In 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, about 45,000 Americans will test HIV positive. That fact highlights the continuing need for awareness days like National HIV Testing Day (NHTD), an annual event observed every June 27. In honor of NHTD, two anonymous men share with POZ their experiences being newly diagnosed with HIV.
My journey began a year ago in June 2015. I was backed up in paying my bills, unemployed, with no car, living with anxiety and depression and, to top it off, I was homeless. I’m an Army veteran, so I decided to go to Veterans Affairs (VA) to see if I could get help.
The first thing I had to do was an initial physical. I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of the appointment—it was a routine checkup—but as the appointment was ending, the doctor mentioned I had to get blood work, specifically for HIV. I said it was OK, but it did make me nervous. I told him that I knew I had engaged in high-risk sexual behavior and that I hadn’t gotten tested in years.
I didn’t know, on the outside, what I was going to hear, but I felt deep inside of me that I already knew what was to come. When I finally got in contact with one of the VA nurses, she urged me to go in to talk to the doctor. At that time, I had a job lined up and I didn’t want to leave it, since I had been unemployed for months. So she put the doctor on, and he told me my status over the phone.
It didn’t get real to me until after I met with the VA nurse. She told me that my status wasn’t a death sentence and that the medications being made were keeping people alive for years. But in my mind I was just thinking, Is this supposed to help make me feel better? She was very sweet, and I know she was trying to be comforting, but I didn’t want to hear, “It’s going to be OK.” I thought, How do you know that? Are you psychic? I was a 33-year-old, poor, emotionally unstable, gay, Latino, unemployed, veteran, homeless, HIV-positive man. Can life throw me a bone at least?
It was at this time that I started blogging. My blog isn’t big, but I go on there when I can’t handle the pressure of living with this. So far, I’ve only told three people in my life about my status. Two of those people I consider close, intimate friends. One of my friends highly suggests that I tell my family about my status, but I am not ready to tell them for so many reasons.
I want to be informed more about it. I want to be an expert on my status and what it is to be me living with this. Why do I want to know? So that I can answer any question they may have and provide them with some comfort when they do hear the news. When do I tell them? I still don’t know. I’m still on my journey, discovering myself. I’m in no hurry.
At the moment, I am undetectable. I have two jobs, I bought a new car and I have my own place. I’ve kicked my ass getting all of what I have, but I am proud of it. I am still working on my anxiety and depression, but I feel way better than a year ago.
I’m in the Army, and I’m from and stationed in the South. During the first three weeks of March, I was on a temporary duty assignment at a school in the Northeast. At the time, my wife and I had an open marriage.
While I was up there, I had my penis pierced, a frenulum piercing to be exact. A few days later,, I met a female and we had unprotected sex. I didn’t think anything about it, honestly. The last weekend I was up there I felt tired and sluggish. No aches, no pains, no rash—just a slight fever and general malaise.
I made it home on a Wednesday, not feeling horrible, not feeling great either, and figured I was getting the flu. The next day, my wife and I had sex. I still was without an appetite. The next day was uneventful, and the following day we had morning sex. Then, after lunch, it was like a ton of bricks were dumped on me. My wife convinced me to go to the doctor the next day. So I went.
I’m an honest person. So when the doc asked about anything unusual, I told her exactly what I just shared. She suddenly got a look of despair on her face and ordered a litany of tests. The nose swab for flu and mono was negative. She put her hand on mine and said, “You need to understand this may be HIV.”
Seven vials of blood later, I left and texted my wife that we need to talk. She asked, “About what?” I responded: “It’s not looking good for the home team.”
I got home, and we cried about it. We also made her an appointment for a couple of days later. The tension was noticeable in our home. My first concern was losing her. What benefit is it for her to stay with me? Why would she want to watch me waste away and die? When is the risk too great and outweighs the benefit of staying married to me? Secondly, what is the Army going to do? I have six years to go until I can retire.
I wrestled with these thoughts for weeks, and, on occasion I still do. But my wife reassured me that we are soul mates and if she can’t stay with me during the rough times, then she has no business being there in the good times.
The next day, I’m at work, and I get a phone call from my doctor. She said I needed to come in for her to talk to me. Dread took over. I knew why she called instead of the nurse. I show up, and she lowers the boom. I can’t really describe the feeling. Numb maybe? Surreal? I have to give them two more vials of blood for the RNA test. Then I get home and tell my wife.
The next morning, I went with my wife to her appointment. My doctor had called an infectious diseases (ID) doc into the office who gave my wife a script for Isentress and Truvada—now I know it as PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis)—for 28 days.
Fast-forward to today: My wife is HIV negative. I have my one-month follow-up soon with my ID doc. Upon diagnosis, I had a viral load of 115,000. Forty-five days later, I was down to 24,000. I’m glad my body is fighting and am glad I’m on medication. Hopefully I’ll be close to undetectable soon.
As for the Army, I haven’t told them yet. I’m not due for an HIV test until July of next year. In the meantime, I’m trying to complete my master’s degree, as well as get my military education locked in, before they know. It really is hard knowing all the sacrifices I’ve made and time I’ve devoted could all be in vain.
If you haven’t kept up with the breaking medical advancements, drug therapies and research studies, being diagnosed with HIV in 2016 is scary, at least at first. We’ve done a great job at disease management, but we, as a society, have failed in the education aspect.
Only after I contracted HIV did I see the amount of behind-the-scenes work going into cure research. I had never heard of PEP or PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). I didn’t know anything about antiretroviral treatment either. The misinformation and ignorance about this virus is rampant. If only we could educate the masses, that would increase awareness and reduce the stigma we all face.