The big fear that is HIV

It was as if I was given a new chance at life, a new hope to start over again and a brand new day to correct the mistakes of my past.

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I have been dodging HIV test for awhile now. I am a 31 year old gay man who never had the test before. HIV is human immunodeficiency virus. It interferes with your body’s ability to fight the organisms that cause disease by damaging your immune system. HIV is a sexually transmitted infection. If not treated, it could lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition.

According to an Inquirer report, there were a total of 2,661 HIV cases reported in the country from January to March this year, which included 292 AIDS cases, and 155 deaths. In March alone, there were 968 new cases of HIV, the highest number recorded in a month since 1984, the Department of Health (DOH) said. 820 cases are from the male-having-sex-with-male (MSM) population. Of the 968 new cases, 108 had developed into full-blown AIDS.

I was terrified by the numbers. It made it even harder for me to take the test. I didn’t want to be the 969th case or any nth case for that matter. I was curious but a bigger part of me was afraid to know the result. What if I tested positive? I know there’s a vast array of resources and local agencies that were specifically setup for people with HIV and most of these agencies provide free consultation, testing and counseling. But that’s not what I am afraid of. I was afraid of how I would react to the result. What if I passed out right there? What if I lose my mind? To be honest, I really am not sure if I could ever take the truth. I was afraid of being alone, of being treated differently, and of losing friends. Most of all, I was afraid that nobody would ever love me once they find out about my status.

In an era full of deceptive and pretentious people, being a gay man is tough enough. Most of my friends would tell me they accept LGBTQ but they disagree when gay people rally for their rights to civil union and other lawful rights given to an ordinary citizen of a given country. It’s funny how most of the people around me think it is enough that members of the LGBTQ community are allowed to do what they want but they stuck up their nose when we ask for similar civil rights that our straight folks enjoy. Gay people cannot even fully express themselves without being judged in public. For some countries where members of the LGBTQ community have achieved absolute freedom and civil rights to legally marry and build a family of their own, they are very lucky. However, for gay people residing in a third world Southeast Asian nation dominated by pretentious religious businesses (yes I call religion “business” because that’s what they really are) like the Philippines, being given equal rights and recognition in the society seems like a distant dream. 

Being gay and having came out to my family at the early age of 17, I have had my fair share of rejections and painful remarks from judgmental people. I know how difficult it is to be a gay man in the Philippines where hypocrite Catholics and a thousand other narcissistic religious sects make use of God so they could make a living. For being gay, I have been taunted at school, called out different names, made a laughing stock, mocked and bullied at work and so forth. Even some of my family members have said painful words at me that I still cannot forget to this day. 

Despite the continuous dissemination of information about HIV, I’ve seen how most people treat a HIV positive person and I did not like it. Having said that, imagine if I was gay and HIV positive. Nobody would probably care to even talk to me. People will judge and despise me everywhere I go. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of humiliation. I wasn’t sure I was ready to take the test.

My sexual activities in the last ten years weren’t all safe as well. I have done outrageous things that I do not regret but promised not to do again. It was a phase in my life that I am not proud of. I have worked towards a safer sexual activity with only people I trust in the latter years. However, I feel like it was too late for me to change. I am afraid of HIV test because I knew I was exposed to unprotected sex on several occasions in my life.

It wasn’t until I had community acquired pneumonia that I was really compelled to have HIV test done to me. Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung affecting primarily the microscopic air sacs known as alveoli. I had an on and off dry cough and a recurring shortness of breathing for almost three months. My poor breathing patterns made it difficult to talk without grasping for air or being choked. I was admitted to the hospital twice in a month because of it. They gave me different antibiotics; supime, azithromycin, bactrim and the likes and while my condition improved, the cough and shortness of breathing did not go away. When I went back to the hospital for a follow up checkup, the doctor recommended me for admission again, my third in two months time. This time it was alarming. Besides the fact that the smell of hospitals make me even more sick, I have already consumed more than half of my health card funds. The X-ray confirmed I still have the pneumonia. That’s when I knew I had to get tested for HIV so they could rule it out as the cause for my condition. 

Several months ago, I’ve read on Twitter that there is a HIV testing center called Love Yourself PH that offers free HIV testing and counseling. Three days before I decided to get admitted for the third time, I made an appointment with Love Yourself at the Anglo Building in Mandaluyong to know my HIV status. The whole process was very easy and convenient but to me it was like an ordeal. It was a more personal battle. I was trying to conquer my fears. The waiting time was enough to make me even more nervous. The staff at Love Yourself were all very friendly and accomodating. Most of them are gay people and they smile when you approach them. There were three waiting areas to accomodate the patients. There was no airconditioning but all of the rooms are well ventilated. The waiting areas are well-kept as well. There were a shelf full of books and a pile of old magazines to alleviate one’s boredom while waiting for their turn to either have the blood extraction or to discuss the final result of the test. The blood extraction took no more than two minutes. After that, we waited for about 40 minutes to get the result. 

I’ve been through a lot in my life. I have lived below poverty and made to eat only camote (sweet potato) crops or malunggay (moringa oleifera) leaves for days when I was young and we did not have money to buy a decent meal. If anything, the hardships of life is not alien to me. I have been through different ordeals but this was the most mind-gruelling. I felt helpless and weak to the bone. What if I tested positive? How am I going to hold? How am I going to face my family and friends? 

I heard my number being called. I was number 28. For discretion, they do not call patients by name. The staff summoned me to a small air-conditioned room where two small chairs await us. He was a gay man, probably in his late twenties and a registered nurse. He was very friendly and occasionally throws in street or gay jokes. First, he began to ask me questions about my lifestyle, sexual activities etc. And then after sharing some more information about HIV, he asked me to rate myself from 1 to 10 (with ten being the highest) about how positive do I think I am. It was a very awkward question because nobody would want to rate themselves higher. But I knew it required honesty because nobody knows ourselves better than us. At that very moment, I’ve thought about my biggest fears. I’ve thought about what’s next for me if I confirmed my dreaded truth. Should I resign from work? No, my family needs me. Should I stay away from friends? I have very little circle of friends so it would be easy but I would want to keep a few ones who truly accept and support me. What if they gossip about my condition? That’s no longer my business. “I would rate myself 6 out of ten,” I choked and for a moment I’ve visualized myself in the middle of a crossroad of my life. It was a turning point for me. If I get lucky and get away with this (assuming the result is negative), I promise to never go back to my old ways again. I prayed to God and in that moment, I felt like a toddler making a promise to his parents so that they will forgive him for being a clumsy child. In a sense, that was me, I had a clumsy lifestyle. What would I do if I was positive? In the end, I’ve decided to accept whatever the result was and continue to live like a normal person. “Are you ready?” I heard the Love Yourself nurse said. “Yes.”

When I saw the result, it’s as if I was transported into the dawn of a new hope. I can practically visualize the rays of the sun shining above me. I can hear one of those choirs singing from somewhere. I tested Non-Reactive to HIV 1 and HIV 2. In layman’s term, the result of my HIV test was negative.

Sometimes, our biggest fears get in the way for us to have a peace of mind and a better future. Fear of losing friends, fear of what other people would say, fear of being judged and looked down by the society etc.

It is important to remember that no matter how kind and generous you are, there will always be some people who will despise and judge you regardless of your gender preference. While it is true that many members of the LGBTQ community suffer from persecution and condemnation in different parts of the world, straight folks also have their own battles. It is not all about us or the LGBTQ rights. It is important to continue the fight for those rights but thinking we are always oppressed by society doesn’t help at all. We are only oppressed when we allow them to oppress us. Never feel so entitled. After all, you cannot expect for people to have a heart like yours. Do not fret. Focus on being a better version of yourself. In order to do that, you need to accept yourself first and embrace your uniqueness. You need to embrace your past and acknowledge your bad decisions. Most of all, do not be afraid to challenge yourself and face your biggest fears. 

My biggest fear was knowing my HIV status. I had procrastinated getting tested for many years. I’ve lost weight and suffered from depression just thinking about it. I did not have the courage. But eventually, I had to face it. Getting myself tested for HIV was the most difficult decision to make but it was also the best one. No more worrying what if and whatnot. Now I can sleep well at night knowing I am clean and healthy. It was as if I was given a new chance at life. A new hope to start over again and a brand new day to correct the mistakes of my past.

If you think you have been exposed to unprotected sex in the past and haven’t been tested for HIV, you can go to the Love Yourself clinic to get yourself tested. It is never too late for all of us. It is your social responsibility to know your own status. There are free resources available and people who are willing to help you. All you need to do is walk-in and do it for yourself, thus the name Love Yourself. The facility is open to all genders, not just for members of the LGBTQ. If you are gay, man up and be a responsible gay men and women. If you are not going to do it for yourself, nobody else will. Most importantly, always practice safe sex. Prevention is better than cure. 

Please click here to learn more about Love Yourself. 

P.S. I still have to treat my pneumonia though. Three days after I got my HIV test result, I went back to the hospital and asked to get admitted. The doctors finally ruled out HIV. It felt good to not hear them say those three letters over and over. They are looking into having my chest examined again and now I am waiting for the result of the CT scan. Hopefully, all is well in that department.

Author: King Ray

King Ray is a 30-something millennial writer currently based in Manila, Philippines. He is a Software Engineer by profession but always a writer at heart. When he's not working in the corporate world, King is either traveling, trading stocks, watching Netflix, reading fiction novels or ghost writing for a variety of news websites and blogs. King finished his bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the Divine Word College of Calapan and holds a Master in Development Communication from the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

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