Irish gay man opens up about coming to terms with being HIV Positive at 17

In the lead-up to World AIDS Day, Adrian Duggan shares his story about being diagnosed with HIV.

A person holding a HIV red ribbon in their hands.
Image: Pexels

In the lead-up to World AIDS Day on December 1, Irish gay man Adrian Duggan shares his story of becoming HIV Positive at 17-years-old, and how he came to terms with the diagnosis.

When someone hears you’ve been diagnosed with HIV, I find they can often think of you in two ways; someone who’s been promiscuous, who must have slept around or someone who was the victim of some sort of savage purposeful attack.

I wasn’t any more promiscuous than your average 17-year-old. I was exploring my sexuality and relationships – something every teenager does. I wasn’t subject to a heinous assault aimed at giving me HIV either. 

I don’t know why people look at us, people who are HIV Positive, this way, why they try to place us in boxes as victims, or sexual deviants. Is it to find justification, as if we deserve this? Is it to pity us? 

I find even still when I share my status, I get asked questions such as what age was I, how many people was I sleeping with, how many times was the sex unprotected, did I frequent certain venues and what were the ages of the people I was sleeping with? 

If I was a victim, it was one of shame and stigma. 

17-year-old Adrian had his world turned upside down when he heard the HIV diagnosis at first. I was already struggling at school, I had come out as gay two years prior, and my fear more than ever at the time was that because of this, a virus in my blood, I wouldn’t be worthy of love, and that I had essentially written myself off as some sort of exile, that I had f*cked up my future and that I would have to carry this burden around with me forever. 

I felt alone, and I felt like it was my fault, which made things worse. I blamed myself for contracting HIV at 17, and I would keep it a secret.

I kept my status a secret in a way to protect myself from the external shame and stigma but really I found it just internalised it. 

The days after I was diagnosed were filled with multiple appointments in new scary places. I remember my first trip to the GUIDE clinic at St James’ Hospital. I remember sitting in the waiting area and seeing a sign saying ‘biohazard’ on one of the doors and I thought to myself, is that what I am now – a biohazard? 

Then I met my nurse, who was one of the warmest, sweetest women you could ever have met. She guided me into a clinic room, sat me down, and discussed what having HIV meant. She explained to me in simple terms how the treatment was going to work, and how I was going to become undetectable. When she heard I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, she rushed to find me some food from the staffroom. She sat there and held my hand, and told me it wasn’t the end of the world and that she and her team were there to support me every step of the way. 

As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, I did in fact become undetectable, a medical term which means that although I have HIV, it cannot be detected when run through certain tests – the very tests that determine how transmissible you may be. Undetectable means that I cannot transmit HIV to a partner sexually, even without barrier protection such as a condom. This is known as Undetectable = Untransmissible or U=U. 

As the months became years and I became familiar with the GUIDE Clinic, I began to feel more comfortable in myself and my diagnosis. With the help and support of the staff at St James’ Hospital, some good friends who are also HIV Positive, the HIV Ireland charity, my family and an amazing therapist, I began to challenge these thoughts of shame and the stigma behind being HIV Positive. 

I began to realise that holding onto my diagnosis as a secret only let the shame and stigma define me. I can’t ignore it, being HIV Positive is a part of me, it’s a part of what has shaped me into the person I am today and why should I hide that? I don’t owe anyone any explanations or summaries and I can’t change how others view HIV or how they view me now that I have shared my status. I can only help to educate to end the stigma and shame. 

I do however have control over how I view myself. Now at age 20, I can say to myself that I am no less worthy of love, connection and of support because of a virus in my blood.  

I’m in college now. I’m studying to be a nurse and who knows – maybe someday there will be a young, scared 17-year-old sitting in my clinic and I will be the one giving them the reassurance, compassion and support they need, firsthand, to know that being HIV Positive shouldn’t define them and that they are still worthy of all these things too. 

My name is Adrian Duggan, I am 20 years old and I am HIV Positive, undetectable. 

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