A Tail of Two Kitties: How HIV Woke Me Up to LIVE

By CJ Stobinski
Contributing Editor

CJ_with_Cleo_&_FieldsApril 9, 2016—This morning I awoke to seven inches of snow covering my car and, for that matter, everything else in sight. Even in Toledo, where all four seasons can be experienced in a day, one hardly expects to encounter this much snow so far into the year. “Pretty,” I heard it described perfectly, “but uncalled for.”

I managed to clean my car off well enough to rush to the yoga studio I’ve frequented for the past two and a half months just in time for class. A co-owner of the studio was teaching class today, and she asked us to ruminate on how nature, and life, can bring the unexpected our way, but can still result in something absolutely breathtakingly beautiful if we embrace it.

After a particularly enjoyable class, I went about my day trying to keep this sentiment close to heart. An exasperatingly stressful serving shift later that night found me repeating, “Keep with the breath, it’ll be ok,” as I attempted to remain calm when all I wanted to do was scream and freak out. Nothing seemed to be going my way, until I spotted my yoga teacher standing at the host stand, requesting me as a server. In that moment I knew it was finally time to write this.

Today was the 30th birthday, or would have been, of a friend who was the victim of a wrong way drunk driving accident on I-75 early Christmas morning a few years back. He was supposed to be hosting his first Christmas, his favorite holiday, but instead left this world tragically in an instant.

I only knew him from four months of working together, and I don’t even have a picture with him, but he was extremely kind to me when he could have easily been as nasty to me as I was to him when first getting to know him. He was that amazing person you know who makes you work for their friendship, but once you’ve earned it you realize just how worthwhile it was breaking through the hard outer shell to get to the gooey inside. After calling him an asshole in the middle of the restaurant, he could easily have turned the entire staff against me, but instead reached out to me and lent a hand of kindness. He was the first gay man ever to show me the true meaning of friendship. I will never forget the call from an unknown number after work, him telling me to “Stop crying over spilled milk.”

I can still hear the echo of the door slamming behind me as I walked down the corridor away from room 101 at the local health department. When the tester turned the OraQuick around, hesitated, and asked me how many pink lines I saw, my heart sank. I had entered a half hour prior, resolved to start a new year in control of my health and life. I left in a hurry, in control of neither, less than nine hours away from my 24th birthday.

A few weeks prior, I had woken up next to a fifth of gin I couldn’t remember finishing, and witnessed what a bowl of Chipotle looks like in reverse all over my bathroom, followed by an emergency appendectomy later that night. As I waited for the results of my CAT scan, I joked to my mom and littlest sister that this was Life #7 of my nine cat lives. The first six I spent wrapping my car around a tree at age 18, resulting in a medically induced coma to control bleeding on my brain, a stable neck fracture at a young age I learned of from said accident, and a few other crazy stories.

I thought, how better to start taking control of my life and health than with an HIV test? It had been some time since my last test, and although I was having less sex and had fewer partners than at any other time in my life, it was time to check it off the list. Instead, a second tester was brought into the room as I held the Western Blot pad in my cheek, and I scoffed as she said she wanted me to feel empowered by my diagnosis.

I managed to drive myself home, wanting to throw myself from the expressway overpass next to my job, which was just down the street from my apartment at the time. One of the two friends I told that day convinced me not to, saying this could be the end or the next chapter, but it was up to me which chapter that was. She was the oldest friend of my friend that died in the car accident.

My two earliest memories in life are of being the fastest kid in gym class, the one everyone wanted to catch while playing Rabbits & Foxes, and before all else, of experiencing abusive sexual exposure. Ironically, I’ve spent most of my life running from my issues. My longtime childhood friend and I—he was two years my senior—explored our sexuality at an extremely early age; so young that I don’t remember how it first started.

The situation between us evolved into different beasts over the span of about six years. At times he was my only friend, and I went along with “playing doctor” in the acres of forest behind our houses because I didn’t know any better. As I moved into puberty, I think I was genuinely attracted to him at times, but the shame of being gay was strong enough to contort my young psyche into a twisted mess.

This friend also tried unsuccessfully to mess around with my younger sister close in age, so I am certain it started out in a less than innocent manner. At the age of 15, after four years of not speaking to him, I confronted him about the better part of a decade between us. The breaking in his voice as he told me he was raped by his uncle told me he’d never told anyone this, and suddenly everything made sense. I could no longer hold him responsible for what transpired between us. He was just as much a victim as I had been, truly remorseful, and too young to know any better.

Walking into work a few weeks after learning I had HIV, I saw the most exotically beautiful calico kitten running around and immediately knew I had to adopt her. One of my best friends working with me had caught a kitten (most likely her brother) a few months prior, and it brought her fulfillment. I was extremely resistant to the idea of starting medication, and I’d told very few people about my HIV secret at the time, including my best friend. Desperate for non-judgmental companionship, I set a live trap borrowed from my grandmother hoping for a snare.

The following day, I came upon the trap to see I was successful in my quest to capture the elusive calico. Growing up on acres of field-land, I had close to 200 cats over the first 15 years of my life, but never a calico. Little did I know, they are a breed of their own. She ferociously shook the cage as I carried it back to my car, spitting, hissing, and vehemently protesting my forced human interaction unabatedly.

Confined to my bathroom, I was able to pet the calico, ever so lightly, on her terms. The name Cleopatra seemed to bestow itself upon the majestic queen. Middle name Beaverhausen added for good measure. I let her out of the bathroom the next day, and came home to an empty apartment. I turned everything upside down, even checking the microwave. Twice. I was losing it. I took to my newly reactivated Facebook page to proclaim, “MY PUSSY ESCAPED.” I was convinced I’d captured the world’s first teleporting cat. After two days, I finally discovered Cleopatra’s hiding spot—underneath the floorboard beneath my sink. My mom told me she was feral and that I should get rid of her. I told her I wasn’t going to give up so easily, that she needed time, and was worthy of my effort and love.

Three months, two house moves, one brotherly cat rape, and three vet visits (including an emergency spay) later, Cleopatra was more committed to hating me than ever. Not only had I never held her, she would barely even let me pet her anymore. We had moved in with two roommates I hardly knew, and everything was good for about six weeks, until I wanted to take a bath. During a level 3 snow emergency, on February 1st, I went to take a bath in the upstairs bathroom my roommates used (I had been using a finished bathroom with a standup shower in the basement, which I thought was for my privacy and comfort) only to be told that I wasn’t allowed because I had HIV. This lit a fire inside that I hadn’t felt since fighting the school board to establish the Gay Straight Alliance in my high school and since lobbying for anti-bullying legislation with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

In the meantime, I’d been attending a Buddhist temple that helped me accept my diagnosis, and it took about two months to get prescribed the newest once-daily medication on the market at the time, Triumeq. I stood at the service bar at work on February 13th and said, “Buddha, help me,” as I swallowed the first of my pills. Less than a week later I drove almost five hours to Indiana University to participate in a social media campaign called HIV Ends With Me Because… with the slogan “I Believe in a Better Way.”

After returning the next day, I went on the Humane Society’s website and saw a newly turned-in cat that captivated my attention. I went to the Humane Society in search of Fields, an all black, long-haired companion for Cleopatra. I searched the first room in the hallway to no avail, moving onto the next. I picked up one of the long-haired black cats in the next room, and it immediately playfully nibbled on my earlobe. IT WAS FIELDS! He was missing most of the fur on his underbelly and tail, having had numerous burrs buzzed off. I walked to the front desk and said, “I want the dirtiest, most scraggily looking cat here; I’m adopting Fields.” Someone had found him in, you guessed it, a field, 25 minutes west of Toledo without a collar and turned him in.

I took Fields home, and to no surprise, Cleopatra was not having it. She hissed, swatted, and growled at Fields as he paid no attention to her. He sauntered around the room as if saying, “Simmer down bitch, we’re adopted.” The calm, cool, and collected Zen Master Fields, whom I have yet to hear hiss to this day, almost immediately changed Cleopatra’s disposition. Within a week, she was more sociable than ever, and beginning to follow his lead of welcoming my interaction once again. Now at 15+ pounds, he is the definition of a gentle giant, offering many early morning, afternoon, and evening greetings of kisses. After about a week, I realized that Fields was turned in on February 13th, the same day I started meds.

After the Indiana HIV Ends With Me photo shoot, I partnered with the now-defunct Positive Young People’s Foundation as their Ohio Ambassador and threw my own stigma-busting photo shoot at Toledo’s 1st Annual LGBT Health Fair. My slogan, inspired by activist Robert Breining, was HIV Ends With Me Because…#OurDreamsAreNotInfected. Two weeks later I came out about my HIV status in a Facebook post, announced the start of a 5K awareness campaign to bring attention to the rising rates of HIV in today’s youth, and started raising money for Toledo’s first AIDS Walk in 5 years. The next day I went on two live news broadcasts as a client of AIDS Resource Center Ohio and announced my campaign to the city of Toledo.

Within four days time, people pledged over $1,200 to push me to be the top individual fundraiser for Toledo, where I took 1st place in the 5K. As a Grand Walker, I was invited to a celebration in Dayton the next day, where I won the 5K as well, pulling it off by three seconds. This was only my third race ever, and I’d just won two in two days. Needless to say, I was beyond ecstatic and couldn’t believe that I’d accomplished it. A week later I took 17th and 1st in my age group at the Glass City 5K. I could say I trained harder or slept better than my competition, but neither is probably the case. Deep down I believe that I WANTED it more. I wanted to show that an HIV diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence, or an end to a quality life, but rather can be a beautiful rebirth of self.

After being the fastest kid in gym class in second grade, I became the biggest kid in my class of 500 by ninth grade. I self-medicated years of depression stemming from my past abuse with my drug of choice: food. At 5’8” I reached over 250 pounds with a 38-inch waist. I began my weight-loss journey before I acquired the virus and had dropped about 70 of the almost 100 I’ve lost, but the resounding thought in my head was “HOW UNFAIR.” I had done all this work to get healthy and fit, and who could love me now that I had HIV?

Living through my diagnosis taught me that if you allow people to value your worth, then they will. Most of the people I’ve slept with in my life, once I found myself in the situation I wanted to leave it, but proceeded because I never learned how to say no. Living through my diagnosis taught me that self-respect—in the form of being able to say no, whether it be to destructive drugs or sex, that fifth or maybe even first drink, or whatever demons you battle, is the truest form of love: love for oneself.

Now, I am not glamorizing living with HIV. I have dedicated my life to the fight to end the ongoing epidemic. I have become an Ohio Department of Health HIV Education Presentation Trainer, helping to rewrite the updated curriculum this year. I am pursuing a Community Health Worker Certification, completing my clinicals in the same hallway I was diagnosed in. I’ll also be attending Sero Project’s HIV Is Not A Crime law decriminalization training this year, will be running all three of the Ohio AIDS Walk 5Ks, and hope to be invited to AIDS Watch Ohio to lobby and educate the legislative bodies. I believe if you live with HIV, you should help others live without it. I truly Believe in a Better Way.

My diagnosis presented me with a choice of continuing to run from my problems or looking them dead in the eye and daring them to defeat me. It woke me up to a life I wasn’t living, allowed me to recognize a growing alcohol dependency and a life-long dependency on anger. It was time to stop crying over the spilled milk and truly live the last life I had left, my Cat Life #9. HIV is now living with me at an undetectable level, and I can honestly say I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.

See, in many ways I am Cleopatra, who to this day I haven’t held. Exposed to the wild at a very young age for a long time, we both recoil at most human interaction, unless it’s on our own terms, because we don’t trust it. As I have begun to heal, more and more she curls up beside me and the free-flowing Fields, inviting my touch, healing with us.

Something I’ve learned is that we move on from traumatic experiences in waves. Some days you can feel completely freed from shackles you once wore, and on other days feel like you’re right back in them, hog-tied and chained to the floor. Over time, the former should grow more numerous, and will crowd out the latter, but there will still be the days filled with self-doubt and judgment. If the closure you’re looking for is never again to feel the weight of those handcuffs, the feeling will find you just as you’ve convinced yourself you’re over something, and the unexpectedness of it will rout your soul once again.

I know ahead lie days both good and bad, but when you choose to love more than you hate, trust more than you worry, and get up every time you fall down, you learn how to pick locks with much greater ease.

Thinking back to when my now friend at the Health Department said she wanted me to feel empowered by my diagnosis, I can’t help but echo the same sentiment to those struggling with their own. People will ask you, “Do you regret getting HIV?” and frankly, who has time to answer that question? Mrs. Nowak, a teacher I had in the seventh grade, taught us never to answer “what if” questions. All we have is the present moment and a choice how to spend it.

I have committed myself to a life of wellness because I reject the sentiment that society and the media impose upon people living with HIV (PLWHIV), that our lives can never be as good as before our diagnosis, and certainly cannot improve. It is time for PLWHIV to reclaim our place in society, and not just to ask for it, but to DEMAND it, because Our Dreams ARE NOT Infected. We are no longer just going to survive, we are going to THRIVE!

There is never a better time to take charge of your life and the direction it’s taking than now. So on the days when you least want to, trudge through the seven inches of snow thrown your way in spring and show up on the yoga mat that is life. Establish your self-worth and let no one tear it down. Make the hard choice to say no to the things that serve you no longer, and usher in the good.

Whether I win one, all three, or none of the Ohio AIDS Walk 5Ks next in my awareness campaign, what truly matters is that I have begun to heal. I now have burgeoning trust in my head, love and forgiveness in my heart, and most importantly, purpose in my soul. Once again, I feel like the fastest kid in gym class.

Learn more about Contributing Editor CJ Stobinski and the rest of Our Team.