Cityscape isolation

Twenty-twenty was going to be everyone’s year. A new decade and a fresh start. Four months in and the world is reeling from being collectively catapulted into a surreal and bizarre situation we’d expect to experience in a Hollywood blockbuster rather than in our everyday, ordinary lives.

During the Christmas and New Year period I was determined and energised to start writing again, only to lose all motivation and ambition once I returned to the daily grind. I had too many thoughts and ideas to process during my spare time, and it became an impossible task to put pen to paper.

For me writing has always been cathartic and a means to handle difficult situations or trauma, and to grow from those experiences. I’ve bottled up far too much over the past couple of years and as it is my birthday this Thursday I’m gifting myself this release.

I’m currently isolating alone in my flat in Manchester and had time to reflect and process thoughts and memories that have lingered with me for some time. Despite my local neighbourhood’s name there is little green space on my doorstep, but I’ve surprised myself at just how much I can stimulate my internal monologue simply by walking along the dirty River Irk, past abandoned industrial units and a local paint factory. These quiet moments alone have enabled me to think about past decisions and ultimately forgive myself, and who could have guessed it would only take a global pandemic to get to here?

The COVID-19 outbreak continues to impact LGBT and queer people, and those living with HIV in different ways around the world. And whilst I could discuss some of those issues from my own vantage point I’m going to focus on a battle with isolation, but during a period of my life in 2018.

It should have been an adventurous and exciting time. I was buying my first home, but the process soon became a laborious, never-ending chore. We’re all used to hearing how buying a home is one of the most stressful things you can experience but until I lived it first-hand I really had no idea.

Three months after my offer was accepted I received the news that my role was being deleted in a restructure. I began to visualise a future where everything I had worked so hard for was falling apart at the seams, my dreams annihilated. I hadn’t realised just how fragile I was and to make the situation worse support structures I had come to rely upon were no longer close to hand. I was single and I was living on my own.

I would spend my weekends criticising my life choices and decisions. I would close the curtains, turn up the music and pour myself drink after drink to escape the voices in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. I felt alone and that I had no one to turn to. I was living on my own for the first time since a very brief period during my second year of university. I hated it. I’m an extrovert, I was climbing the walls for company, just for a little while, but friends were busy or skint and work colleagues were based in London.

I soon fell into a cycle where the company I needed was supplied via casual sex with strangers, or at least men I knew nothing about beyond the bedroom. I entered a spiral of self-loathing for what I was doing, despite being a sex-positive person. I felt like I would be perpetually single. I hated my body. I hated my soul. I felt worthless and I stopped caring about myself. It’s one thing to be isolated, it’s altogether something else to be and feel alone.

In many ways my behaviour mirrored events that led to my HIV diagnosis all those years before. I stopped concerning myself with the consequences of my actions and I began to take more risks. When you feel worthless and that your life has no value what damage is there in contracting an STI?

I took more risks, I wasn’t using condoms if men didn’t want to, then I was actively seeking men who didn’t want to, and inevitably I found myself in the clinic to receive antibiotics for different diagnoses. I was in and out every few weeks and I couldn’t escape. I’d feel lonely and that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, I’d need to avoid sex whilst being treated. By the time I knew I was free of chlamydia or gonorrhoea I’d be desperately trying to find someone to invite over, and more often than not it would be the same guy I’d got the STI from in the first place – and the process would start again.

I felt guilt and shame, especially working in a sexual health capacity and living with HIV, that I should know better, that I should be ‘better behaved’. But internally I was still full of anger and resentment. My mental health really was at breaking point but all these issues had built up so slowly that I couldn’t see the situation clearly or rationally.

Things did calm down. I was redeployed and kept my job, I felt financially secure again. The warmer weather meant more of my friends were inviting me out and life got back to normal. There was no ‘lightbulb’ moment, the fix was as gradually and unassuming as the problem. Normality had simply crept back into my life and I had discovered what made me happy again. I was looking after my body once more, I cared about myself, and I valued myself.

Despite the fact we are currently living through a very difficult and tough situation, I am in a very different place, and very much more aware of my mental health. Even though we haven’t seen each other for almost a month I have an incredible boyfriend who makes me laugh and smile, I miss him, but I’m handling that. Friends and family are all keeping an eye on each other and we’re all talking a lot more than we would be if everything was as normal as it had been at the start of this crazy year.

Not everyone will be enjoying this same experience, and there will be lots of people who are isolating on their own, and they will feel alone, just like I did in 2018.

It’s important that we all play a role in controlling this dangerous pandemic, remain in our homes and maintain social, physical distancing to protect the most vulnerable, and to allow the NHS to cope, but I know some people will be struggling, really struggling, to the point that the risk of COVID-19, just like the risk of an STI, is worth it just to be close to someone, just to have contact and break both the physical and mental loneliness and isolation.

Before we judge and accuse people of giving in to sexual urges or compulsions to ‘hook up’, or tell people to ‘just have a wank’ we need to be mindful and appreciate that some out there will need that physical contact more than anything else right now, they may even feel their life depends on it. In the bluster and passion to do the right thing let’s not leave behind the people who really need us to be there for them. Let’s hope that in these strange new times we are all living in we can all learn and develop new ways to be kind to each other.

I mentioned recent events had allowed me to forgive myself, but my physical acts needed no forgiving, I am only human. At a time when there is so much hate and anger in the world what I pardon is how hard I have been on myself for so long. I ask that we give that same absolution to those struggling with isolation and loneliness during these difficult times, we all want to do the right thing and there’s nothing wrong with some of us finding it harder than others to achieve that.

My words reflect my own views and opinions as an individual and are formed from the personal challenges and situations I have experienced. They are not intended to provide advice, however, I hope they provoke both empathy and comfort.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and HIV and sexual health information

Terrence Higgins Trust have put together a wealth of information to answer all your questions around coronavirus and sex:

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