When Big Brother 8 winner Dick Donato signed up to appear on VH1’s Couples Therapy, he decided to use the show to go public with a very personal struggle: He has been living with HIV since 2011.
The reality-TV villain, who often goes by the nickname “Evel Dick,” is appearing on the VH1 show with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Stephanie Rogness-Fischer. On Wednesday’s episode of Couples Therapy, he’ll reveal his struggle with the show’s therapist, Dr. Jenn Berman. In an upcoming episode, he will share the news with the rest of the show’s cast, including The Bachelor‘s Juan Pablo Galavis and Nikki Ferrell.
In a candid interview, Donato, 51, tells PEOPLE about his journey – and how living with HIV has changed him.
Donato was competing on season 13 of Big Brother when producers called him into the house’s Diary Room. “They told me that something was wrong with my blood test,” he says. “They had done two HIV tests. One had come back positive and the other had come back negative.” The show’s doctor took more blood. Two hours later, Donato learned the life-changing news. “When they told me, I just went numb,” he says. With little explanation, Donato left the show. “They had a car take me from CBS to my mother’s house. She was the first person I told.”
“My biggest fear was telling my girlfriend,” Donato continues. “We had this long discussion, and I figured she would freak out. But she was really understanding about the whole thing. She said, ‘Whatever happens, we’ll face it together.’ She was tested and it came back negative. It was an incredible relief.”
Donato doesn’t know how he contracted the disease, but he suspects that it happened during unprotected sex with a woman. “People are going to make assumptions about how I got it, and that’s okay,” he says. “People are afraid to come forward because they’re afraid of the stigma of HIV. I’m not gay and I’ve never stuck a needle in my arm, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. We create a stigma around the disease that makes it hard for people to publicly say they have it.”
Donato began researching treatment for HIV. “Being diagnosed is like being blindfolded and spun around 100 times, then being left in a dark room,” he says. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out my next steps – the right doctors and medications. I really began to understand how frustrating it could be.”
For three years, Donato was afraid of being found out. “I went to a clinic that had a big sign that said ‘HIV’ and I thought, ‘What if someone sees me?’ My computer and router were hacked and I was afraid that someone would leak the information. I came up with excuses – people wondered why I was taking medicine regularly. When people asked why I left Big Brother, I would give quippy, smart-ass answers.”
And then one day, he had an epiphany. “Look, I get that I’m a reality-show villain,” he says. “But for better or for worse, I have a platform. And I decided that it was time to just publicly say what I’m dealing with. On one hand, I’m doing this for myself: I don’t want to hide anymore. On the other hand, I hope it will remind viewers to get tested, practice safe sex, all those things we know in the back of our minds but maybe don’t do. After I told everyone on Couples Therapy, I had two production people pull me aside and say that they had gotten tested. I feel like I can do some good.”
Donato is on medication, and will be for the rest of his life. “I take one pill a day,” he says. “The only side effect I’ve noticed is that I have a lot of vivid dreams that wake me up during the night. But it’s a small price to pay: My viral load is virtually undetectable, I’m happy to say. I live a very normal life and don’t have a lot of health issues. It also means that it’s highly unlikely I could pass the disease along, although I don’t have unsafe sex anymore. I fully expect to die of something else when I get old, not HIV or AIDS”
“I knew it wasn’t a death sentence like it used to be,” says Donato. “But it has still changed me. I do think about others a lot more now. I’m looking forward to going public with this, because maybe, just maybe, this can be the moment where I do something that really helps other people.”
Couples Therapy airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on VH1.