Self-awareness really only begins when you can say that you have endured the best and the worse that life can throw at you.
At the age of 20, I became a born-again Christian. I believed, naively, that in addition to forgiving my sins, giving my life over to God meant that nothing bad would ever happen to me again. I guess that was a lesson I needed to learn the hard way and life, as it turned out, dealt me a few more blows. I lost my faith for a few years and fell back into bad habits. Moving to Cape Town in 1997 gave me the opportunity for a fresh start and, along with a new job, new friends and a new environment, I was able to take stock of my situation and, with the help of my brother, I renewed my commitment to God and a better way of living.
For the first time in my life, I was genuinely happy. I threw myself into serving my church and, with my job going really well and supported by a community of close friends, everything seemed great. With renewed confidence, I went from strength to strength and eventually started building my own business. After only a year, I was able to afford my first property and, beyond my wildest imagination, I had met a wonderful woman who shared not only my dreams, but my faith.
As part of a life insurance policy attached to buying my house, I was required to do a blood test. The policy was denied. It was a cold realisation that, with my history, I could be HIV positive.
At the time, I knew very little about the disease and all I could think about was that I had been handed a death sentence. I cried myself to sleep, wishing I could disappear into a hole and never come out. I simply did not want to live anymore. In desperation, I turned to my pastor and spiritual guide, Louis, for help.
Louis made an appointment with the doctor who had done the blood test and came with me to get a confirmation of my results. Without any counselling or advice, the doctor simply spelled out the cold facts to me. I was HIV positive. All I knew was that I was going to die. Soon.
To say the reality was difficult to accept would be an understatement. In retrospect, I was one of the lucky ones, with a support network of friends and family who helped me through the phase of accepting my illness. Despite this, I still felt rejected by society and took my anger and confusion out on God and anybody else who stayed around to listen. ‘Why me’ I raged, ‘why now?’
Although many people prayed for healing, I knew instinctively that this was not the plan for my life. I had some big decisions to make.
The first, and biggest, decision was what to do about my new and wonderful relationship. Kristin was a 21-year-old student with her whole life ahead of her. To me, she was an angel sent from heaven and breaking up with her was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. So hard, in fact, that I sent somebody else to tell her what was going on in my life. I was in such an emotional turmoil that I didn’t trust myself to even finish a sentence
I believe that my acceptance and recovery began the next day when Kristin told me that she was prepared to stick with me. Although we did not have enough knowledge to make an informed decision about our relationship, it was an enormous comfort that she recognised the person I was, in spite of my disease.
I still had a long way to go though … and a lot of angry questions directed at God. Along with some pastors from my church, I went on a trip to Zambia – a trip that was to be a turning point for me and accepting that only I could decide how I was going to live the rest of my life. (Not that I came to the realisation easily, I have to confess I had to ask for a lot of forgiveness!). It was a pastor in Zambia who made me realise the tough truth that if I was going to die anyway, I might as well die with a purpose.
I believe that the Lord spoke to me and, like clear music in my head, led me to the scripture that has become the motto for my life: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offence. And whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame” (Romans 9:33).
I just knew that I would never have to be ashamed again. This was the breakthrough I needed. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt I could live again. I went back to my church and shared from the pulpit my life story and that I was HIV positive. All of a sudden, things got easier. I got involved with other HIV organisations and shared my story. The more I spoke about HIV and learned about it, the easier it became. Knowledge, to me, was power.
During this time, my bond with Kristin grew deeper and stronger and eventually I summoned up the courage to ask her father for permission to marry his daughter. He spent 5 hours explaining to me why he could not give us his blessing. Kristin and I went for pre-marriage counseling with our pastor and his wife and threw ourselves into researching the disease. After 2 and a half years – and many hours of counseling and advice (both friendly and hostile) – we made the decision to marry. I can’t say it was all smooth sailing, but since our marriage we have a supportive and loving relationship with our parents. We have now been married for 5 years and the experiences of our lives together have brought us closer than we could have imagined. We have learned to adjust our lifestyle to ensure a long and healthy life, filled with purpose and faith. Thanks to the grace of God and advances in medicine, our beautiful son Niel Alexander was born this year. My wife and son are HIV negative.
Over the years, I have been through good times and bad, swung from severe depression to extreme joy and, through it all, I can say that without the people in my life, I would never have succeeded. I have my own business, which comes with its own stresses and life lessons, but I continue to learn and thrive.
Life, I believe, wouldn’t be so good without the bad to give it meaning.