“I found out I was HIV positive on May 20th, 2006. I was the 20th person in the clinic, on the 20th of May, and I was 20 years old, so I swore I was lucky, then.”
Justin Toro is an incredible man, one who has spent the past decade using his life story to connect with young people across the U.S. to help them develop a sense of comfort and self-compassion with themselves and their diagnosis.
“I received a phone call from Partner Notifications, saying that someone I came in contact with was HIV positive. When I got that call, I immediately went over to find out; I went and got the test. And, 20 minutes later, I found out that I was positive.
“I was feeling happy, sad… I wanted to cry, I wanted to laugh.. I was angry…I was…every stream of emotion I could feel at that moment hit me at that one single moment when you hear somebody say, ‘I’m sorry, but you have HIV.'”
“It wasn’t until two days later, when I really had time to think about it, that it really sunk in and could say “Okay, this is what happened. Now you know. What’s your next step? What do you do next? Do you just put it in the back of your mind and forget about it, or do you live life like it was May 19th vs May 20th?”
Justin spends a lot of time talking about the good days and the bad days… like one day in particular: the day he realized his mother knew about his diagnosis.
“My mother is the only one who knows in my family. She actually found out in a hospital setting. I had become very ill, and the nurse walked in and said, ‘So, Mr. Toro, how long have you been HIV positive,’ and because I was so sick, I was just like, ‘two and a half years,’ and just went back to sleep and didn’t really realize that – oh my god – my mother was sitting in the room with me, and now she knows!”
“She came out and said, ‘I’ve always known.’ She’s like, ‘I knew. I saw your results in your sock drawer.’ She knew that I wasn’t ready to tell her, and I wasn’t ready to talk to her about it, and that’s always been the way I am – and the relationship that I have with my mother is, until I’m ready to talk about something, or she’s ready to talk about something, we’re just not gonna talk about it.”
Justin admits that the experience of learning his status was enough of an emotional roller coaster on its own even without having to tell his mom, saying, “I was feeling happy, sad; I wanted to cry, I wanted to laugh. I was angry–I was every stream of emotion I could feel at that moment hit me at that one single moment when you hear somebody say, ‘I’m sorry, but you have HIV.'”
Justin turned his diagnosis into advocacy– with, of course, a little praise from Mom.
“Before doing this, I felt like I had to call her and tell her what was going on. I was so excited to do something like this, and when I called her, she was just like, ‘I am so proud of you!'”
He has set out to help inform his peers and members of his community to help change some of the stigmas of HIV and those who live with it.
“‘I might get HIV because you kissed me! Or because we’re holding hands and you have a cut on your hand! I might get HIV!’ These are myths and stigmas that people are walking around with and, until they get the proper education and the proper info, it’s just going to continuously stigmatize everyone.”
“I’m able to use my life and my story to [connect to] young people so that they may not have to go through the same experience that I went through and, if they ARE going through [that], then give them that little shining hope that, you know, we’re gonna have bad days, we’re gonna have good days, but the good days will start outweighing the bad days, and it will start becoming a part of normal life.”
Justin shares his story of his diagnosis on the website Poz, which discusses the realities of life with HIV, where he made it clear that his HIV diagnosis changed his life… but not in the way one might expect.
“I began learning as much about the virus as I could, and soon found myself passing along the information to my friends and peers. This led me to wanting to work with other young people who were living with HIV as well as educating those who were HIV negative on how to remain negative.
“Seven years later, I am at an agency that I love, doing the work I feel I was born to do. […] Meeting different people from around the world and partnering with agencies like the CDC to do the “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign has been a highlight of the past seven years. Even though I have HIV, HIV does not have me!”
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Get informed – get the stats on HIV, and learn more about getting tested.
I love you enough to tell you to get tested. So go. Get tested. And know that you, too, can live a full life with your diagnosis… but knowing is the most important – and most valuable – part.
A Day with HIV is presented by POSITIVELY AWARE, the most widely-read HIV treatment journal in the U.S. published by a non-profit AIDS service organization, Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), in Chicago. This year, in an effort to extend its A Day with HIV virtual photo sharing initiative, POSITIVELY AWARE is working in partnership with Let’s Stop HIV Together, an HIV awareness and anti-stigma effort of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This post is made possible by Let’s Stop HIV Together. All opinions here are my own and not those of the company.