What a Flooring Contractor Taught Me About Shame-Busting

We free ourselves for better things when secrecy and shame don't hold us back.

Posted Sep 03, 2018

The first flooring contractor I asked to bid on refinishing the tar-splattered, dirty old wood floor I found under the nasty gold nylon carpet, said something I never expected. “This is going to be a beautiful floor,” he said.

He educated me about antique heart-pine flooring, its history, durability, and high value. His recommendation for the missing and cheaply patched floorboards was to purchase “recovered” heart-pine boards that would match the rest of the floor. It wasn’t cheap. It would cost $1000 for the 70 linear feet needed for the job.

I got bids from three other contractors. One of them recommended that I simply use yellow pine boards to repair the odd boards, and “stain them to look like” the heart-pine in the rest of the floor.

I was back to the first guy. I like to work with people who know their stuff and take pride in their work.

I stayed at a friend’s place while the floors were sanded, patched, and refinished. The night I was able to go back into the apartment brought a startling experience—even bigger than going from renter to owner. 

The floor was stunning. The heart-pine is a deep golden color with reddish tones that ripen as the wood is exposed to light. 

Most impressive of all were the floors inside the two closets. Even in their deepest recesses, the heart-pine was as smooth and elegant in its simple coats of matte-finish polyurethane as it was in the middle of the living room.

Clearly, my floor man took a lot of pride in his work. The proof was right there in the floor under my feet. 

His outstanding work inspired me to imagine the rest of the 1924 apartment transformed, too. It set me on a journey over the next three years that would lead to what Washington, D.C. realtors eventually would call a “stunning renovation.” 

One of my guiding principles throughout the renovation was what I had learned from the man who refinished my floors: Literally don’t cut corners, not even an interior closet corner “no one sees.”

As I’m wont to do, I extrapolated from it another meaning: Don’t indulge a habit of hiding shameful secret “dark corners,” but expose them to light and liberate yourself from their weight.

That lesson would come in very handy only a few months after I finished the last phase of the renovation. The kitchen was the pièce de résistance, as it metamorphosed from being truly hideous into a marvel of maximized small space, with its natural cherry cabinets, blue pearl granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances.

I had barely begun to enjoy the fully renovated condo and new furniture I bought to complete the transformation, when unexpected news from my doctor brought me up short.

“I have bad news on the HIV test,” he said. As it turned out, not only did I have HIV but I also had just 198 T-cells, the white blood cells HIV attacks. A T-cell count below 200 at the time was considered an AIDS diagnosis.

It’s an understatement to say I was shocked. After reporting on HIV-AIDS for 20 years by then—as an HIV-negative gay man—and seeing so many of my friends die in their twenties and thirties, it was startling. 

It would require nothing less than a midlife crisis-size assessment of my life to that point—and going forward:  Who am I? What do I most value? What do I want most to do with whatever time remains in my life?

It took a few months to begin adjusting to my new status. But as soon as I was ready, I did what I like to joke “any self-respecting AIDS reporter would do”: I wrote a first-person HIV ‘coming out’ story—for the Washington Post

I gave an interview to Tom Ashbrook, on his NPR “On Point” show. When he pressed me on how I could have gotten infected with HIV “knowing all you know,” I finally said: Because I am human.

I owned that I had put myself in the way of HIV, despite all I knew, intellectually, about it. In the years since, I’ve learned more about the traumas in my life that undercut my self-esteem and good judgment and likely put me there. 

I’ve also learned about my resilience—and why even when I was faced with a catastrophic medical diagnosis, the very disease that had killed so many of my friends, I had such a strong sense that I would somehow be okay. I already had quite a history of surviving terrible experiences by then.

I had learned from that man who refinished my heart-pine floors that there is no shame when there aren’t shameful secrets. 

I don’t shout my HIV status from the rooftops. Nor do I shy from talking about it when it’s appropriate to a conversation or an interview. I reject the stigma by refusing to turn it upon myself.

Maybe your secret place is “only” the innermost corners of a closet floor. Maybe, as for me, it’s a medical diagnosis some insist is “shameful” but that you, we, simply chalk up as just an example of the prices we pay for being human.

Whatever it is, we liberate ourselves—literally free up energy—when we reject the shame others tell us we “should” feel, that would “be normal” in our circumstances. The fewer places that “no one sees,” the better off we are.

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