I tested positive for HIV in January 1991. I was 26 years old and had been living in New York for over two years. Someone I had slept with a few times called me and told me he was positive. We had not practised safe sex. I did not have the money for private medicine and so had go to a public health centre, which in New York is exclusively for the poor. Facilities are basic and the service rudimentary. Staff are suspicious, bored and defensive. They don’t use your name, so when the nurse came over to me personally and gently asked me to see the doctor I knew what to expect. He asked if I understood what HIV positive meant and that was it. The next few months were a blur. At that time being HIV+ meant you were about to get AIDS and then die. The ravages of this disease were all too evident on the streets of New York; men in their thirties weighing seven stone, and looking as if they were sixty, were a regular sight in the West Village, and now this was going to be me. In my brief stay in this city I had already met people who had died. It is so odd to be confronted with mortality when you feel your life has only just begun. I struggled to contemplate the implications of my new health status and after a few months of stumbling through life I left New York. I had yet to speak to anyone professional about my illness.
It was April 1992 when I first sat in my therapist’s office. Fifteen months of struggling with denial, fear, sorrow and grief in an increasingly isolated and lonely world had left me depressed and lacking any self-esteem. Superficially strong and having relocated to London, I was having increasing difficulty suppressing the huge emotional turmoil within me. My doctor suggested that I see a counsellor.
The woman who assessed me took me on as her patient. I didn’t choose her, but it was essential for me to have a female counsellor. As a gay man I have always had difficulty relating to heterosexual men, particularly emotionally. I have always regarded them as threatening and difficult to communicate with and therefore feel alienated from them. I see no common ground. I have never had a close relationship with any straight man and indeed I avoid them. Obviously, I know and like many straight men, but I am always aware of an underlying tension, however subtle. I think this is based on the fact that I perceive all relationships with men from a sexual perspective, be they straight or gay. I would never allow myself to find a straight man sexually attractive i.e. to experience “unrequited Love”. Consequently I felt very strongly about the gender of my counsellor. I would have felt in a supine position with a straight man and believed that he would not have understood my emotions. I would certainly have found it difficult to express or show my emotions to him. In contrast I perceive women to be emotional, perceptive, caring and tender; qualities I do not associate with men.
A gay male counsellor was something I also wanted to avoid as I felt that there would be a sexual attraction, either mutual or one sided. This again exposed my belief that all male relationships are sexually based and hence my barren emotional relationships with straight men. I felt a gay male would be too close and subjective and again there would have been an element of not wishing to be emotional with him.
I formed a very close bond with my counsellor. I trusted her. She was calm, assured and professional yet I also felt that she really got to know me and who I really was. I also believe that she became very fond of me. I confided in her and told her feelings that I have expressed to no one else. She felt like an incredibly close friend, someone I admired and looked up to. I have huge respect for her. She was warm and friendly and yet reserved and controlled. Through her I was able to express deep-rooted feelings of great anger and sorrow, something I had never been able to do before. I spent many sessions constantly crying and often broke down completely. She would always wait patiently for me to recover, handing me tissues but never touching me or even comforting me, just encouraging me to release these terribly suppressed emotions. Because she was a woman I immediately felt at ease. Her manner and her appearance reinforced this feeling. It mattered to me how she looked – her clothes, jewellery, hairstyle and ever her voice. All this was part of my relationship with her. I will always remember her soft New Zealand accent. She was feminine, funny, intelligent and articulate. This was important to me. I remember I sent her a postcard from San Francisco. It was a 1930s photograph of three Japanese women in traditional costume posing as the three monkeys Speak, Hear and See No Evil. I thought it was vaguely relevant, in a funny sort of a way. She put it on her desk and that became such an important thing to me. I checked for it every time I went to see her and it was always there. I supposed I needed to feel that I mattered to her. I could never have done this with a man. Part of the reason the relationship worked was because I genuinely felt that she believed in me and had such faith in and hope for me, much more than I ever had for myself.
From the onset she set up a very warm and nurturing environment. She was always prepared, happy to see me and interested in what I had to say. She always remembered everything I had said, or appeared to do so. This made me feel important and relevant. I remember once when I arrived she appeared to have been crying and I felt protective of her and wanted to help her. I had a very strong emotional response to the idea of her being upset.
I don’t think I could have achieved the level of trust and thus set up my safe haven if my therapist had been a man. I don’t think she became a maternal figure for me, but because she was a woman I really felt I could trust her.
When I first started therapy I was very withheld emotionally. I felt it was wrong to be angry or sad. I became able to express these feelings and accept the sorrow in my life. I learnt how to deal with my illness, to talk about it and accept the reality of my situation.
I saw my therapist for about three years on a weekly basis and then, at her suggestion, intermittently for another two. When I first went to her I was confused and lost, full of sadness and unable to see a place for myself in this world. I had lost hope and was terrified at the prospect of a virus destroying my body. She brought about a great change in me and helped to find a strength within me that I never knew I had. Initially I so needed her and our sessions were exhausting and upsetting, but slowly over the years this changed and at the end I felt a different person. Eventually she left to do post graduate work. It was very difficult for me to accept that I would never see her again. The last time I saw her it was very upsetting – it was like losing my best friend. I couldn’t believe that she would not be there for me anymore. It was so strange. I know it was an “unreal” relationship. I knew nothing of her life, her hopes, fears and aspirations. I never saw her elated or depressed, excited or bored. She always supported me, believed in me and asked for nothing from me. Essentially I knew nothing about her and yet I felt such a strong bond. I miss her terribly and consider her to be one of the most important people that have been part of my life.