Actor puts on a show for World Aids Day
NATHANIEL Hall contracted HIV when he was 16 years old.
He had only recently come out as gay.
Frightened, confused and ashamed, he kept the diagnosis a secret from his parents for 14 years.
Last November the strain of ‘living a lie’ led to what he describes as a ‘mini-breakdown’ and he knew he had to tell his loved ones the truth.
Last weekend the Stockport-raised theatre actor, writer, producer and activist, now 32, put on a oneman show based on his experiences to mark World Aids Day.
Here, in his own words, he describes his struggles growing up with HIV. AGED 16 I met a guy in Stockport who was older than me. We started a relationship. It was my first openly gay relationship.
It only lasted for a short time over the summer.
As a result of that relationship I contracted HIV. I found out two weeks after my 17th birthday.
It was like being hit by a bus. I don’t really remember being told, I just remember going home and having to make this decision as to whether I told my parents.
When I told him [the boyfriend, about the HIV diagnosis], I got messages from his friends saying I was just a silly little boy and I was making it up.
I just really wanted him to get tested and get the treatment required so that he wouldn’t pass it on, because most infections come from people who don’t know they have the virus.
But I never found out whether he knew. He told me that he had been tested and that he had a clean bill of health.
I was acutely aware I had grown up gay. My parents knew I was gay. We’d had the conversation about safe sex, so there was a lot of embarrassment and shame.
As a gay teenager in the 90s school wasn’t particularly a happy place.
There was a lot of homophobic bullying that went unchecked.
As a gay man you get this message, through TV, through the media, from society in general that being gay is shameful. As you grow up you have almost this internalised homophobia - and it’s hard to overcome that.
So while all that was going on the shame and stigma of an HIV diagnosis was added on top. It was a very powerful thing - it still is.
I chose not to tell my family. I thought I would at some point, once I’d got my head round it, but then days turned into weeks, into months and into years.
The longer I left it the longer it felt like I was living a lie.
Over 14 years there were bouts of depression, lots of anxiety. There was a lot of alcohol, drugs. I was just trying to blot things out.
I realised I had a problem last year. I looked in a mirror and didn’t recognise who I was.
I felt that if I didn’t do something about it it could spiral into something really serious.
As a theatre-maker I write a lot, I write poetry and I write my thoughts and feelings down, just to try and make sense of them.
So one afternoon I sat down and wrote all my thoughts down in letters to my family to explain what had happened.
It was a way of saying I need you to help me. I tried to do it so many times before in person, but just couldn’t.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to post them, but afterwards I felt really calm, so I sent them off straight away so that I couldn’t sabotage myself.
The response was really underwhelming to be honest. My family are very, very supportive. I got a few texts and calls saying they were really sorry I’d had to go through it myself.
But that’s great. They were just quite matter-offact about it.
It still an ongoing process. The conversation is still going on.
It was a huge relief, it felt really freeing - it still does. I’m a lot calmer now. My anxiety is getting better. I’d get a really tight feeling in my chest, that’s not nearly as bad now and it’s definitely because I’ve told my family.
When I was working on the idea for the show with my colleagues they asked if I was definitely sure I wanted to make it all about me. But that was the most crucial thing.
I know lots of people with HIV who are keeping it a secret from their work, from their family - and they shouldn’t have to.
It was so important to say ‘This is me,’ without any shame.
If it inspires just one person living with HIV to say I am going to live without shame then I have done my job - I will be very happy.”
‘If it inspires just one person living with HIV... then I have done my job’
●●Actor Nathaniel Hall