HIV-positive - first Moritz had to digest the shock. Then he meets Thomas at the AIDS-Hilfe centre - the same age, also a student, also HIV-positive. His own personal "buddy" is there to show him that it IS possible to live a normal life with HIV.

What does a man with HIV look like? Moritz didn't have the faintest idea when he walked into the small consultation room in the Freiburg AIDS-Hilfe centre. A simple room: a table and two chairs. Thomas* was sitting there. "I looked at him and just thought: wow, sexy!" Moritz says with a laugh, because the two words didn't seem to fit together: "HIV" and "sexy."

"My buddy looked frighteningly healthy," the 26-year-old literature student remembers with a grin. Until then, the only HIV-positive person that Moritz knew had been himself, and he was scared of the changes to his body.

That was six months after Moritz's initial HIV diagnosis. The meeting with his "buddy" had been an offer from the AIDS-Hilfe centre. The project was called PUMA - which stands for the German "Positive Unterstützung - Miteinander aktiv" ("Positive Support - Active Together"). The idea behind it: one buddy who has just found out they have HIV is paired with another who has been living with it for years and can give them tips. Ideally, the buddies should have a similar background. Thomas is just a few years older than Moritz, also a student, also gay.

"Saying it aloud meant accepting I was HIV-positive"

The way he talks about it, it doesn't seem as though the HIV infection burdens him much. Tanned and wearing a colourful stripy shirt that looks as if it's back to front, he sits relaxed, leaning back a long way, his hands behind his head. But in the three years since his diagnosis, the issue hasn't left him in peace. "I had this urgent need to meet someone else who was HIV-positive," says Moritz. "I wanted to know: how do you live with HIV?"

The first meeting between Moritz and his buddy was rather formal, and there was a safety net: a member of the centre staff with psychological training was sitting in the next room. "If I'd broken down, he would've been there for me," says Moritz. But there's been no trace of a breakdown - in fact, Moritz is doing great.

"The meeting made something click inside me," he remembers today. "I didn't get that moment anymore, where I look at myself and get the feeling: here I am, this sick guy - and all these healthy people all around me." That was a feeling that often came over him at parties and other social occasions.

Moritz and Thomas made a connection straight away. They set up their next meeting outside the centre, in a café, before uni. Breakfast starts with a lesson on "Everyday life with HIV." "Thomas just took his pills right there with his cappuccino," Moritz says. "I thought to myself, 'oh wow - you can be so cool about it?'" Only later did Moritz find out that Thomas had thought for a long time about whether he really should take his pills in front of him. "But that was what was really good," Moritz says. "It showed me that HIV can be normal. It just depends on how you deal with it."   

Moritz waited a while before he emailed the AIDS-Hilfe centre. Why should he? It wasn't like he was alone - when the first HIV test came out positive and he had to wait a week for the result of the confirmation test, his friends and siblings were there to worry with him. His best friend came with him to the doctor's appointment. He told his parents straight afterwards. "I spoke to a lot of people about it," says Moritz. "Because I feel better when I can talk about these things." But to out himself in front of a stranger? He couldn't imagine that. "Talking about it out loud meant accepting HIV. And at first I didn't want to accept I was HIV-positive." 

Out and about with your buddy - HIV pills with your cappuccino

It took six weeks until Moritz was "brave enough." "I didn't even know how I was supposed to introduce myself," he remembers. "Am I supposed to say: Hi, my name is Moritz and my test came out positive? Like in those clichéd Alcoholics Anonymous scenes in Hollywood comedies?" But he didn't feel like laughing. "It's not about saying that line out loud," Moritz has now learned. "You have to be able to say it to yourself. But that only works once you've come to terms with the infection."

Moritz took the step of going to the AIDS-Hilfe centre on his own. His buddy accompanied him on the next steps. "He even dragged me along to the seminars for HIV-positive people," he says, laughing. He would never have thought of going himself, but the meetings were just right for him. "Everyone contributes something, so that this sort of optimistic bubble forms," is how Moritz describes the mood at the meetings. "You take that feeling with you, and then at some point you've internalized all that optimism." With every meeting, Moritz got closer to the point where he could finally accept the truth that had oppressed him so much at first - and live with it.

Just two years later Moritz took the biggest step of all: Moritz revealed to the entire country that he was HIV-positive - by becoming ambassador for the "Living Positively Together" campaign on World Aids Day. His face in the newspapers, his face on TV. It's probably difficult to come out any more effectively than on the German TV show "RTL Punkt 12." "I was only on it for three seconds, but it felt like everyone in Freiburg had seen it," says Moritz.

In the bistro where he was working at the time, the boys in the kitchen started to talk about him. His boss took him to one side for a chat, during which the most important thing he said was, "Of course you can still work here!" "I was so happy," Moritz recalls. "But he was worried that the news would cause chaos in his bistro." So Moritz decided to inform all his colleagues. "I took them all aside and cleared the air." Including those who hadn't seen the RTL show. The reactions? "Totally unbelievable."

Moritz told his colleagues on the late shift at three in the morning, after they'd closed up. They all sat round a table together and had a drink. "At some point I just took out the campaign poster and put it on the table," he says.

The poster read, "I have HIV. And the support of my friends." One barkeeper picked up the poster and looked at it in silence. Moritz laughs quietly when he remembers the scene. "You have to imagine this great big guy, 1.85 metres - this big muscley guy with short-cropped hair. He was holding it in his hand - and then he started to cry."

The empathy overwhelmed Moritz. "For this guy to let all these emotions overtake him, these feelings he didn't owe me at all - I never thought that would happen." Many good conversations followed. Six times Moritz gathered his courage and outed himself. In front of 40 co-workers. "All six times I didn't know how my colleagues would react."

The whole of Freiburg saw him out himself on TV

And all six times, Moritz's courage was rewarded. He has HIV, and that's okay - for him and for the people around him. "After the bistro business I knew: it's going to be awhile before anything bad happens to me."

In the bistro, at uni, in his relationship with his last boyfriend - Moritz has learned that life with HIV can go on. He doesn't need treatment at the moment, he's doing okay. And he hasn't forgotten that this new chapter in his life started with his buddy. "Through him I saw that life can go well - even with HIV." 

Philip Eicker

*Name changed

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