Still scared about stupid sex
March 8, 2013 12:58 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with intense anxiety from stupid and risky sexual decisions in the (pretty) distant past?

Here's the deal. I regularly experience intense, almost vibrating anxiety and fear related to stupid, risky sexual choices I made in the not-recent past. I know the general AskMe consensus will be "Seek Therapy" but I'm already in therapy. I'm hoping to hear from other people who might have dealt or might be dealing with the same thing.

I am a gay man. I'm almost 30 and now in a monogamous relationship with a guy I trust. Have been with him for 4.5 years. However, when I was younger, specifically while I was living in NYC from age 18-24, I did some crazy stupid stuff. No, not as bad as men with meth problems or those who go out to bathhouses every night, but definitely some stuff that was risky and that I find terrifying because I can hardly handle the fact that it was me doing these things.

I am very shy, and when I was young I used to "compensate" for it by getting totally boozed up. On more than one occasion, I went home with a guy and bottomed even though I was so drunk I have basically no memory of the whole thing except for a memory that it happened. I'm not sure how many times I did this, but probably more than 5. And I don't even like bottoming -- at all! I really can't explain what the hell I was thinking, other than a vague sense that this was expected of me. I don't know that the guys, in these cases, didn't use condoms, but I wasn't in a condition to make totally sure of that. I think I told them to put a condom on, in each case, but honestly I don't remember. Just recalling those incidents is enough to get a minor panic attack going, because it scares the shit out of me to think that I was capable of being that stupid.

On another occasion, I made out for a long time with a guy who I now know was seroconverting and acutely infectious. At the time I didn't know that. This was a guy who I had had a crush on for quite some time, and though he "wasn't feeling well" we got to talking, and over the course of an evening realized we liked each other, and then made out for a good hour or more, even though -- this is super-gross, I realize -- he had a kind of rash, like red bumps, on his face, and he was a little sick. Well, a day or two later I was quite sick -- fever, sore throat, headache, seriously not well. At the time, even though I thought of myself as bright, intelligent, and informed, I was most definitely not, and I did not know about the acutely infectious period that quickly follows HIV infection. I certainly didn't think it could be something someone I know was actually experiencing. Well, I got better, but I never heard from the guy, and when I reached out to him six months to a year later, he said some stuff had happened to him, and further prodding revealed that he'd found out he was HIV positive. What was happening to him right when we made out was the seroconversion.

Yeah, I know -- making out is extremely low risk. But before people scoff at this, first of all, I am prone to bleeding gums, and second of all, the CDC says: "it is recommended that individuals who are HIV-infected avoid deep, open-mouth “French” kissing with a non-infected partner, as there is a potential risk of transferring infected blood." And I obviously *did* get *something* from the guy that made me temporarily sick, though I didn't get HIV.

Lastly, on one occasion some guy that I took home from a bar fucked me without a condom. He just did it. Maybe everyone reading this will focus on this incident -- I guess it is the worst of them all, though I want to emphasize that what I primarily feel about it is continuing fear at my own stupidity and apparent paralysis. Because I didn't do anything. I didn't try to stop him. It just happened, and that was that. I certainly didn't want him to do it, but I could not even, for some reason, bring myself to say the word "no." I just laid there and felt massive amounts of shame and humiliation. And no, I didn't go to the hospital afterwards to try to get the 72-hour-window post-exposure drugs -- I didn't know about their existence at the time.

Add to those above a large number (25-50? maybe even more?) of more or less random guys who I had protected anal sex with, mostly as a top, and about the same number that I had oral sex with. Please don't try to tell me that these were no-risk activities -- people push this myth all the time, I've noticed! -- because they weren't.

All of these things happened more than six years ago. I have been tested multiple times since then and I do not have HIV, according to the tests. However, I can't shake a feeling that I must "really" have it, somehow, and the tests just failed or something. I have only had sex with one person in more than four years, and he is monogamous as well and a good, upstanding, trustworthy guy, but pretty much every single day I think about getting tested again and feel sure that this time they'll find it. I set up another test recently because I just can't handle the uncertainty.

I've gotten much, much more educated on HIV since those years -- part of this anxiety and fear manifests itself in doing lots and lots of research into the subject. I know that the individual risks of infection from any one sexual encounter are low; conversely, I know that the infection rates among urban gay men are staggeringly high. I know people who are HIV positive, including one of my best friends, and I've seen first-hand that while the disease is not a death sentence anymore, for some people it is still absolutely brutal, to the point where they are basically permanently disabled (often by the drugs needed to keep them alive).

I feel two things: a) I was so stupid and reckless that I really ought to have HIV, I deserve it -- I let my parents and sibling and friends and everyone who cares about me down, I treated my health like it was worthless, and of course I put other people at risk, too and b) That person who did those things, who was that short-sighted and insane, was *me.* What does it mean that I am capable of being that foolish? At the time I didn't think of myself as foolish; I thought I knew it all. So now that I know better, I feel terrified of myself.

Yeah, I know: "Therapy." But I'm wondering if anyone has any other thoughts on what might help me -- help me what? Deal with the anxiety and fear, and anger, I guess -- anger at myself, I mean. I don't know that I want to "move on," though, because I have an idea that if I let go of the fear, if I let down my guard, I could somehow become the person that I used to be, and get myself into such situations again. After all, I *am* the person I was when I was 22, by definition.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total)

I'm 52 and I sure hope I'm not judged by the stupid stuff I did when I was much younger, although I sure know that it is hard to not judge ourselves sometimes. Time does help heal. For myself, the times in my life when I've engaged in risky, self-injurious behavior were times when I was really hurting emotionally for one reason or another and without a support system. Looking back, I feel really sad for the person that i was and it helps me take a little pity on myself, I guess. You do what you know how at the time to get by and when you know a better way, you do that.
posted by tamitang at 1:11 PM on March 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

People do stupid stuff when they're young. Hell, they do it when they're old.

Consider it a blessing that you skipped the consequences, and consider giving something back to the community as your way of thanking (God, the universe, whatever) that you didn't catch anything untreatable.

Some people who survive a horrific event decide that God must have spared them so that they could accomplish something. Whether you believe in God or not, maybe make that your philosophy, and I suspect the guilt and shame will fade away.
posted by musofire at 1:16 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know that I want to "move on," though, because I have an idea that if I let go of the fear, if I let down my guard, I could somehow become the person that I used to be, and get myself into such situations again. After all, I *am* the person I was when I was 22, by definition.

This, right here, is exactly your problem. You feel like the anxiety is protecting you. And maybe it Did, for awhile back when you first stopped doing risky things. But the anxiety isn't what protecting you now, now it's destroying you. What is protecting you now is your adult commitment to not doing risky things, not getting drunk, not getting into risky situations.

So, in therapy, you should work on realizing how your anxiety helped you in the past and how it's destroying your happiness now. Once you get the anxiety under control you won't have to worry about this all the time and will be able to be more fully happy. You deserve to be happy! You are being a credit to yourself (and family, and all of the world you thought you let down) with your right actions every day. Now, for YOU to believe that.
posted by ldthomps at 1:22 PM on March 8, 2013 [16 favorites]

I think you are having what are called "intrusive thoughts." They come in a lot of forms, and being afraid that you've been infected with a disease is a very common one!

There might be OCD support groups in your area that you can attend prior to finding a therapist. There is also a ton of information on the internet about intrusive thoughts and OCD/anxiety.
posted by muddgirl at 1:23 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Why the insistence on thinking of yourself as the same person you were when you were 22? It might be biologically true, but so what? Biology isn't destiny--ask any person who's transgender.

You don't think, feel, or behave the way you thought, felt, and behaved at 22. You have different opinions, different coping mechanisms. That guy, that 22 year old you, never sought therapy. That guy wasn't able to sustain a caring and mutually supportive relationship. BUT YOU ARE. So you're just as much NOT that guy, as you ARE that guy. So why let the latter thought rule and control your life?

Has your therapist discussed survivor guilt with you at all?

More generally, this is the fundamental rub of human existence: bad things happen to good people. Sometimes people get HIV despite using tremendous caution. Sometimes people get lung cancer when they never smoked. Other people smoke a pack a day and live to 90, healthy as an ox. Life isn't terribly fair. And it's uncomfortable to be on the "lucky" side of that unfairness (and devastating to be on the unlucky side).

I don't know what your moral framework is but your post is full of shame and self-loathing. But in my personal opinion, you didn't do anything bad or wrong, morally speaking. You did things that were careless, sure. You did things you wouldn't have done if you'd known more. But you didn't know were literally unable to make the "best" choice, so why beat yourself up?

Lastly, it sounds like you were far more a victim than an agent. People took advantage of your incapacitation. For a lot of people that would mean those men sexually assaulted you. You are not to blame when others assault you. It's common to blame yourself, but false.
posted by like_a_friend at 1:24 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

After all, I *am* the person I was when I was 22, by definition.

Not exactly. Your brain continues to mature into your 20's. Why do you think car insurance rates are so much higher for young males? Why do you think people who screen for terrorists aren't zeroing in on guys in their 50's and 60's? Human beings do stupid risky things when they are young and on the whole our tolerance for risk goes down as we get older.

I actually remember the year I became mature, it was a few years after college. Nothing especially character-building happened that year, it was actually a sensation in my brain that I could feel just like when I was a very young child and I felt myself becoming more intelligent and learning how to read.

I know that you know you need therapy, but are you getting therapy specifically for anxiety? Have you considered trying medication for anxiety?
posted by cairdeas at 1:27 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

However, I can't shake a feeling that I must "really" have it, somehow, and the tests just failed or something.

But it actually doesn't work that way. My beloved uncle is the producer of this film, and tells the story of going to a 12 person partly that evolved into a free for all as the evening went on. 10 of those people are dead of AIDS. My uncle and ex-partner are both HIV clear. He is transparent in having engaged in really, really high risk behaviour -- bathhouses and random unprotected pickups included -- and while he spent a good ten years caring for dying friends and ex lovers and expecting to be diagnosed at any moment because he did everything they did, he is not HIV+. He's 68 and healthy and happy and living a really great life.

The accuracy of the HIV test is so high, and with mutiple tests over time it's definitive. If your narrative is accurate, you do not have HIV. The fact you're secretly convinced you "must" have it says to me that you're feeling guilty for the sex you had before monogamy, guilty enough to feel like you deserve punishment for it, and that's something you should discuss very openly with your therapist.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:27 PM on March 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

I think you need to realize that this isn't about the specific situations. It's about the fear that you're still that person who did those things even though you've obviously changed.

What's helped me is realizing that those moments in my past aren't my responsibility anymore. All that I have control over is acting with decency and self-control in my actions today. I've managed to convince myself that the good things I've done in my life have a greater weight then the handful of bad decisions I've made. And I know that longer I go as the kind of person that I want to be, the more the balance will be shifted in my favour.

Good luck.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Being gay is not a death sentence. Stop treating it like it is. You have a wonderful 4.5 year relationship and you need to forgive yourself for your past transgressions and move on.
posted by FreezBoy at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have been tested multiple times since then and I do not have HIV, according to the tests. However, I can't shake a feeling that I must "really" have it, somehow, and the tests just failed or something.

This is OCD. This is classic OCD. This is not lingering HIV or anything else, this is just plain old OCD.
posted by xingcat at 1:32 PM on March 8, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm late-20s, female, and straight, but I've felt the same way. And honestly, I feel like I've been relatively tame compared to some people, but everyone has their own way of acting and own self-regulatory standard about what's okay and what's right and what's wrong and what they did that was total-bs-stupid.

At one point, I was sure I must have an STD because I had unprotected sex with one guy (this guy had sex with many many women -- well, girls really, we were 18 at the time). Despite getting tested, being clean, etc. several times over the years since then, I still feel kind of dirty for some of the stuff I've done. I feel like if society knew my sexual exploits, I would have a bright red "A" on my clothes.

Since the last time I got tested, I've engaged in relatively mildly risky behavior, and I'm fucking worried as hell that I somehow got something -- despite the extremely low risk.

So what I want to say is that what you're feeling is perfectly normal. Lots of people feel this way. You fucked up, and you feel like you deserve the worst for your fuckup -- but in reality, a lot of people end up lucky and don't experience the worst possible result for what they've done. I mean, I've had enough unprotected sex that I'm concerned about my fertility -- but in reality, the worst thing I did was have a guy pull out when I was fairly sure I wasn't ovulating. I wasn't being smart, but there are much, much riskier behaviors than what I've engaged in.

So fine, you feel like you deserve to be punished for what you've done that you were told was wrong. But fact is, you didn't end up in the worst-case scenario. Count your lucky stars. Be thankful. Maybe start giving talks on safe sex. It sounds like you need to do something good that's equivalent in your own mind to the risk you went through. Maybe you can be a Big Brother, or give sex talks to teens who are most likely to spend their next several years involved in risky behavior. But you don't need to beat up on yourself. You did it -- lots of people do similar things -- okay, well, it happened. You can't change the past. You can only change the future.
posted by Chaussette Fantoche at 1:32 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also know what you mean about feeling like the anxiety is protecting you. I am prone to anxiety too and have had those feelings after frightening episodes. For example, once I macho-ly decided to walk about a mile across the downtown of a completely unfamiliar city around 10pm at night, which did not seem very dangerous at all. I found myself stranded on this block where the only people around were an almost all-male crowd of drunk, drugged-up gang members hanging out at this bar, and there was nothing else but closed up/vacant commercial buildings around for several blocks surrounding it, and then a few blocks of warehouses before I could get to where I wanted to go. I tried to call a cab and found out cabs wouldn't go to that part of downtown. To make a long story short I was stuck in that situation for about two hours, and after I finally got out and was safe, I almost could not breathe because of how terrified I was, but I felt that if I relaxed an inch I was going to have a full-blown panic attack and lose control of myself. I needed to have that much anxiety in the situation in order to stay fully alert and physically reactive and strong, so that I could run really fast or physically defend myself to my maximum. So the feelings you describe all sound very, very familiar to me. And you know, I think there is a kind of physical logic behind them. That's why I think, as you know, the main thing that is really going to help you is anxiety treatment.
posted by cairdeas at 1:37 PM on March 8, 2013

After all, I *am* the person I was when I was 22, by definition.

Well, yes, you are. But really, you are not. Not in any ways that matter.

When I was 22, I was a very insecure but a pretty sweet guy who was loved and could love.

By the time I turned 30, I seemed to be more secure but actually I was kind of an asshole but with all those same issues writ large and was damaging to others and much more so to myself.

Now that I'm 38, I'm back to being somebody who I can look in the mirror in the quiet times and not fucking hate myself for my actions that day/week/month.

Eight years is a long time and you can become a completely different 'you' in that time period. Thank God.

So I know what it's like to be full of regret and to punish yourself for supposed bad actions. But whereas bad actions to others may be can define who you are, bad actions to yourself really do a better job of defining what you are not -- not happy, not secure, not okay. But none of these make you not a decent person who deserves to be loved and healthy. The only thing you should take away from your unsafe decisions is that you made them and it turned out okay. And that it's actually a lot harder to contract HIV than to, for example, get pregnant.

Which leads to my other advice, if you're going to be obsessive about HIV contraction information, it sounds like you should get better resources. There are plenty of sex-positive-but-for-real-and-not-using-the-term-as-an-excuse-for-ridiculously-unsafe-behavior resources out there and, yes, therapists are part of that. There are lots of gay dudes your age who have HIV panic issues. Deal with them.

Many people who have contracted HIV at an age older than they should have because they had these same issues and not dealt well with them, so instead of continuing to be safe, they just gave into the panic and said 'fuck it' and ended up positive. If it sounds crazy and stupid, it's because it is. That doesn't mean that lots of good, intelligent people do. I could give you a list of them. Fortunately, for now, you aren't one of those numbers, which is great fucking news. And it is news you DESERVE.

Obviously this is one of my hobby horses, and such, my advice gets a little ranty. I will try to come up with some more clarification for you later, but if you have any specific questions or needs, I'm here, and, as they say on gay personal ads, discreet.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:38 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh Geez,

Sometimes we just dodge a bullet. I lived in San Francisco 1983 to 1992, and although I'm female, I suspect that my boyfriends/fuckbuddies were bi. I was not nearly as careful as I should have been!

And yet, I'm fine. I buried a lot of friends and acquaintances in that time, and I feel a bit of survivor's guilt because they didn't serve to die, and it's not fair.

But sometimes, that's how it works.

I was also really stupid with money and my job and a whole host of other things. The good news is that I lived long enought to become wise, and to rectify the mistakes I made when I was a callow youth.

You need to examine an OCD situation, because believing something in the face of good, scientific evidence, is kind of the classic definition of OCD.

So thank your lucky stars that you're healthy, perhaps help those who are not, because as you and I are here to prove, "There but for the grace of God go I."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:55 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think what you need to work on is forgiving yourself. You did unwise things. Everyone does, to some extent or another. It's over now. You can't change it. But you can decide how you relate to yourself going forward. I always advocate relating to yourself with as much kindness and compassion as possible.

As for how to do that -- therapy and meditation are what I've found most helpful. And just imagining what you would say to a beloved friend who's in the same circumstances you're in, and then saying that to yourself. In your case, that might be something like, "I can see you're feeling really scared. You did some dangerous things when you were younger. I bet you were in a lot of pain then. It must've been frightening and I bet you felt very alone and lost. I'm sorry that you were in so much pain. You've grown up into a wonderful person. I'm so glad that you're healthy. You deserve health and happiness. You can move on from what happened when you were younger. It doesn't change that you're fundamentally a good person."
posted by zahava at 1:55 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is more about shame than about public health statistics. You seem afraid that your past behavior has doomed you to be marked in some way, and that you don't deserve the love you have found. This is totally not true -- people have done way worse things (and what you did was somewhat careless, but not mean-spirited or harmful to others). Tell your boyfriend how you feel, and he should be able to help you.
posted by 3491again at 1:57 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

You are not alone. I used to work at a Canadian HIV non-profit with a toll-free line, and about a quarter of the calls came from people like you. We called it HIV anxiety (sometimes also referred to as the "worried well"), and there were so many of these calls that a bunch of organizations got together to develop guidelines for their staff on how to handle these calls since the issue here is not HIV, it is anxiety and guilt.

I have friends who got HIV while doing things like what you listed, so why did they get infected and not you? This can be a very troubling thought.

I think it also hooks into our ideas about sin and guilt very easily. It can be easy to think that if the whole sin→punishment thing always worked, then you would "deserve" HIV and would therefore test positive for it. This lack of punishment can feel unjust, like the scales haven't balanced. You're waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it still hasn't dropped.

So, it isn't unusual that your brain would have latched onto HIV when trying to deal with your feelings about the events you mentioned (anxiety, fear, shame, regret, panic).

I don't know that I want to "move on," though, because I have an idea that if I let go of the fear, if I let down my guard, I could somehow become the person that I used to be, and get myself into such situations again.

This is so insightful. It is really good that you are recognizing this, because it enables you to start working on those underlying anxieties.

You could tackle this with your therapist by working on a few specific things:
  • Forgiving 22-year-old you for doing things you wish he hadn't done.
  • Working through the fear and anger and panic that remains from those incidents.
  • Working through the shame and guilt you feel about not saying 'no' when you wanted to. (It is not your fault that he did not care to get your consent!) Exploring that feeling of paralysis, and forgiving yourself for it.
  • Recognizing ways that you are currently protecting yourself, so that letting go of that protective anxiety will feel safer for you (e.g. new knowledge of post-exposure prophylaxis, monogamous relationship with partner you trust, asking this question, etc).
You can do this. You will be okay.
posted by heatherann at 2:26 PM on March 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I totally agree with the idea that this is about a sense of shame/guilt. But the thing about virology is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with guilt or culpability-- no one "deserves" to be infected, and viruses are not a moral judgement. The capricious nature of disease, infectious disease included, is part of what makes it so terrifying...Forgive yourself for behavior you wouldn't engage in today, and forgive others for that behavior too. HIV is not a punishment for past sins.
posted by BundleOfHers at 2:30 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

You were stupid, and also lucky.

You feel guilty for the stupidity (which you probably should, but it's ok, because you've learned from it an are no longer stupid like that).

It seems like you also feel guilty for being lucky. If I were in any way qualified to prescribe anything, I would prescribe this: Obtain $100. If this is a crazy huge amount of money for you, even better -- scrimp and save till you have it. Spend all of that money on Powerball (or whatever your jurisdiction's largest lottery prize is). Because you used up all of your luck in your stupid years, you won't win. Losing that $100 can show as proof to you that you aren't lucky anymore.

Be kind to yourself going forward.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering about your drinking habits. Do you still drink heavily? Or drink to deal with your anxiety? I'd want to explore any potential issues with alcohol as part of this process. If you do have addictive behaviors, finding support and/or counseling for those specific issues may be helpful.
posted by hannahelastic at 2:49 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Whenever I am feeling mad at myself or ashamed about things I did or who I was when I was younger, I think about the Ship of Theseus.

Basically, imagine you have just purchased a ship made out of wooden planks. It's a pretty old ship, and a lot of the pieces are worn out, but it has a good shape to it, so you figure you can fix it up over time until it's good as new. So you set to work, little by little, and each day, you pry up one of the old, worn out planks of wood, and you replace it with a shiny new plank that is much better than the old one. You nail each new plank into place so that it fits perfectly into the ship.

You continue to perform this daily ritual every day, taking out and replacing the parts of the ship that don't work anymore, until one day, you realize that you've replaced every single original piece of the ship with a new, better piece. There is no part of the ship there anymore that was a part of the original ship when it was built. They're all new, better pieces.

The paradox, as Theseus posited, is this: Is the ship the same ship it was when you bought it? Or is it an entirely new ship? There was never a time when the ship didn't exist, and you can't pinpoint the moment when it stopped being the same ship. In fact, it's fundamentally the same ship. But it also has none of the old, worn out pieces that it had before.

That's the way I think of myself. Yes, I'm the same person I've always been, both in body and in mind. I have the same arms and legs and brain, and I have memories and feelings and ideas that tie me to all the things I've ever done in the past. But at the same time, there is no part of me that is made up of the same stuff it was made up of when I was born, or when I was 10, or when I was 20. Because as my body sloughs off cells and creates new ones, my physical pieces get replaced slowly over time. And as my brain learns new things and forgets old memories and figures out different, better ways of responding to outside forces, I develop new personality traits and new coping skills and new ideas. I'm still the same person, but I'm also not the same person I was when I was younger and less awesome than I am now. So I try to forgive that younger, more flawed version of myself for all the stupid things I did back then (like getting into relationships with the wrong people and smoking cigarettes), just as I hope that the me I'll be when I'm 40 or 50 or 60 will forgive me for all the ridiculous stuff I'm doing now (like not flossing enough and failing to practice my Spanish).

I am the same person, and yet I'm not. I'm responsible for the things I did in my past, but those things do not define me. Because every day, I'm prying out tiny parts of myself that don't work as well as they used to, or maybe that never worked well at all, and I'm replacing them with better parts that fit me and make me a stronger person. If I were to keep holding onto all of those old wooden planks from my past, the ones that don't work anymore, then someday I would just be a worn out ship that won't float anymore because I refused to let go of things that are holding me down. And I don't want that; I want to keep becoming the shiny new ship that will carry me into the future.
posted by decathecting at 2:51 PM on March 8, 2013 [19 favorites]

When you talk about your anxiety as protecting you from lapsing into risky behavior, I totally get where you're coming from. I've struggled with this as well. However, you might want to ask yourself if, far from protecting you, your anxiety actually played a role in driving you to risky sex in the first place. Of course, I can't see inside your brain and so I might have the wrong idea here... but from the way you told it, it seems like your anxiety and fear were big factors in leading you to drink, and in steering you away from advocating for your own safety and enjoyment.

My larger point is that if you believe what it's telling you, anxiety can certainly sometimes be protective -- but it can just as easily prevent you from making changes, or from taking action when you know you really need to. Put another way, it is not guaranteed to lead you in the same direction as your values. Really, it is just another voice among many different feelings and emotions: anger, excitement, boredom, calmness, etc.

(P.S., late-twenties gay dude with a similar constellation of anxieties about sex and disease here. Just wanted to let you know you're not alone and that I am really, really happy you're taking care of yourself and getting the help you need.)
posted by en forme de poire at 3:53 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't diagnose you, but some of the things you're talking about here sort of jibe with my understanding of OCD (a disorder that is experienced as anxiety). If so, there are a lot of therapies and medications that can help.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:53 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can, for some people, be more directly helpful in addressing issues with intrusive negative thoughts than talk therapy. Talk with your therapist about this possibility. Often the two modalities can help reinforce each other.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:07 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure there's some decent writing out there about the social construction of HIV and gay subcultures, and I have to think reading up on it might help your brain finish processing things, might help you de-stigmatise yourself in your own mind.

I cannot imagine a former smoker wrestling with these sorts of ideas about lung cancer. AIDS has occupied a rather unique place in society. Your ideas about it are not entirely rational -- obviously you know that; on some level you are aware that you're not HIV+ -- try exploring what cultural constructs have led to so much shame and self-recrimination here.

if I let go of the fear, if I let down my guard, I could somehow become the person that I used to be, and get myself into such situations again

If that was true we would all be at high risk of immediately lapsing into our worst selves at any moment. Many of us would need to be locked up. And yet.
posted by kmennie at 4:18 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

The line that stuck out to me was this:

I was so stupid and reckless that I really ought to have HIV, I deserve it.

Um, what? No one deserves to have an incurable, deadly disease. Not for simply being irresponsible at times.

That says to me that your thinking is really out of line from what's real, and so I'd perhaps also recommend CBT.
posted by lewedswiver at 7:57 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

It might be helpful to work with your therapist to create scripts that you say to yourself whenever these anxious thoughts pop up. For instance, when you start thinking "What if the test was wrong and I'm actually HIV positive?" train yourself to respond to that by thinking "No. That's just my anxiety talking. I've been tested, the tests are incredibly accurate, and I do not have HIV". Whenever you start worrying about some instance of unprotected sex in your past, "No. That's just my anxiety talking. I've been tested, the tests are incredibly accurate, and I do not have HIV". Just a few simple sentences that acknowledge that the fear is irrational, stop you from going along that train of thought, and bring you back to reality.

I'm really sorry that you're going through this. This is perhaps the understatement of the century, but you are being way too hard on yourself. Some of the things that you described, especially those men who had sex with you when you were too inebriated to insist on a condom, make me mad at THOSE GUYS, not you. Everyone makes mistakes-- that just means that you're a human being, not that you're stupid or reckless or deserve to be punished.
posted by lostcosmonaut at 8:22 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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