Since making the decision to be open about my HIV status and start this blog I’ve received a lot of messages. Often they’re messages of encouragement thanking me for speaking up, some are messages with questions from people who are curious about aspects of life with HIV, but occasionally I’ll receive messages asking for advice.
A little while ago I received a message from a guy in his early 20s, he’d had unprotected sex a few weeks earlier and was now suffering a fever, sore throat and neck pains – which he’d correctly recognised as common early symptoms of HIV infection.
Doing the smart thing, this guy got himself tested. The thing is, he was absolutely petrified that the result may come back positive, and had got in touch with me because he was desperate to talk to someone who could answer the many questions that he had about HIV.
I did my best to reassure him, but it got me thinking, just how unprepared most people would be to hear that they are HIV positive. It would be fair to say that this guy may well have fallen to pieces with worry and panic if the result came back positive. He didn’t understand what being HIV positive would mean for his future, his life-expectancy, if he’d suddenly be prone to illness, if he’d have to start taking drugs right away, wether he’d even be able to enjoy sex again.
Now, when I say he was unprepared, that’s not a criticism of him specifically, I don’t want to single him out. Throughout our conversations it was clear he was an intelligent guy, but HIV was simply not a subject he’d taken time to learn about. He’s not alone, I hold my hands up and admit I was equally clueless at the point I was diagnosed HIV positive. But I wonder, as a gay man, why did I, and why do others like me allow ourselves to be in a position that we’re completely unprepared for the possibility of becoming HIV positive?
30 years after the discovery of HIV, why do so many of us (speaking as a gay man, and for others like me) choose not to learn about the virus which is in all likelihood is going to affect us or one of our friends or partners at some point in our lives?
The guy who messaged was understandably anxious that his life was about to change, and thankfully I was able to answer his questions and reassure him that he was in a good position – even if the result came back positive then he’d found out early enough to prevent significant damage to his immune system – he would have every chance of going on to live a long and healthy life, he’d not be reliant on pills right away, it could be years before he’d need them, and there’s no reason why HIV should prevent him dating or having a safe and healthy sex life.
Thankfully, a few hours later his test result came back negative, a huge relief! However, in the short time we were chatting, his views on living with HIV changed so much, and he was at least able to picture life going on, had the result come back positive.
I worry that the fear of HIV which so often seems to be used as a method of prevention may actually be doing a lot of harm. Of course no one wants people being reckless because they’re not fussed about being HIV positive, but the current ignorance about HIV isn’t stopping people having unprotected sex, it isn’t getting those in high-risk groups to undergo regular testing, and it isn’t stopping the spread of HIV.
Educating about the facts rather than attempting to control the spread of HIV through fear (a strategy which clearly isn’t working) could make all the difference to those anxiously waiting for test results to come back, or those who’ve been given a positive diagnosis and fear that their life is ruined. The occurrence of depression and suicidal thoughts among people with HIV is far too high – what’s wrong with letting people know the reality of life with HIV?… and that being HIV positive isn’t the end of their world?
Fellow HIV positive blogger Luke Alexander has started a campaign to make the subject of HIV/AIDS a compulsory part of sex education lessons in UK schools. You can see his open letter to Michael Gove and sign the petition here.