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Shameless (finally): Neil's story

02 June 2021

bp employee Neil McGuinness talks about living with a ‘shame hot potato’ and the consequences

“He said yes! With my fiancé on the day I proposed in February 2020”

In 1970, my mother (then aged 42) was convinced she had a kidney stone.  And a couple of months later, I was born – even in the womb I was meant to be something else!


Born into chaos (I am the youngest of six children) and, since homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993, born a criminal. I walked in Pride marches when it was still illegal to be gay, the rush of adrenaline mixed with the fear of someone maybe recognizing me.  Fear has been a constant in my life, as has the accompanying adrenaline hit. 


As a kid, I knew fear – fear of being hit in school (corporal punishment was still legal), fear of my dad being drunk, fear of being found out: I wasn’t into girls. There were fun times too, long summer evenings playing along the canal, community project visits to Dublin airport (that was a huge treat) and singing in choirs. But there was an undercurrent of fear, complicated by layers of shame and secrecy.


When I was 12, Mrs O’Driscoll asked me “Neilo, what are you going to be when you grow up?” “I don’t know, but I won’t be living here” and I used my father’s time working in Canada years before as the reason I wanted to travel. Aged 12 I knew how to lie, and I knew that I had to leave Dublin before anybody found out I was gay.

By age 14 I had the solution – I’d become a priest and that way since I wouldn’t be getting married, nobody would have to know. I only lasted three months in the seminary, was forced to come out to my parents and discovered the small, close-knit gay community of Dublin. David Norris, The Diceman (the light of heaven to you Tom) and Philomena Moore were some of the characters I was fortunate to meet.


My coming out got ahead of itself and suddenly I was telling anyone who’d listen - I discovered it was a way of being different. Whatever the motivation, the consequences weren’t always positive.

Coming out wasn’t enough to correct my deeply held shame. For me, shame is the belief that we are less than; that by being who we are, we are wrong. It would take many years for me to unpick that and start to heal.

True to my word I left Dublin, initially for Australia. Then Luxembourg, Then Chile. Then France. Then London. Then Madrid. Then London again. Everywhere I went my 12-year-old was saying “can’t stay here must move on”. Before I left to live in Chile, a neighbour of ours in Dublin joked (in that typical dry Dublin way) “Delhi? ah they’ll find out about you there eventually” – how did she know? I was 29.


A bad break-up in Chile left me desperate for validation. And never having been taught boundaries or self-care, my behaviours were reckless. I was diagnosed hiv positive.


That’s not a typo – I refuse to give it capitals. 


Shame became extra-large shame with a side order of shame, a shame salad and finished with shame ice cream topped with shame sprinkles. And a very large shameless glass of red wine.


Facing up to how I had acted out and the hurt that I had caused, mostly linked to my internal shame was, I discovered, the way to address my shame. One therapist described it as the “shame hot potato” - it gets passed on until someone drops the potato. I needed to drop the hot potato.

But not before I changed religion, climbed mountains (with no training), and was friendly with princes and ambassadors – not bad for the lad from the Dublin Liberties, and my mother had plenty to tell the neighbours. Basically, I would have done anything to distract you from who I really was. I could even do it in four languages.

I started to go to a therapist back in 2013, here in London. We unpicked my childhood, some of which I had never looked at in previous therapy. Each week she would ask me “how are you going to keep yourself safe this week Neilo?”. I work for bp, I know all about staying safe. But of course, the therapist meant healthy emotional boundaries. I needed to discover my internal handrail and hold on to it. 

Each evening after therapy, or just each evening, I was having a bottle of wine at home on my sofa. With paté – because I’m sophisticated like that. I would try dry January, giving up alcohol for Lent (you never really leave), or just Monday to Friday - Tuesday was my new Friday. 


I was doing all this heavy lifting in therapy, and then soothing myself with booze. And looking back, that’s what I needed to do. My home was never under threat, and neither was my job – but all I was really doing was replacing one source of shame (being gay and hiv positive) with another (oh no, did I really just finish that whole bottle of wine?).


In January 2018 I decided to do Dry January, but this time I’d go to Alcoholics Anonymous for the month for a bit of support. And by February I’d have proven to myself that I’m not an alcoholic.

I went for the drinking, and I stayed for the thinking. I am an alcoholic – alcohol affects me physically, emotionally and spiritually, in a way it doesn’t affect a lot of people. Getting sober from booze has given me space to breathe. It has allowed me to see who I am, to realise I’m a decent guy and to face up to the sources of shame in my life.   


Living with hiv in the UK in 2021 means I have access to medication and care which give me the same life expectancy as someone who is not living with hiv. And being undetectable (the virus is not traceable in my system) means I cannot pass the virus on. I’ve gone from dealing with my diagnosis, to learning to live with hiv, to living well.


The North star of my life is no longer shame. Now I have honesty, willingness and an open mind as three of my compass points. The fourth one is my internal handrail, and I’m holding on.


“Gardening is an optimist’s game – I plant and then cross my fingers!”

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