On Monday 9 June 2014 at about 5:15pm I was walking out of my office in Bloomsbury when I received a text that changed my life forever.
It was an innocuous text from the NHS, asking me to call a nurse at a clinic I’d recently done some blood tests at, of which I thought nothing of. But that was the day I found out I had a partner for life – HIV.
So many thoughts went through my mind over the next 48 hours – mainly centred around self-blame and shame. How could I have been so stupid? I’m a smart, educated guy with a good job. This kind of thing happened to other people, how had it happened to me?
Then the fear set in. Was I ever going to be in a loving relationship again? Could I have kids? What would my family think? Could I ever go on holiday again? All these questions seem so ridiculous now (because it’s yes, yes, yes and yes), but at that moment, rationality goes out the window.
If you’ve read about HIV in the media recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was a bit of a drama queen (and to be fair, you wouldn’t be that far off the mark). Medically, there’s been so much progress in terms of HIV.
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For example, if you’re on effective treatment – like me – you can’t pass on HIV. That’s because HIV medication works by shrinking the amount of virus in the body to undetectable level, which protects the immune system and stops HIV from being passed on.
Then there’s PrEP, which you can take to prevent HIV transmission and is available, at least in some shape or form, in England, Scotland and Wales.
However, four years ago the sexual health landscape for gay men was very different – especially in London. For my friends and I, it wasn’t ‘if’ I got HIV, but ‘when’. HIV became an inevitability for a lot of my friends.
The first three months after my HIV diagnosis were a blur, especially because I was diagnosed ‘late’ which means it was after my immune system was already damaged. That meant hospitalisation, doctors’ appointments, blood tests, blood transfusions, groups of doctors standing around my bed puzzled by charts, more doctors’ appointments, more blood tests, new medication prescriptions and so many kind faces trying to help me through.
Looking back, it was so terrifying, but this was just life for me then. Dealing with all of this at 24 has made me a stronger 25, 26, 27 and 28-year-old.
But it wasn’t just the medical side of things that was tough in my first six months. The stigma and the shame were the hardest parts of starting my life with HIV. With the fear of rejection ever present, I became so isolated in my condition.
So much has changed now that it’s almost unimaginable to look back and understand how I was feeling back then.
My family are amazing, but I felt the need to conceal it from them for over a year. My friends are incredible, but it took me years to come out openly about my HIV status. And yeah, some relationships haven’t worked, but I’m so much happier walking into them open and honest about who I am and the life I live.
When I started speaking publicly about my HIV status 18 months ago with the help of charity Terrence Higgins Trust, I never could have imagined the response I would get. The warmth, the compassion and the support from people I didn’t even know.
Just coming out with the line ‘I’m living with HIV’ was such a weight off my shoulders. And the ability to help others by speaking out against stigma and inequality through my own story has been so empowering.
And I thank every single person that has come on this journey with me.
Four years on from my diagnosis, I’m in a really good place – but I don’t want anyone else to go through this. Last year we saw the biggest drop in new HIV diagnoses on record, but we have to keep going in order to avoid jeopardising that hard-fought progress and get to zero.
And tackling stigma is such a big part of ending the HIV epidemic. Stigma stops people from coming forward to get tested. Stigma has a hugely negative effect on the lives of people living with HIV – believe me, I know.
So please educate yourself about the realities of HIV. Find out more. Be inquisitive. Inform yourselves.
That way, hopefully, no more 24-year-olds will find themselves in a hospital bed, terrified, alone and worrying if they are ever going to be worthy of love again.
How It Feels is a weekly blogs series which aims to shine a light on people’s stories, covering subjects where voices are rarely heard. If you want to get involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org