If you follow me a little on social networks, you know what I'm going to talk about today.
How do you combine HIV and your professional life? Or rather how I managed to combine the two?
I think it would be interesting to retrace my journey from the moment I found out I was HIV-positive.
At the time, in 2008, I was a supervisor at Le Bon Marché for a textile brand. I had my own corner. I had a few sick days at the very beginning of the announcement, just to digest the information a little. This was followed by a number of doctor's appointments and hospital visits. I soon realised that my absences could affect the smooth running of the outlet. I spontaneously asked my company to transfer me to the shop so that I would no longer be alone and would feel a little less pressure due to my absences.
I was pampered by my colleagues for a few months. I don't think I had an easy time of it, but I have really good memories of the team around me at the time. On the other hand, I couldn't stand the customers. The slightest whim made me aggressive and I had more and more difficulty filtering, especially as I was starting my treatment at the time and the side effects were literally screwing me up. I had quite a few breaks in the first six months. I even got a kind of jaundice and when I went back to the shop to work, I was accused of having gone off to have a good time in the sun, when it was nothing like that.
My manager, who had this very maternal role with the whole team, had resigned. A former colleague had replaced her and clearly had an ambition that was beyond me. I didn't want to adapt, to submit. I didn't want that. I just wanted to be surrounded by a benevolent cocoon and not to be bothered with the "customer hook". I started to visualise other projects like leaving Paris because my boyfriend was living in Caen at the time. Then this vision ended up becoming real.
One day, I was called for an interview where I was told that my problems were taking up too much space and that I had to do something. I asked for a contractual termination because there was no way I was going to quit. After days of waiting and "You know, no one has ever had a break here...", I got it. So I must have been really problematic.
I left. I moved to Caen to D I floated for nine months wondering what I was going to do with my life. I looked for training courses, I helped D's brother a bit with his shop project, especially with the logo design. I loved doing that: nine months without working, reading, thinking...
When D and I split up, I came back to Paris straight away, with a whole new outlook and a completely different energy than when I left. And I finally had an idea for a job that would make me happy. With my degree in fashion design, I had naturally developed an attraction for merchandising during my experience in sales: making the windows, dressing the mannequins, taking care of the scenography... I decided to make it my job.
Even though I knew nothing about it at the time, I was lucky enough to meet the right people at the right time who trusted me.
I quickly found a job and I made it a point not to mention HIV. I wanted to be treated like anyone else and be as invisible as possible. Until one day I had the misfortune to talk about it to someone who couldn't hold her tongue. I think the whole company knew about it very quickly. Just before I confided in this colleague, I had been absent for a month because of a suicide attempt. So I had taken her into my confidence to explain my action. As you can imagine, the suicide attempt was strongly linked to the non-acceptance of my HIV status, the radical changes in my life at that time (moves, break-ups, etc.) and above all the fact that I was unable to verbalise how I had contracted HIV. My silence about the assault was eating away at me and I was unable to understand it.
My job was really keeping me out of trouble, so I found the strength to come back and face my colleagues on a daily basis, knowing that my status was known to almost everyone. It was very hard for me. I had not decided to tell them. This need for invisibility was taken away from me and it ended up eating away at me.
At the same time, I had to take over the position of our manager, who was on maternity leave, with my partner for six months. Inevitably, during this period, I had become more confident. When I saw my new duties taken away from me on her return, I had a very hard time with it, supported by very poor human relations management on her part.
After one too many remarks during the umpteenth feedback session, while she was talking to me, I knew I would never set foot in that place again. The next day I handed in my resignation, handing in my badge, discount card and asking not to have to give notice. This was accepted.
I think what I did at the time was akin to a burn-out, not just related to my job but to my life in general. I was living in a flat share and it was going very badly. There was no place in my daily life where I felt good. At home it was horrible, at work it was hell, and emotionally I had been dumped overnight by a boy I had been dating for a few months without any explanation. Nothing was right.
I left the flat share and went to live with my best friend for a few months until I found a job and a flat. In a hurry, I sold a bit more because I couldn't decently stay with him forever.
At the same time, I continued my search for a job in merchandising and eventually found one. The position I found myself in matched my expectations in terms of responsibility.
HIV was always under the radar, despite the nausea at times, the daily diarrhoea, the very difficult awakenings. I learnt from this experience that I liked responsibility and that I could have it by being benevolent and respectful of my colleagues. At that time, HIV was no longer an obsession because it had disappeared. I had managed to turn my professional life into a bubble where I was the average guy, the one I couldn't be in private. I needed that. I confided in myself sometimes, when stronger bonds were formed with colleagues who had become friends, but this time it was my choice.
The lie naturally became part of my daily life: "I missed my alarm clock", when I had an appointment at the hospital. "I got a stomach bug", when in fact I had just changed my treatment and was nauseous. Everything about HIV in my workplace was gone. Again, it was necessary for me not to be visible at that time. I can still hear my N+2 reacting: "Are you still sick?
Because yes, most of the time I didn't stop working. I would come in with a sullen face and of course I had to justify my tired face.
In the meantime, the company I was in was bought out. I changed jobs and employers twice.
It was at this time that I met N, with whom I stayed for almost four years.
After we broke up at the end of 2016, little by little I refocused on myself, without distractions, and obviously my silences were consuming me and costing me far too much in my personal life.
I am very lucky today because I have found an employer who knows how to listen to me, who agreed that I should leave Paris to live in Bordeaux, far from the head office to which I am attached, because he understood that my personal balance depended on it.
Almost a year ago, I felt ready. Nothing frightened me anymore. My invisibility was no longer necessary because I had stripped myself of everything that was holding me back. I had no more excuses to hide. And above all, I no longer had the desire to do so.
I believe that these years of silence were necessary to rebuild my self-confidence and to prove to myself that I could undertake a professional career with responsibilities without fear of being judged on my serology (judged by myself and others). I have largely proved it. Being HIV-positive does not prevent you from being able to exercise the profession of your choice. It is possible to have to arrange your time sometimes for a hospital appointment and today if I have to go, I no longer lie. I have a relationship of total trust with my manager. I am much more fulfilled by simply being able to say things rather than fabricating a reality that fits. Much more proud of myself too.
It is obvious that these years of silence are above all the result, beyond the time I needed to accept this upheaval, of a very poor management of the human being in the professional environment when confronted with this type of event. I adopted this invisibility out of necessity, to protect myself. Do I have to separate my personal life from my professional life? This is an unlikely exercise because in both cases I am lying.
When I see the steps I had to go through to get back the place I was supposed to occupy, all because society does not know how to deal with people like me, I tell myself that this work of education and information could also be done in companies. As a manager, I regularly attend training courses to be aware of harassment, discrimination, etc. I don't have the answers on how to deal with this.
I don't have the answers on how the human resources of companies could deal with these issues, but I am convinced that a fundamental work could be done.
This is also why I am speaking out, to create dialogue and exchange. Some colleagues have naturally asked me for help and our exchanges have been great. Others probably have the modesty not to want to be too intrusive.
There is still a taboo about the disease, and it must be removed. It will potentially be part of all our lives, in one way or another, at some point, and it is certain that maintaining social invisibility with regard to it will not bring any benefits.