Jamie stood in his kitchen, hands clutching the top of the chair. My friend was swaying gently from side to side. He was obviously anxious. I knew he had something important to tell me. I looked directly at him and our eyes met. We were going to have dinner and I had been excited earlier. Now I didn't know what to expect. There was a short silence as I waited, suspense mounting. I had a burgeoning sense of apprehension. Jamie announced he had Hep C and had been Hep C positive for a number of years. My muscles tensed, the soles of my feet arched inside my shoes and I inhaled sharply, but inaudibly. I was startled. Jamie was a good friend and I had known about his HIV since first meeting him, but I didn't have any idea he was Hep C positive. I felt an inexplicable sinking feeling inside. I was Hep C positive as well. And I dared not confide my secret.
He told me more about his HIV and Hep C. I tried to be my normal reassuring self. Being co-infected had caused complications and Jamie had been in and out of hospital a few years ago. Everything was stable now. I masked the fear, confusion and relief cascading over me. My mind raced with a hundred different thoughts, all screaming at me. A few platitudes popped into my head. I said that I was so sorry this had happened to him. I told him he looked fabulous and healthy. He smiled at me. I had been diagnosed with Hep C the previous year, in 2010, and had never met anyone outside the HIV clinic I knew was Hep C positive too. I felt awkward and selfish. I am selfish. He sighed and walked over to the fridge. There was another silence. My friend is very intelligent and perceptive. My thoughts were preoccupied with dissimulation. I want to emphasise that I hate lying. I'm not good at lying. I like to think it's my honesty and candour which make me likeable. I don't think he guessed at all though.
He started to tell me about his Hep C treatment. Sometimes he would still drink a glass of champagne, although he had to be careful. I felt guilty. I was so healthy. My doctor had determined that, at present, I didn't need any treatment at all. Instead I would wait for the medical advances which were taking place. I lied to Jamie and said I didn't know that much about Hep C, evasively conceding that I'd heard it was a problem now on the gay scene. I gave Jamie short answers, trying to sound effusive about his treatment. Somehow my monosyllabic responses rang hollow. What he told me frightened me, but I blandly responded that his treatment sounded great and that I was sure he would be ok. He spoke stoically, but there was an underlying sadness. I listened and smiled, but was pleased when the conversation moved on. Three weeks ago I had an appointment with my HIV and Hep C specialist, who informed me that the NHS now has access to an incredible new treatment. The new treatment lasts twelve weeks, is over ninety per cent effective and has no side effects. I have discussed further how the treatment options for Hep C impacted me in QX Magazine's Shame & Sexuality Series.
It felt wrong not to tell Jamie about my own Hep C. I wanted to be there for my friend and support him. Had I told him I'm sure I would have been more empathetic and I could have expressed my solidarity. I longed to speak to someone else who was Hep C positive about my diagnosis, yet my emotions were conflicted. I was ashamed in a way I never had been before and was unsure where I fitted in sexually. I felt distanced from other HIV positive men on account of my Hep C. It was a few years after my initial diagnosis before I felt confident enough to disclose my Hep C status broadly. Not telling Jamie that evening fed into the sense of paranoia I was experiencing around my Hep C. Talking about my Hep C diffused my anxiety. I did not give my friend the support he needed and was not being appropriately supported as I found it hard to be honest, even with myself. Not telling him seemed like a betrayal of our friendship and a rejection of the trust he was placing in me. Shame, fear and denial were intertwined, leaving me insecure and vulnerable.