When Zachary Willmore received an HIV-positive diagnosis in February, he said he felt like it was the end of the world.
“I really did feel like my life was over in that day,” the 19-year-old San Diego State University student told NBC News. “It’s just so stigmatized when people hear that they have HIV and it’s forever.”
Willmore flew home to Missouri from school shortly after his diagnosis, seeking comfort in the company of friends and family. After taking time to process privately, he decided to go public, creating daily updates about living with HIV for his TikTok platform of 1.7 million followers.
“It's Friday, Feb. 17. I'm 19 years old. And yesterday, I found out that I got diagnosed with HIV," Willmore said as he put on makeup in the inaugural post of his TikTok video "diary."
"I feel drained emotionally, physically, everything," he continued.
Since creating these day-in-the-life videos, which have amassed millions of views on TikTok. Willmore has harnessed his social media power to educate others about the auto-immune disease, including sharing content about how the disease is spread, the science of HIV medication and a video paying homage to pioneering HIV activists and scientists.
“People are scared of the unknown,” Willmore said. “Information is power, so I really wanted to help people understand.”
Although he recorded the videos as he was motioning through day-to-day life, he did not post until a week after his diagnosis, coinciding with when he began to take medication. Advances in science and technology have allowed people living with HIV to be undetectable and untransmittable.
"a goofy zoomer who gets HIV being able to envision a future of getting a few extra tests and taking a couple of daily pills is one of the greatest triumphs of medical science in human history and we should give daily thanks to god that it happened," one Twitter user wrote, referring to Willmore's content.
Many have flooded his comments with praise and affirmations.
"The perspective you're offering will help a lot of people deconstruct their biases and ease the stigmas that have literally killed so many people," one commenter wrote.
Willmore noted that some have criticized him, saying he's an attention-seeker, in part because of his cheery disposition as he talks about a disease that is often associated with doom.
"When I seem happy in my videos, it is because I am," he said. He added that he doesn't want people to think he's taking the disease lightly. Rather he wants to highlight that an HIV diagnosis does not preclude living a normal life.
He said he creates these videos to support those living with HIV, who may feel they need to keep their condition a secret.
"There’s so many people who will live with this disease and who are going through that in silence," he said.
Initially, Willmore said, he was concerned that creating content about his HIV diagnosis would obscure other aspects of his identity and life.
Ultimately, though, he said these videos have felt freeing.
“This has been a healing process for me. It’s how I’ve been coping with it, and just talking through it has been really helpful,” Willmore said.
He said he wants to show that, contrary to his initial reaction, having an HIV diagnosis is not the end of the world. After this week, he will be transitioning from daily video updates to weekly updates.
Still, he said, he has thought about having HIV every day since the diagnosis and gets sad at times. He added that he will be processing for a while.
“The first week after, I really wanted to be over it. I really wanted to be good,” Willmore said. “I will be OK, but I’m still a work in progress."