It was the perfect Sunday spent with my boyfriend. I remember we had a great time, filled with fun and laughter. In retrospect, there were times when he looked moody and quiet, but I didn’t think too much of it.
At about 10 pm, I decided to go and have a bath. I went into the bedroom and noticed a bottle of pills by his bedside. I remember that I’d seen him taking pills every single day since I got back from holiday and had made a mental note to ask him what pill he was taking. I memorized what was written on the bottle and googled the name of the pills. A quick scan of the page and the letters HIV jumped out at me.
Immediately, my heart started pounding and I started to shake all over. This could not be happening to me. I took a deep breath and forced myself to look at the screen again and then I noticed that the same medicine was used for the treatment of Hepatitis. For some strange reason, that seemed like a better option for me. I searched further to see if the medication was used for treating any other ailments and alas….nothing. Just HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.
True to my personality, with a pounding heart, ringing ears and shaking from head to toe, I went back to grab the bottle of pills and marched into the sitting room. I sat across from my boyfriend and said to him, “Why are you taking these pills?” “Did you test positive for HIV?” “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked him all three questions at once without given him an opportunity to reply.
He could see the fear in my eyes. I was trembling and my mouth was dry as I searched his eyes for the answers to my questions. He hesitated for a minute before responding. He said his doctor had tested him whilst I was away and had prescribed the drugs for him to take for three months. He had just started on the second bottle. My next question to him as I sank to the floor was, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I grabbed my head in my hands as I thought to myself that what I feared the most had come to pass.
“Does this mean I have “it” too?”
We had had unprotected sex a few times. He replied that he was pretty sure, that I did not have it. I wanted to scream at him. “How do you know?” “How can you be sure?” What did I expect him to say? He tried to calm me down, he told me his doctor had told him it wasn’t a big deal. That it was a social problem. He had given him some drugs to take for three months and had asked him not to tell anyone! He seemed to be under the impression that he just had to take the drugs for the next three months and he would be fine.
Needless to say, I did not sleep a wink that night. I was scared. I wanted to talk to someone else about it, but I couldn’t. There was no one that would understand and who would I want to place such a huge burden on. My boyfriend remained surprisingly calm and kept on telling me he was sure I had not contacted it. I was torn. Should I go and get tested or was I better off living in ignorance? I felt that if I tested positive, I would not be able to carry on. I was convinced that the depression that would follow would kill me.
I went to work the next day and spent the entire day on the internet researching the possibility that I had contacted the virus. What I found gave me little hope. I learnt that not every exposure resulted in infection. In fact, HIV was very difficult to contact sexually. But this gave me very little comfort as infection could happen on the first exposure. I read about serodiscordant couples (couples who one partner was positive and the other negative). It gave me very little hope. My research was focused on finding something, anything that could tell me whether I had contacted the virus or not. I was a mess. I cried a lot at the office but refused to cry in front of my boyfriend, as I knew that he was going through a lot too.
On Wednesday afternoon, my boyfriend came to pick me up from work. I had resolved that it was better to know and start dealing with it as the not knowing was killing me. I had not eaten anything or had any water to drink since Sunday. I just couldn’t think of anything else other than HIV and what my future would be. I don’t know where I got the strength from, but I marched with determination to the car. I felt a strange sense of calmness and I think that came from the fact that I was actually doing something about my situation as opposed to sitting around just worrying and googling.
At the hospital, I was petrified. Sweat was running down my legs, my stomach was churning and my mouth was dry. The doctor took one look at me and told me to be calm. He knew exactly why we were there just by looking at me. The doctor’s first question was how did I find out. My boyfriend explained to him about how I had googled his medication. At this point, the doctor told me that there was no point worrying. He urged me to take the test and went on to add that no matter the outcome of the test, HIV is just a social problem that could be managed. Till now, I am still trying to understand what he meant by “social problem”. think he was referring to how frequently he encounters it but HIV/AIDS is not a social problem, it is an individual problem. If you get infected, it is a journey that you will walk alone, no matter how much support you have, it is a reality that you will have to deal with on your own.
He wrote out XYZ on a form and asked a nurse to take me to draw some blood. My legs were jelly and I don’t know how I took the few steps to the lab. I am so afraid of needles but I couldn’t even think about that. The lab technician drew the blood and told me that I could either wait with him for the test results or I could go back into the doctor’s office. I opted to wait in the doctor’s office. My boyfriend had to hold me up to get from the lab back into the hospital. Those must have been the longest 10 minutes of my life. I wanted to pray but I could not bring myself to because I knew no amount of prayer could change what was and I didn’t feel I deserved a miracle.
We don’t talk about HIV/AIDS. People don’t want to talk about it because it is scary! For me, the guilt, the shame and the blame of what I was going through was enormous. Not only am I well educated and enlightened about most things, I know people who had died of HIV/AIDS. I had firsthand experience of this disease and what it can do. I was only 15 years old when my dad got me to watch a movie about HIV/AIDS. I had watched Philadelphia some 20 years ago. My uncle and cousin died of AIDS or more precisely of ignorance and fear of AIDS. So how did I find myself in this position?
Just because you know about something does not mean you are aware of it. I knew about HIV/AIDs and how it is contracted and how the disease progresses. I knew that I needed to do an HIV test at some point in my life. I knew that having unprotected sex was risky but it did not stop me from doing it. I kept on rationalizing what I was feeling. One thing was certain, there was no way I was going to bring myself to voluntarily have an HIV test, because I was afraid. But because I didn’t know my HIV status, I was prepared to take the risks.
Every time I had unprotected sex (which wasn’t often) I would be racked with guilt but then I would convince myself that I would be okay. I would look at my sexual partner and come up with reasons why they couldn’t possibly be HIV positive. I would come up with interesting notions like, “he is married, so he can’t be HIV positive” or his previous girlfriend just had a baby, so he can’t be HIV positive, or “he is not the promiscuous type, so he can’t be HIV positive.”
How stupid could I possibly be? I know that there are millions out there who are going through what I went through, agonizing about getting tested, taking “calculated risks”, googling risk factors etc.
Perhaps what is different about my story is the fact that I did not get tested until I had no choice but to get tested, I did nothing until I was confronted with the reality that I had come in contact with the virus, I did nothing until my internet searches could not give me the answers I was looking for, I did nothing until the fact was that I had a 50/50 chance of being HIV Positive or HIV Negative.
Looking back now, I know that having unprotected sex is like playing Russian Roulette whether you are married or single. If you must engage in sexual activity, you must be mature enough to have a conversation about your sexual health. You must know your status and be willing to talk about it. You must be willing to ask your partner about their HIV status and to insist on a test before engaging in unprotected sex. If you suspect your spouse of cheating, you must have the courage to demand a test. We must start to talk about our sexual health.
Getting tested is an obligation for any sexually active person. Put an end to your fears today and go and get tested. It is time to take control of your life and do the right thing. It will always be a very difficult thing to do because the outcome may be so life changing.
HIV/AIDs is all around us. This is a fact. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to know your status. I know mine.
Photo Credit: http://www.worldaidsday.org