How do you embrace a ‘killer’?
“So for HIV, you are reactive…”
The rest of what the counselor told me after those six words just became inaudible. The ears, deaf. The mind, blank. Huh? Me, HIV-reactive? Are you kidding me? Even as my counselor showed me the printed test results, just like in the movies, everything else became a blur. All I could see was that one word: REACTIVE.
I am typing this essay on Christmas Day or exactly a week after that day. I can still remember every detail of that day as though it was only yesterday. I went to the HIV hub to attend my testing appointment, which I had scheduled with the clinic a couple of weeks prior. I was confident it would be a quick visit. I was so certain that I would be nonreactive and would be able to leave early, as I still had to run some errands.
I was not feeling any symptom of HIV (or the human immunodeficiency virus) whatsoever during that time. I felt perfectly healthy. HIV testing is free, so what is there to lose, right? I already had an HIV test sometime in 2018 and I was nonreactive. Since then, I only had protected sex. There was just no way I could be carrying the virus.
So when the counselor delivered the news to me, I honestly could not believe it. I had so many questions: How? Why? From whom? We practiced safe sex, how could I have gotten it? I kept thinking about how I got the disease. But then, I also realized there was no point in trying so hard to identify how I got it. What was the point, anyway, if the sneaky little virus had already found its way into my body? Identifying the cause would not help my immune system fight the disease, but identifying my next action plans would.
The confirmatory test validated the initial findings: I was HIV-positive. And not only that: My CD4 count was less than 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood, which meant I now have alarmingly high risks to many infections such as tuberculosis and the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), if treatment was not done.
The questions just kept coming in. Should I tell my family and friends? Would they be disgusted with me, the way I felt a sense of disgust toward myself? Would they be able to tell just by looking at me that I have a disease? Will I never be partnered anymore (because who would want to date an HIV-positive person?)?
I have always given thought to how I would come out as gay to my family. I know it is not exactly a requirement for members of the LGBTQ+ community, but still I was hoping for the day when I would be able to come out to my parents. However, I feel like it is a lot harder now. Coming out as gay is hard for me as it is—what more coming out as HIV-positive? Maybe this is why persons with HIV are at high risk not just of severe diseases, but also of depression. There is just too much thinking happening.
The doctor said that, given my “very low” CD4 count, it is highly likely that I have been carrying the virus for possibly longer than a year. That was when I started to cry, at the thought that a virus has been silently killing me inside for quite a while now. I felt scared for my life. How near am I to having AIDS if I have been carrying HIV for a long time already? Will I transmit the virus to people around me? Is the treatment expensive? Am I going to die?
The questions were not stopping. I was fortunate that the HIV hub I went to was very generous in providing me not only medical but also emotional support. For one, they assured me that I am in the “early detection” stage of having HIV, hence there is still so much that can be done. They would provide my free treatment medications and HIV-related medical consultations for as long as I needed them, thanks to generous foreign and local sponsors and partners as well as government health insurance. I also found new friends in the form of volunteer-counselors who I assume would be my life partners in this process.
More importantly, they assured me that contrary to popular belief about persons with HIV/AIDS, I can live a normal life just like everybody else, except that I would be on regular medication to ensure my health and well-being.
I am not going to lie though: I still feel a lot of pain about being HIV-positive. It has been a week already, but I still cry about it now even though I am not exactly a very emotional person. Just the thought that I would live with this in my blood forever (or until an HIV cure is found) is too much to process, let alone accept. I am not proud and happy of being HIV-positive. How do you accept the fact that a killer virus is inside you?
But I am slowly starting to accept that this is my reality—that I will be in a lifetime of treatment, and that the only thing I can do at this point is to protect myself more. I may still be bitter about it now, but I know that time will heal wounds, just like what happened to many other persons with HIV. I have been reading some of the stories that they have shared online, and I find comfort in the thought that others have found true healing in their journey. I am very hopeful that I would find mine soon, too.
I would like to believe that I am still the same person that went to the clinic a week ago. It is just that the person who got out of the clinic now carries a new perspective on how to live his life—and that is to live it with more appreciation, love, and care.
Every time I look at myself in the mirror, I see not just my body, but also the many reasons why self-love is now more important than ever. Because if I cannot accept and love the person with HIV I see in the mirror, who else is going to accept and love him?
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The author, 28, requested that his identity be withheld. But he is open to discussions about HIV. He may be reached at [email protected]
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