I was 23 when I was first diagnosed with HIV. There were millions of thoughts swirling through my head, from shit, when am I going to die, to, am I ever going to get laid again. An HIV diagnosis is a loss, just like if you were to lose a friend or loved one. For me, I feel like I lost my youth and my youthful state of mind. It felt like a huge weight to carry. With this diagnosis, I now had to adjust to having a permanent, murderous, uninvited house guest. I have a virus in my body, and if I don’t learn how to be a good host and take care of myself and it, I will develop AIDS, and eventually die. This was a sudden, heavy responsibility, and I thought, if I value my place in this world at all, I need to face this head on and move the fuck forward. The first way I did that was by committing to taking medication. One pill once a day is sure to keep the AIDS away.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a perfectionist, and probably to a fault. I want a perfect body and perfect skin. I want everything I do and everything around me to look and be perfect too. HIV was a real shock to that system), and one of the ways I’ve coped with this psychologically and emotionally was to tell myself, ‘well at least I’m still young and cute.’ My fast metabolism and ample collagen production have faithfully backed me up on this claim now for years. No matter how hard I partied. No matter how much I self-medicated with food, drink, and drugs, my body has been there for me. Poor thing, my body. She’s quietly put up with so much of my bullshit just so I could focus on learning to be resilient and heal myself from the inside.

When I squint and flex in the right lighting, I can actually still see the musculature I worked so hard to develop over my 15 years as a young athlete. Lately, though, I can feel my body growing tired of my old song and dance. I can’t kid myself or run away from it anymore. Fat is placing itself differently and more generously now, and my skin is not as eager to bounce back, as I’ve trained my mind to over these last 9 years.

I know, 32 is not that old, but it sure is older than 23. I’m aging with HIV. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood and the Kardashians. Women in this town are torn apart and all but thrown out as soon as we show signs of aging. If I were an actress, traditionally, my on-screen role options would be shifting right about now from ‘free spirited and sexy love interest’ to ‘cool hippie aunt who owns too many cats and will never get married.’ I don’t think that ‘too many cats’ is even a thing, but that’s not the point. I’m seeing these roles change around me in real life too. All of my friends are now married with kids and I just got into my first ever healthy relationship. I’ve spent so long trying to regain the youth I felt I lost with diagnosis. I’ve worked so hard to develop that sense of confidence again. And I just got my groove back, I’m not ready to give it up!

And even as I’m saying this, I realize how much privilege it is to be in this place, where I’m worrying about these silly things and not my imminent death. I’m more worried about cellulite than my t-cells. I’m freaking out over creases around my eyes instead of the increase of virus taking over my body. I’m more concerned about putting on weight than wasting away. Freddie Mercury is rolling in his grave right now listening to me being an ungrateful little princess. If Freddie could talk to me today, he’d tell me that it’s time to step into my Queen.

In this world where the glow of youth is valued so highly, I now need to learn how to accept and adapt to the physical changes that inevitably come with age, and I’m having a really hard time with it. I wanted to be cute and young forever. I miss looking in the mirror and seeing my spritely physicality there to reassure me that, as far as our society is concerned, I’m still worthy of being lusted after.

For so long, I sought validation through physical means. Because I could and it was fun, easy, and readily available. Again, I know that 32 is not that old, and I know I’m still pretty damn cute. I also know what some might be thinking right now; I could go to the gym, change my diet a bit, and there are creams and procedures for this kind of thing. But KelIy’s tired...and hungry...and broke. And besides, I refuse to do the needle and scalpel thing, and start what I know would inevitably become yet another toxic cycle for myself. Besides, this isn’t just superficial. HIV comes with chronic fatigue, and my joints are not as forgiving as they once were. These bodies are not made to grow younger, that’s not how this works. In this next chapter of my life, I am consciously and intentionally choosing to love and value myself, mind, spirit, HIV, aging face, body, and all.