Benn: “Pick yourself up and take it in your stride”

Tell us about a bit about yourself Benn, where are you based? What do you do?

I’m currently based in Salford and I’m working in fashion retail.

I moved to Manchester 5 years ago and loved it and decided to stick around!

How are you finding Manchester at the moment?

It’s so difficult when you leave uni and start working full time and you realise that life is actually pretty boring day to day! I’m currently looking to expand my social circle and try and get more out of living here and changing my headspace.

HIV stigma aside, what issues in general do you think we face within the LGBT community?

I think there’s too much internal hate in the community, everyone is always preaching about how much LGBT people are the victims of hate, when actually the bulk of it comes from each other. Hurling insults, judging people they don’t know, slut-shaming. I think we can be a law unto ourselves to be honest. We should be sticking up for one another and keep fighting for our rights, not bitching and trying to one up each other. A lot of LGBT people take the rights we have today for granted, especially the younger generation and don’t realise the struggles people went through years ago in order for us to live our lives the way we do today.

For LGBT youth, especially those who are considered as vulnerable, do you have any worries or concerns about these being lead on to a dark path which could ultimately result in drug addiction, mental health problems which could then also tie in with sexual health?

I think that could happen to anyone of any community not just LGBT, if you’re in that place then you’re in that place and I think if you allow it to happen it will anyway regardless of your situation. However, with chemsex being a really major issue in the community today it’s a lot easier for people to get in to situations that they can’t get out of easily, that’s worrying to me, thankfully I haven’t had that experience. I guess I would be worried that it is still being glamourized as something it isn’t and that there isn’t really enough awareness about the dangers physically and mentally other than a few documentaries or testimonials of people who have gotten through it. It’s just so easy to get into a pattern of behaviour and we need to break the cycle.

Prior to this interview we had a conversation about how you experienced seroconversion illness, can you let our readers know how this affected you both physically and mentally?

I remember the night I started to feel ill and I was up working all night for my final ever deadline at uni and I just felt horrendous. Like a really bad flu. I just assumed I was run-down, stressed and just really overwhelmed with finishing my studies. I was working on my projects with my friend and her flatmate and my brain couldn’t function properly I had to keep taking a nap ever hour to try and work my way through it. It lasted for about three weeks, I went to the doctor and she just prescribed me strong anti-biotics, I lost about 2 stone in weight by the end of it. Stupidly, even then I didn’t think it would be anything sinister. I was diagnosed a year later after some other medical issues I had going on when the hospital suggested I should get tested and even then it never ever crossed my mind that I could potentially be HIV Positive.

How did your diagnosis affect your family?

In all honesty, everyone I have told, which isn’t very many people at all, just my parents and my really close friends who I know I can trust, have been the best support system I could have ever asked for, they listened when I needed to talk, or left me alone when I said I didn’t want to. I was always quite wary of how I was handling it at times because I think I only cried once or twice. I just took it in my stride and figured it was what it was and I wasn’t going to let it get to me and I haven’t, I wake up, I take 2 pills on a morning and that’s literally the only time I think about it. Again, luckily for me, there was no horror story behind my diagnosis, just carelessness with not using protection and not getting tested regularly.

Benn and his Mother – Graduating in 2015

Your father in particular, how did he react to the news when you disclosed your status to him?

He was actually really emotional, which was a side to him I very rarely see and it made me look at him and almost re-evaluate the relationship I’ve had with him growing up. He’s always been supportive of my choices, like when I came out etc, both him and my mam have always been there 100% of the way with everything I’ve done really, even when they were angry or disappointed with me.

I’ve heard from several other people living with HIV say that their diagnosis had actually made them become closer to with their parents. Of course each individual is different and everybody has their own story, but would this be the case in your situation?

Absolutely 100%. I didn’t tell them at first and went to my first hospital with one of my oldest friends. I needed that time to process things myself really. I know that really hurt them when they found out that I had gone to my friends for comfort, but it was never ever a reflection on them, I was more worried about bringing this to them and how it would affect them. But I genuinely think it’s made my relationship with my parents and my friends a lot stronger. You realise who’s really fighting your corner when you need them, I would always urge anyone to make sure you have a support system around you and be really aware of who you tell in the beginning. But honestly, I never gave my parents enough credit for how they dealt with it and picked me up and just said they loved me, no matter what and we’ll get through it.

I find it so heart warming and great to hear that you are yet to face any HIV stigma, I’m hoping some of our readers, particularly the newly diagnosed will find some comfort in your story. Can you tell us about your thoughts on others that prefer to not disclose their status due to outdated views surrounding HIV?

I mean I don’t exactly shout it from the rooftops, it’s no one else’s business as far as I’m concerned, but people just need to get educated and I’m certainly not ashamed of myself in any way after being diagnosed and nor should anyone else. A lot of people are just ignorant due to lack of education. Its how you choose to deal with it as a person that will affect you, it’s the demons you create yourself, no one else should ever have an opinion on something like that, especially if it isn’t happening to them. I have to say I felt more at ease going to see my consultant and how relaxed and informal it is. They make me and my parents really comfortable every time we go for my appointments and answer every thing we have to ask honestly.

We ask in every interview if you have any advice for the newly diagnosed? Do you have any wise words to offer to those who may be considered as vulnerable and confused?

Pick yourself up and take it in your stride. Just be you and don’t let it define you! It’s okay to feel shit about it but you can’t let it affect you, especially if you’re facing some form of stigma because of your status. I have to admit I’m still not 100% sure I actually know a lot about HIV in general cause I just haven’t researched it, not out of fear because I just don’t feel I need to! I know what I need to do and I get on with it. Work out what you need in terms of coping and make sure you get it for yourself There’s so much support available and you’re not alone. The main thing I would stress, regardless of what your doctor says, is just to start your medication as soon as possible, you’ll thank yourself when you’re undetectable. Also, it’s not the end of the world – things will get better and you’ll be absolutely fine!

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