Nobody forgets the day they learn they are HIV positive.
For me, that was March 29, 2006. I was living in Austin at the time and I remember feeling alone and scared, not just for my health but for my life. How would I be perceived within my community and by my family? Would I have the opportunity to accomplish my dreams and lead a fulfilling life? Who would ever love me again?
My experience going through this journey of fear and shame and coming out on the other side is what drives me now to share my story—to show people that HIV does not define me and it should not define anyone living with the HIV-positive.
So here it goes.
My name is Eric Leonardos. I’m living now in Los Angeles where I moved to pursue my dream of becoming a hairstylist and makeup artist. That’s right—11 years after being diagnosed at the age of 25, I am living out my dream thanks to amazing advances in science and a new outlook on life.
Yet despite all the scientific advances, for some the fear of actually learning they have HIV is so paralyzing that is stops them from even getting tested. And for many of those who know they are HIV-positive, they find it too find difficult to speak openly and honestly, impeding their ability to live a rewarding life.
When I was diagnosed, of course I immediately felt ashamed and unfortunately part of that stemmed from how others reacted to my diagnosis.
But now, instead of shame, I have learned to feel empowered because I realized HIV is no longer an obstacle to living life to the fullest. It is no longer an obstacle to love, relationships or intimacy. It is no longer an obstacle to traveling the world or to pursuing dreams.
Thanks to the bold advances in science I had the ability to rediscover what it’s like to enjoy life and I have done just that.
To stay healthy, I take just one pill a day at lunchtime. That’s it. In fact, the virus is not even detectable in my body right now.
And the future is even brighter. Modern medicine is progressing at a pace that we’ve never seen before, which means that perhaps one day I’ll be pill free or maybe one day I’ll even be cured. One thing I do know, however, is that in order to make progress in our quest for more effective treatments and our goal to find a cure for HIV, we need to know who has the virus.
Testing is so important, and why I’m passionate about creating an environment where people feel free from judgment and stigma. Patients and doctors must be able to engage in an open and constructive dialogue about treatment options, including clinical trials such as the one I was able to participate in.
We must also find ways to communicate within the HIV/AIDS community in a way that portrays hope and optimism, not fear. Because the truth is that our future is hopeful and optimistic. My one pill a day treatment and incredible zest for life is a great example at how far we’ve come.
It has been 11 years since I learned of my diagnosis, and there is nothing that is off-limits for me. The truth is, none of us can say whether or not we’ll be here five minutes from now, but I know that the HIV virus will not stop me from living a normal, happy and full life. And I want the world to know, especially those living with the disease, HIV does not define me and it never will, for I live in endless hope.