THE BLOG

I Am Charlie

18/11/2015 12:56 GMT | Updated 18/11/2016 10:12 GMT

In the 30 years I've had HIV, I never expected to feel sorry, tender even, for a Hollywood actor, let alone Charlie Sheen: wanting to give this hot man-mess a hug, clap him on the back, spur him on to sober up and start living with HIV rather than dying from the shame of it.

I really hope Charlie's self-outing as HIV positive does mark his final emergence from whatever swamp of chaos he's been floundering in this last five years.

It needs to: he's about to become the most famous HIV-positive person in the world, so my first reaction was that the last thing the rest of us need is to be represented by a George Best of HIV, still on the path to self-destruction.

But wasn't really the fear he's going to let us down that stirs me most. It's the picture of someone born to be a Master of the Universe meekly handing over millions in hush-money to the parade of hookers and leeches who threatened to expose him. "My truth became their treason," he says.

It's a grim reminder that infection with this virus is still regarded as a sentence of actual and social death, and those of us who live with it as selfish agents of doom. Shame should be our destiny and our duty, people think; that's why Charlie's declarations that he still had sex - in a couple of cases, unprotected - will enrage people the most. Even though he can't infect anyone.

A few facts about HIV as it is now. Yes, it's still a lifelong infection and still lethal in people who can't get treatment. But taking antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), as Sheen and I both do, will prevent us getting AIDS: in fact, as a long-term survivor, I had AIDS in the 90s, and recovered. Modern ARVs are easy to take and have few side effects.

So everyone should be encouraged to take an HIV test at least once; people whose lifestyle means they are at higher risk should get tested twice-yearly.

Something easier to do if you don't fear instant vilification, eh?

What's more, as Sheen's doctor explained, if the ARVs work, and they usually do, you will no longer be infectious. Having an undetectable viral load or "being undetectable" is measured by a quarterly test. Diagnosed, treated people with HIV are not dangers to anyone even without condoms.

If we add condoms too, then you we are protected from whatever other sexual bugs you may have, and you from ours too.

Finally, ARVs can work for HIV-negative people too: taking PrEP, a mini-dose of the drugs daily or before sex can, as we know now, protect you from HIV. Charlie hinted in his interview that a couple of his partners had been to his doctor and decided to do exactly that.

But little of this is about the facts. People with HIV have come to signify danger. To mix in a risky metaphor, we're seen as the viral terrorists walking among you, our virus primed to explode.

Untrue. We're not bad people. Anyone can catch HIV in an unguarded moment, during a bad period in their lives or just through bad luck.

And yet - another part of me is secretly pleased that 'Mr X' turned out to be Charlie. Because while HIV is not a curse, it can sure be a sign of a life lived perhaps a little close to the edge - something he, who did it in public, can hardly deny. I'd rather have on my side someone still visibly battling with drink and depression, and not always being an angel during the bad times. In 30 years with this damn bug, it still sends the Black Dog to my door now and then.

I wish Charlie well. I wish him hope, strength and fortitude against whoever would paint him as a monster. He may, in all his messiness, be just the person who turns the public image around of people living with HIV.