‘I forgive the man who lied and gave me HIV’

A chance meeting online made Matthew Withers realize that the man who gave him HIV knew it all along.

I got HIV from a man who lied to me about his HIV status, and I forgive him completely.

I was 19 in late 2003 and while studying in Perth I came in contact with a handsome man on a dating website. After talking for a day or so, we agreed to meet at my place.

Things were moving forward. Unprepared and inexperienced, I had no condoms at my disposal. Since I’d rarely had unprotected sex before, I boldly asked him, “Have you? hiv

He assured me he was negative, and I believed him. We then had sex without condoms† it was a great night of intimacy and connection, things we both craved.

In February I went with a friend to an HIV clinic. My last test was six months earlier and apart from a severe flu in late 2003, I felt invincible. Anyway, I agreed to a new test of moral support.

A week later we returned to the clinic and after my friend received his negative diagnosis, I entered the doctor’s office. I knew I was in trouble. My doctor told me my test showed a positive HIV result† I was 20.

I remember very little of the hour that followed, other than crumbling under the memory of the “Grim Reaper” AIDS campaign and the thought that I would be dead before I was thirty.

A few months passed, and desperate to connect, I discovered an HIV-friendly dating website and started chatting with a man from Perth. After I shared our photos, I recognized him instantly – this was the man I’d had sex with the year before.

It soon became clear that he didn’t remember me at all. Then the chronology of last year’s events became clear: my negative HIV test, the date we met, the strange flu, and the subsequent positive HIV test.

Understanding how I contracted HIV had never interested me. Still, I asked a few questions about his sexual interests and views on condom use† He told me he preferred “bareback” without condoms. After a deep sigh, I casually asked if he was “poz”. He answered. “Yes, for 15 years. You?”

It is not certain that I can deduce that this was the man from whom I contracted HIV. Given the sequence of events, the risk we assumed, the onset of my potential seroconversion illness (flu), and his subsequent recognition of his positive status, it is highly probable.

But this isn’t why I’m telling my story. I tell my story because I’ve learned that things change, with some transformations beyond our wildest dreams.

As a teenager I believed that my parents were infallible people who didn’t want me. During high school, I felt like there would never be an end to the relentless bullying.

After the diagnosis, I thought that people with HIV would never find love and would all die young, and I couldn’t believe that the memory of my HIV diagnosis would arouse anything but fear and anger.

All these projections and hypotheses hold no weight or truth today.

A year later I met the man who gave me HIV. In a cafe in Balmain, he transformed from a man who gave me HIV to a person completely consumed by pain, fear and shame. At that moment I recognized the power of vulnerability. Rather than harbor a grudge for his actions or hope for eventualities I couldn’t change, I chose empathy and compassion. It has served me well.

I now recognize, at 39, that my hurdles were considerable, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. But I’m not hoping to have a better past. I am incredibly proud of the man I am today and love myself in a way I never knew was possible – another existential shift. These experiences form the fabric of my steadfastness and character.

Forgiving him does not approve of his actions. For me it’s about accepting our reality in that moment. A diagnosis of HIV is now something not to be afraid of. A diagnosis 20 years ago was a very different story. However, a diagnosis in the 1980s was more often than not a death sentence.

What I went through was tough, but I cannot comprehend the lonely and fearful experiences of those diagnosed before me. This realization has paved my trajectory of forgiveness, and after 20 years I feel no resentment, anger, or guilt that I ever thought would consume me forever.

I tell my story in an episode of Insight on SBS about holding a grudge, where I talk about this path to forgiveness and letting go of the past.

People with HIV are not to be feared. We are all worthy of love, connection and kindness. I believe stepping into the shoes of those who came before us is a journey worth taking.

If I saw him tomorrow, I would ask him one question: “Are you okay?”

Hear more of Matthew’s story in Insight’s episode on “Holding a Grudge,” streaming from Tuesday, May 17, 8:30 p.m. SBS on request

If you want to know more about HIV and U+U, go to endHIV.org.au

Originally published as ‘I forgive the man who lied and gave me HIV’

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