Living with Aids

Pic posed by model

Most of us probably can’t imagine what it feels like to be told you are HIV positive. But for James O’ Connor his worst nightmare came true in 1991 when at just 27 years of age he was given the horrific news he hoped he’d never hear. “I’ll never forget that weekend,” says James. “The doctor called me into this really cold part of the hospital. I sat down on a chair, he sat on the table and looked me in the eye and then said it, ‘The test has come back, and you’re HIV Positive.’” “It was like a train hitting me full force, on a railway track, on my own, in the middle of the country. I will never forget that – all my plans, everything, slipping away. And then the worst part – how would I tell my family?” James had been sick for a while but he had pushed it to the back of his mind. “I couldn’t face it,” he explains. “In the late 80s HIV meant death – pure and simple.” Having grown up with six siblings on a small farm in the midlands of Ireland, he had taken off for London at the age of 18. It was there, before the age of 21 that he estimates he contracted the virus. At the age of 25 he started to get ill and then by 1991 he had started blacking out. “I had very high blood pressure,” explains James. “I was working very hard. I remember one time driving from Dublin to Cork and I felt a blackout coming on – so I timed it. When I came around it was three hours later.” Finally James went into St. James hospital and was diagnosed with HIV. It was then he had to tell his family. “My twin brother came up to Dublin. That was very difficult because it was like telling a mirror image of yourself that you have Aids. And we both knew that I was probably going to die at that stage. We dealt with it. He was supportive and then I asked him to go home and invite my mother to come up. “When I told my mother I could see the blood draining from her face, she went pure white, but she was supportive in a kind way, without saying too many words. Then she went home and told the rest of my family.” For two years James tried to carry on as normal but it was no use. “I had to retire from work when I was about 29 because I started to become sicker and sicker.” James explains how the physical sickness was not as bad as the mental torment of his disease. “There were two things I had to deal with. One was the physical sickness of going to hospital – the other part was hiding it from people, thinking: what if my neighbours find out in the local town? That was the worst part – the social isolation.” “When I was working in the hospital in 1992, I happened to cut my hand when I was walking through a door. “About ten minutes later I was back in a huge room with lots of people and the supervisor said, ‘James, you left some blood on the door!’” “I calculated that the virus would have died within two minutes so I said, ‘Ah sure wipe it off!’ and he shouted back. ‘F**k off! I don’t want to catch Aids!’ This was in front of 32 people. It was my hell – that was my fear, my stigma, what if people found out – it was utterly hell.” In the Spring of 1997, HAART – the Highly Active Anti-Retroviral, started to kick in he started to feel well again. “When I got well I made a decision. It was then I said I needed support, and it was then that I found Open Heart House.” Founded in 1997, Open Heart House is Ireland’s largest peer support network of HIV positive people. With the support of people in Open Heart House James became more public around his HIV status, however, he still won’t be photographed for the press. “People living with HIV can be your sister your brother, your partner your friend, your employer or your employer or employee,” says James. “ “At that time my self esteem was so low I was dragging it around in a suitcase. Today my self esteem and self confidence is pretty okay thanks to organisations such as Open Heart House. For me, knowing someone finally understood after years of isolation was better then winning the lotto. And for that, I will forever be grateful.” To mark World Aids Day Wednesday 1st December, Open Heart House in partnership with MAC Cosmetics and Abbot Pharmaceuticals took part in a 24 hour Sleep Out in Dublin city centre. For more information go to