Today, December 1st, is recognized as World AIDS Day. This day has significant meaning to me for many reasons. Those of you who know me shouldn’t be surprised by this, and for those of you who don’t, I’ll tell you why shortly. It is not just a day I remember those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS; it is a reminder to me and countless others that we still have a job to do when it comes to eradicating this disease which claims the lives of so many, and how we can start with the right attitude.
Over the past decade, particularly when I was working with MAC Cosmetics whose mantra is, “Every day is World AIDS Day at MAC,” I have given speeches to share my story on this day. The first time I was given the opportunity to speak was in 2009, the year my grandfather, Diddy, died. At the time, I was working on a side-project with some friends and aspiring models to create editorial looks to draw attention to the youth to get tested. I had committed to giving the speech in my hometown on December 1st over the summer, but when my grandfather was given six months to live a few short months after I graduated college, I shut down.
To lose somebody who meant everything to you at that time is one of the hardest lessons I have ever had to both face and learn. Yet it almost seems to become a recurring theme in my life. When Diddy was dying, I thought that I would die shortly thereafter; that my heart, mind, and soul would simply shut down. I believed at 22, I would find my place in the ground. I had no earthly idea how I would ever carry on again.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer in August. He died that September. I did not have the six months the doctor initially foresaw. The day he died, I became a shell of who I was. My friends surrounded me, provided me food, flowers, ears to listen to, but I became so numb. I had planned on giving the speech before his death, but now, I couldn’t fathom the thought of getting up and sharing any story, let alone my own. I wasn’t who I knew I was and should be for that type of audience.
As the event drew nearer, I kept having these thoughts, almost hearing these voices of Diddy telling me to move forward. I felt comfort in that I felt him communicating with me, but wasn’t sure if he meant to move forward with my life or with my commitments or what. I believed that he wouldn’t want me to mourn him forever. He would want me to press on and make a positive difference in a way only I know how. I reached out to the contact of the organization and told her I would do it.
It was cold and rainy that December day in 2009, but I came full-face with a clip-in “weavelette” (as my friend calls it) in the color of red to signify the days’ meaning. The event was hosted downtown in front of a beautiful water fountain. I can’t remember how many people were there, but I know friends from work, from my childhood, high school and college were all there with me. It was and is a treasured memory for me for many reasons. I realized then that I have the gift to communicate a message which makes people laugh, which makes them cry, which makes them think.
I recall the first time I heard the term “AIDS” as being negative. I was about six or seven years old, heading over to my friend Tyler’s house. He lived only about 12 houses down from mine, so I was allowed to walk there by myself. When I knocked on his door, he answered, but quickly told me he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore. When I asked why not, he replied, “Because my parents say your parents have AIDS, and I can’t play with you because you might have it.”
With that, his mother came to the door, looked at me coldly and said, “Go home, Matthew.” (By the way, I had my name legally changed from “Matthew” to “Mathieu” at 19 years of age. Anything I share prior to that age, I will revert to my birth spelling.) Tears filled my eyes, and all I remember is running home crying out for my family. I had no idea what Tyler meant by that, but even at that age, I was so hurt, so stunned to be shut out like I was. When I got home and told Diddy, I only remember him muttering “God damn it” a few times and telling me that they were incorrect. My mother and grandmother both had cancer, and my father died from tripping and hitting his head on the nightstand.
I believed this until much, much later. Then, Diddy gave me my mother’s journal she handwrote to me. (You’ll remember me writing about this a few blogs ago.) Once I was old enough to understand things better, my grandfather told me the truth about my parent’s deaths (well, partly). I was told that both my parents had contracted AIDS from using unclean needles from their drug abuse. My mother found out when she was pregnant with me. From the time I was conceived, I was given a death sentence. I would maybe last a year, maybe two, but that was it. Somehow, miraculously, I survived year-after-year, and each time I would be tested for HIV/AIDS, the results came back negative.
Understanding then that I was lied to about my parents’ demise and that Tyler and his mother made factual statements hurt even worse. Now, my mind was plagued with the thought that I, somehow, would contract HIV/AIDS and end up like my parents. I vowed to never do drugs, not have promiscuous sex or do anything that would slightly mirror the lives they lived. On one hand, this helped me maintain strong morals from high school through college and even post-college. I rarely drank, didn’t have sex and never tried drugs.
At 19, (now I’m “Mathieu” again,) my friend BJ asked if I wanted to donate my blood at our school’s blood drive. It was his first time donating, and he was a bit nervous, so of course, I said I would join him. Being that I was “such a good boy,” I had nothing to worry about and loved the idea that maybe my blood would be used to save or extend somebody’s life. BJ made it out just fine, as did I, and I carried about my merry way.
Weeks later, Diddy came into our office room and told me that he had to have a discussion with me. Whenever he said that, you knew something was up. Chances are, I was in trouble because I forgot to do something he told me to do. He opened with, “You recently donated blood to an organization, right?” I told him, “Yes,” but I was unsure how he knew because I never mentioned it to him. It just didn’t seem like something I should tell him as it was just a part of the “college experience.” When I asked him how he knew that I had, he stated, “Usually, if there is nothing wrong with your blood, they don’t send a letter to your address.”
That’s when it hit me. It finally caught up. I was somehow HIV/AIDS-positive and this was the end. My heart lept out of my chest, my eyes went dark and I felt so much anger within me. “Your parents gave you a gift and not the good kind.” Yeah, I kind of figured that one out on my own, thanks, Diddy. “But it isn’t the gift you’re thinking.”
“You have hepatitis-C. Do you know what that is?”
“Um, it’s a blood disease that you can get from blood transfusions or sharing needles. Pamela Anderson has it from her tattoo.”
“Yes, but more importantly, it affects your liver,” he explained. Still angry, I couldn’t help but circle back to my initial thought.
“So, I don’t have AIDS? I have a liver disease?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And we are sure I don’t have AIDS?”
“Mathieu, you’ve been tested almost all your life, half the time without you understanding that’s what we were doing. We are going to schedule you an appointment for a specialist to better understand what we need to do to take care of this disease.”
And with that, we had a doctor’s visit. He explained that there was a double-therapy treatment available. It would more than likely wipe my body out of the disease but also of my energy. He equated it to what cancer patients experience with chemo. He also said it would be best if I quit school for the 6-months-to-a-year that the treatments would require me to be on. I looked at Diddy and he said, “it’s your choice. I have the means for you to have this treatment now.” But I knew, deep down, I had to choose between him seeing me live a healthier life possibly without a college degree or to have a college degree and deal with the issues later on, possibly without him.
I chose the latter. It felt right in the moment, and now, I’m so glad that I did. It wasn’t until I was 25 years old that I decided it was time to look into the treatment and start taking care of my liver as an adult. (I’ll share that experience at another time although I did Vlog about it on YouTube during the time.)
Now I see these challenges in my life as a platform for me to use. While I currently don’t have HIV/AIDS, I understand how the stigma attached to it from uneducated individuals can torment people. I understand better why it is important to have educators in your life that hopefully get you to think about your actions; how they can sometimes have a deleterious effect on your life. Conversely, it is equally important to understand that having HIV/AIDS is not attributed to one type of lifestyle or human. We have encountered hundreds of thousands of individuals who have diseases that you can’t see outwardly. We must continue to show compassion and understanding for everyone we encounter because you never know what they could be experiencing. How many of you now are connecting the dots as to why I don’t choose to drink regularly?
This is the only life we get. That’s a wonderful thing to me. That means we get one chance to get it right. We make mistakes, go through ups and downs and showcase a variety of emotions. Relationships and time are two of the most important themes in my life. I understand my relationships with others because I realize how short time is. I always want to be someone people remember with fondness, but I also strive to pull out the best qualities in people so that their message is conveyed and heard.
We all have a story to tell, some of us more readily than others. My story is simply to be happy. Be happy. You can be interesting, artistic, quiet, knowledgeable, a world traveler, a dog lover, any and all of these things. Just find what brings you joy and pull it out for the world to see. Let us also remember that there are so many people with fewer opportunities than us out there, many of whom are sick, less educated, alone and/or scared. Many of whom may not have much hope or time left. Many who don’t have the types of relationships we foster. We need to come together, as a community, as a nation, as a world and bring happiness, compassion and understanding to others.
Can you imagine going to bed every night knowing you made just one person feel great by simply being yourself? Imagine what the trickle-down effect would be if you did that all of the time with everyone you encounter.
Be happy. Our world is watching. 🙂
(Oh, and happy birthday, Christina and Bryan!)