SEVEN

Seven years ago today I met the man that would become both the best and worst memories, and love, I have known to date. Sitting at a meeting, our eyes locked and we were connected from that moment forward. Today would have been our seven year anniversary. This man, not being the biological father of my child, would become the only father he has ever known: attend Parent Teacher conferences with me and go to meetings at the school with my child’s principle. He would be the man to teach my child about so many “men things”. Both the best and worst examples of what a man is. 

Seven years ago I was in full activism/advocacy mode. Traveling and speaking across the country. Sitting on a board of directors in Washington DC for the ADAP Advocacy Association. Blogging and running a YouTube channel talking about HIV and answering questions for people on it. I was attending conferences across the country and really honing my advocacy skillset. I had no idea this relationship would be the primary reason, amongst other life events and self realizations, that would alter my path and steer me away from it for years before I returned.

To try to put into words the connection and spark between the two of us is something I am not capable of doing. The closest I can come is to say is that when I met this man, it was like my soul recognized a missing piece and found it in him. 

He was the first man and person I had come out to as being HIV positive that did not hold it against me and never one time said anything demeaning to me about it. That acceptance and support was not something any other person in my life offered me up to that point. He didn’t tell anyone without my approval. He didn’t tell me it was my fault. He didn’t put me down or smile in my face or do anything behind my back. He just loved me. 

Over our time together, I would learn that under his facade of a brilliant, successful, military man was severe abuse and PTSD. I would learn that his life had been no sort of healthy or “normal”. That the most good looking and perceived as “put together”, intelligent and successful can be masking hurt and suffering in silence. I learned that it’s inevitable with two broken people to become toxic and unhealthy unless they heal themselves first. 

For my entire life I had dated here and there. The man that transmitted HIV to me, and who I dated for a couple months, asked me to marry him; although I was too young then to understand what I do now. That was not a real relationship. Not in the least. So this man, at 29 years old, was my first real, and only ever, boyfriend. For a long time he was my best friend also. 

As I said in the beginning, he would become the man I lifted weights with every day, the man to teach my son about basketball, to teach my son about the cause and effect of behaviors (although I learned later he didn’t understand them himself). This man would become, and did become, a monumental part of our world. 

After years of ups and downs, in 2016 I had heard he was dating someone else behind my back. For years we had tried, even attending counseling together, but it got to the point he couldn’t spend the night with me, nor I be able to sleep next to him. I would sleep on my couch. He would try, I wouldn’t. Then I would try and he wouldn’t. It was always out of sync. So when I heard this, I left him and moved. After moving I would not tell him where I lived for months. 

He begged me month after month to talk to him. Denying it. He knew I wouldn’t do anything to investigate other than ‘harassing’ him about it, telling him I didn’t believe what he was saying or search the Internet for any answers it may provide. I’m not that ‘girl’. The one who just shows up and confronts someone. Especially when I don’t know what is real and my thinking was ‘if I’m not your person as you say, I won’t be made the fool of by doing that.’ 

Finally I broke down, I let him come over. He would come and fix things around my condo. Eat dinner or lunch. He bought me a gym membership at the gym next to his office so we could work out together every day. He was registered as the second parent on my son’s school paperwork and requested to be on the new schools as well. I got a dog and he asked me to wait so he could bring his when he “moved in”. So many little details. But I just kept trying to go on with my life as though it was and would be my son and I only. TRYING to at least. 

You see, during this entire time with him I never knew what was true. I never knew what to believe. I felt as though I was losing my mind so I tried to get away and just focus on my life. I’d say my son’s life too but I had never not focused on him (and that isn’t me claiming to be a perfect parent either because that I am not). I just never lost focus completely as many do in abusive relationships. I simply wanted to go forward. To not question him or my sanity daily. 

I wanted to not have the insane phone calls from him where he denied dating or involvement with anyone else and told me repeatedly “You are, and would always, be the love of my life,” even when his actions did not back that. I wanted the calls and mixed messages to stop. Everything was so confusing and insane, just as the call to tell me a week before dying again that—‘I am, was, and would always be, the love of his life, and his person--and he was sorry he didn’t have the leadership I have to do what he knew was right, but he wasn’t strong like me and he could merely teach rather than do.’

It was on these calls, as time progressed, and he’d been caught numerous times, that his confessions to me then became that he was being abused and couldn’t get away from this woman. (The one he’d denied dating and still to the day he died swore was the biggest mistake of his life because “she was supposed to be his friend and someone he could trust and he’d just been trying to help her.”). So after years of this daily insanity, I just wanted it done. For him as well as myself. The insanity of it all took its toll on both of us physically, mentally, spiritually, and in every way imaginable.

I told him I would be moving to California and I had met someone, a gorgeous doctor. That we would be getting married. All of this was true except the marriage part. It was the plan. I had met a gorgeous and kind doctor. I made arrangements for job and career moves, with my at the time company (but that is a story for another time). I had been to California and dated the doctor, drove the pacific coast highway with him in his Porsche convertible, made plans for the future, and felt that finally my life was turning a page. After years of being in my little island in Nebraska as this voice of HIV and all the things that brought (again a story for another time).

You see, I wanted what was best for this man throughout this entire experience, as bad as it became and to the point I isolated myself away from everything I loved, because this man loved me with all he had to love, but I couldn’t do it for him or fix him. Through the craziness of it all I wanted him to be happy. So I told him this plan I had, thinking he will finally be at peace and move on, and allow me to. Drop the facade and BS. Stop denying this woman and accusing her of abusing him and telling me that is why he’s there “because he can’t get away from her.” This was his way to keep me involved and concerned, checking on him daily; controlling and manipulating me and my life. I don’t believe he did so maliciously, he was just very confused and had suffered too much abuse of his own to understand that it was abuse. 

SO... 

You can imagine what it was like receiving a message from someone a week later telling me that he was dead and then finding out that he was literally living multiple lives telling different stories to all, and the police were investigating. There would be an autopsy and toxicology report, but not his colonel--or anyone else--could or would tell me why. Nor would they tell me why he wasn’t buried where he wanted to be-- by his best friend who died during a deployment. His CO said to call the police and tell them what you he told you about “her”. 

I never did find out how he died or what happened. I’ve had to come to terms with that. Find a way to find peace. After months of trying to avoid it. I can say that I’m starting to. It is hard to love someone so much and believe they were your soulmate, but to know they hurt and abused you worse than what anyone should ever have happen to them. To find out this person lied about you and said the same things he said about the other side to you, to them. Understanding the mix of emotions and the love and pain of it all has brought me to a place of self-understanding and acceptance, and LOVE, I never imagined.

Fast forward to today. I’m sitting in my bedroom, in Nebraska. It’s snowing outside; again. I didn’t move. My plans changed. I took the time I needed to take to deal with this and decide what I truly want so I could change my life and make it what I want it to be. As I am writing this I have not shed one tear. Because... it’s through this experience, that I literally thought would kill me and almost did, that I have found a strength I’ve never known. After years and a lifetime of one triumph over adversity after another, it changed my plans, my life, and it literally shook me to my core. It’s as though it’s some Lifetime made-up movie that doesn’t happen in real life. 

It is after this, though, that I know I will never allow, nor contribute, to this abuse again. That I won’t ever feel that because I am living with HIV that I should. That I won’t ever let the stigma and shame so many try to place on us make me feel I do not deserve more, or know that I do. Because we all do. But women, especially women living with HIV or AIDS, are susceptible to this. Not because we are “less than”. Not because we deserve it. Because so many of us are told by our families, friends and society that we are. We are told we are ugly, dirty, that we should hide. So we become more open to people and situations that are unhealthy and abusive.

After all this time, 7 years later, I can sit here and acknowledge my love. Forgive my part and his in the abuse and toxicity. I can understand that I will always carry certain feelings in me. That I may be a little more high-maintenance in a relationship because of these experiences. I can say I know who I am, what I want, what I offer, and at 36, I can make my life what I want it to be. How lucky am I that I found this now and not so much later as many do?

I will never speak badly about that man. I won’t blame him for the part I played or put all blame on him. I will always love him and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will always love me and loved all of me as well as my son. The life and abuse and experiences he endured simply created so much damage he wasn’t able to overcome it. It’s a shame, really, because he was so intelligent and funny, he excelled at everything he did. He lived to laugh, to joke, he was so happy he met his father and finally connected with him months before his passing. He loved being a dad. He loved animals. He loved the military, and he was to his core, military born and bred. He would always say to me “Janine, I don’t have to like people, I just have to care for them and protect them so they can live their life and be happy, I just don’t get to.”

To him: I forgive you and I hope you have forgiven yourself, I am so glad you’re at peace my friend, my love and my teacher. I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for you. I am “your person” and you were mine it just wasn’t meant to be, but you will always be part of me! Thank you for this experience and for changing me and my life. For helping me to grow and learn so much at such a young age. And thank you for showing me what true and unconditional love is. 

To anyone who reads this I hope that you can understand the message I’m trying to convey and how sincerely hard it was for me to write this. I hope it makes sense and helps you to heal, to leave a situation you should, to prioritize yourself; for your children or future children. To end the cycle of abuse. To be the change!

Always Positively Positive,
Janine Brignola 

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