I'd get ill and know it's all over. I hate the disease and what it does, the loss of dignity. Then the feeling passes and I put up with the uncertainty.'

Body Positive can be contacted on 071 373 9124.

(Photograph omitted)