What follows is my own account of largely irrational sexual health based-anxiety, the common story of a young gay guy with little information, smeared in current stigmas.
The origin of my health anxiety is a broth of growing up in a small town with a worrisome Sexual Health Nurse mother, some previously sheltered ideas of what a gay man is and does (and why I wasn’t “that”), and mild Aspergers which pops out in full force during what I would call socially stressful “life events”. Moving to London was the premiere season of my sexual terror-athon. I had a few sexual experiences during my mid-teen period, but arriving in London was like being introduced to the concept of an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Central Saint Martins being the buffet table I was seated at, tripping over brightly-haired boys on your way up for sloppy seconds.
After a few different lighthearted encounters, I got with someone who later told me that the week before our night of fellating, he had woken up to a guy who’d smothered him in Valium and barebacking him post-Henry Holland LFW party in some random flat in Hoxton. Every part of that story made me want to blow chunks. So that afternoon, I was in the clinic having every test you could imagine. I hadn’t yet understood that blood tests didn’t take a few mere hours - but 3 months to give an accurate reading for a virus, and that giving someone head rarely led to anything more than a seen-but-not-replied-to-iMessage.
As time went on, every sexual occasion had me sweating in the clinic the next day or wretching over a toilet when the boy had fallen asleep, determined to heave up any last morsel of “dark matter” that he’d left in me. It took an HIV doctor to tell me to “get a grip” and months of counseling to disconnect sex and death in my head. Only to realize after all that time, I had been fuelling my fears about my health with university stress that I was unwilling to process (how could I allow myself to get fearful about whether I was taking good photos of models in borrowed designer clothes?).
The discovery of this with the aid of just a few sessions from my university counselor was invaluable. Something I highly recommend looking into while you have the university’s resources at your disposal. Having learnt all of this, I managed to separate sex and death so well that every time I would get drunk and pull, condoms wouldn’t even come into the equation, a total 180° from my previous bout of post-BJ vomiting.
This chain of events resulted in me being put on PEP (Post Exposure Prohylaxis) a total of three times, each a month long period of antiretrovirals that essentially made me lose loads of weight and want to shit myself on a daily basis to stop the HIV virus from cementing itself in my system, had it even reared its head in the first place. The last time I took it was induced by having unprotected sex with the guy, a bodybuilder from Earls Court in his en-suite and afterwards seeing all his HIV medication lined up next to the bath. I didn’t understand why he hadn’t told me at the time that he was “undetectable” (the virus is so contained in your system by meds that it’s impossible to pass on).
Nevertheless, the experience scarred me for life, finally giving me the slap I needed just to look after myself and use a condom. I had not grasped HIV positive etiquette at the time, so didn’t realize I didn’t actually have any right to know his status because he was actually looking after himself. Having gone through all of this, I no longer have an irrational fear of AIDS. I realize how offensive it must have been to anyone HIV-positive for me to be so fearful of it, as it’s now been reduced to a chronic illness and isn’t something we should all be contemplating suicide over.
Not hugely desirable, but by no means the death sentence it was in the late 80’s and into the 90’s. I wish my health hadn’t been the one outlet my fried Asperger brain had decided to battle out all my anxieties in, but knowing how your own mind works is an incredible tool to harness. My fears are now evenly spread out to the rest of my life. I’m still trying to grasp things like not caring about social media, trying to stick to my own personal deadlines (this little piece took me about a month of umming-and-ahhing), and that good old standby, “not caring what people think”. Personal resentment towards the way things pan out always get me clawing at the wall, London teaching me to just what extent your talent doesn’t mean anything without a solid work ethic or friends in higher places. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Big Boys Don't Cry, 2017 by Evie O'Connor
Tips and tricks for when you’re at your worst!
1. Have something to look forward to.
e.g. the new episode of Peaky Blinders, a weekend of visiting your friends abroad, a stunningly mediocre date with guaranteed 6/10 rated oral as the grand finale. They all count.
2. Having projects on the go.
When you’ve got essays to write, interviews to transcribe or shoots that need planning, everything else is easier. The pace of having so much to do (whilst also not minding being busy) is amazing.
3. Know what suits your own body/mind.
Don’t ask me to drink gin in excess or take speed/MDMA. It just won’t end well.
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Being a tiny bit late for work, people not Whatsapping you back after the ticks turn baby blue etc. Laugh it off, it’s all part of “Life’s great plan”. NSU is like the class C drug of STI’s, Chlamydia moving slightly more up the scale (a health advisor told me it’s like catching a cold for gay men), HPV a bit of a nightmare but normalized by Lena Dunham’s frankness of having a strain or two of the virus. Thanks hun.
5. Avoid interacting with people who are too caught up in building their own personal brand. You end up becoming a prop in the concept they believe to be their social life.
6. Myers-Briggs personality test
I’m sure a lot of people don’t feel the need to have a Divergent series-esque cordoning off of their personalities but for me, taking the in-depth test and reading my INFJ profile was like someone massaging my back-catalogue of worries and telling me “this is why you do this” was beyond therapeutic.
7. Oprah’s Masterclass episodes
I went through a phase of going balls-deep obsessed at my parent’s place. The Billy Bob Thornton one was amazing, as was Cindy Crawford, but the Whoopi Goldberg one taught me a lot. Whoopi says “The price of being yourself is other people’s angst towards you for you being yourself”. In my case it’s been apathy rather than angst, but feel the fear and do it anyway.
8. Visit a graveyard.
It’s the most grounding thing you can do.