A Northern Ireland actor has revealed how he was driven to the brink of suicide by the abuse he received after he discovered he was HIV positive.
To mark World Aids Day today, 21-year-old Matthew Cavan has bravely decided to tackle head-on the stigma of the virus.
Despite enduring years of distressing homophobic bullying during his teens, Matthew describes how the last year, since his diagnosis in September 2009, was the most difficult of his life.
The misery that forced him to the point where he felt life wasn’t worth living was not caused by the shock of facing life as an HIV-positive man, but was as a direct result of the terrible shame which is still associated with the disease.
“Having to live with the stigma has forced more HIV-positive people to die because of suicide than of any aspect of the disease,” said Matthew.
Especially disturbing for Matthew was the response from the gay community in Belfast. As word spread of his condition, he found himself increasingly isolated, and on one occasion was stunned to be asked to leave one of his favourite gay bars.
Management explained that they feared he could infect others if they were to drink from the glass he had used.
“It was a real insight for me into the extent of the ignorance and the stigma which still exists,” he said.
“In a way those people have done me a huge favour, they have made me strong enough to stand up and talk about my experience and try to do something positive to help people with HIV and their families.”
No longer the death sentence it once was, the development of antiretroviral drugs has meant that HIV patients can now live a full life.
Despite millions being spent on public awareness campaigns, it seems that fear of the virus still exists.
Coming to terms with his diagnosis was just the latest in a series of shocks for Matthew’s loving family, who have supported him through many traumatic years as he dealt with his sexuality.
Matthew is the youngest of four in a devout Christian family in Carrickfergus, where the church is very much the focus of their lives — his mother Kathy was an elder and his sisters Sarah and Vicky were Sunday school teachers in the former Downshire Presbyterian Church.
Matthew was only nine when he first suspected he might be gay.
More interested in the arts and drama than PE and football at school, he became the victim of intense bullying throughout his teenage years.
“I would say from first year to fifth year there wasn’t a single day when I wasn’t taunted and called names such as ‘gay boy’, ‘faggot’, ‘queer’ or ‘poof’.
“I also got death letters written in blood and threats sent over the internet. It was so bad that it made me feel that being gay must be the worst thing in the world, and it made me feel horrible and dirty.”
It was at 16 that he finally found the courage to tell his family and was immediately relieved by their acceptance of his sexuality.
“I was very scared about how they would react,” recalls Matthew.
“I told my brother David first and it was so hard, but he was brilliant and supported me in telling my parents and my sisters, who were all fantastic about it,” he said.
As he went on to live his life openly gay Matthew was always cautious about his sexual health, so much so that he had regular screenings for diseases and tests for HIV.
He knows the exact night that he contracted the virus, which came after he had taken alcohol and visited a gay bar in Belfast.
The shock of his diagnosis is something he will never forget: “I instantly felt dirty. It was almost as if I could feel the virus pumping through my body.”
Once again his family was there to support him through the worst of it and his lowest point in August when despair drove him to consider suicide.
“I had finished a two-month run with a play in London and had no real goal, and I think that’s when it really hit me.
“I was going down and down and had turned slightly mental for a while, seeing things and hearing voices. I wrote a suicide note, but must have had a sane moment when I rang Lifeline.
“I’ve had a lot of help from the crisis response team at Holywell Hospital, which has helped get me to this point where I feel strong enough to talk about it and want to share my experience.”
Matthew has now decided to focus on raising money to help fund projects to support people with HIV and their families in Northern Ireland.
“If people are told they have cancer or diabetes they wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell someone, so why should people with HIV be embarrassed?
“I have been shocked by the ignorance and more than anything I want people to be aware of HIV so that we can remove the stigma.
“I was diagnosed a year ago and if anything I am a better person now because of it, I am still Matthew and still a son, brother, uncle and friend, nothing has changed there.
“It hasn’t made me a dirty person or a sick person.”
Matthew is staging a charity event called HIV Variety Performance in the Crescent Arts Centre today to help fund a new service for instant HIV testing by the Belfast Rainbow Centre.
Tickets are available at the door. Doors open at 7.30pm and the show starts at 8pm.