It's a cold January morning. I pull the pillows closer, trying to find some warmth. The fabric is cold against my skin. I roll over onto my side. I rub my feet against one another, trying to generate some heat. Daylight penetrates from either side of the drawn down blind. Everything is submerged in a monotonous gloom. After a long struggle, I find the energy to get up and go to work. The previous day, I had been told that I was HIV positive.
I sit at my desk for a few minutes. My office mate hasn't noticed anything. Overwhelmed by fear, dread and shame, I hide in an adjacent office, which is being used as a storeroom. I close the door and sit on the edge of the desk. Turning my body inwards, cocoon-like, I break down in a flood of tears. I don't want anyone to walk in and find me crying. I don't want to explain. I don't want anyone to discover I am HIV positive. I wrap my arms around my body, crossing them at the waist. With my forearms pressed against my stomach, I grip the ridge of my back. I notice I am swaying backwards and forwards. Legs crossed, my body is contorted with pain. Confused and dizzy, I hide in a corner. I wrap my arms around my legs, press my head against my knees and look at the wall.
I was dreading my first appointment at the HIV clinic. I was the opposite of my usual confident self. I tried to distract myself with the routine of work. I was concerned that the HIV diagnosis would impact my career. I forgot my mother's birthday. My friend Becky observed, over an anxious lunch, that I was struggling to concentrate. My life seemed to have lost a large part of its meaning.
There are 103,700 people living with HIV in the UK. Seventeen per cent of people living with HIV are undiagnosed. In 2014, there were 6,151 new HIV diagnoses in the UK. Positive East are London's largest HIV charity, reaching in excess of 35,000 people annually. They will help anyone living with, or impacted by, HIV. They offer support to people living with HIV, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity. Positive East provide comprehensive testing services. They provide more HIV tests in more locations than any other organisation in London. They offer support groups, counselling and peer support. They are there for the newly diagnosed. They advise on how to live with HIV. They help people into work. They have dedicated courses for women, asylum seekers, gay men and those with families. They have a support group for HIV positive women who have been sexually abused or who are the victims of sexual violence. From language skills to navigating the internet, Positive East seek to prepare HIV positive people with the skills they need to fulfil their potential.
It is six years ago now that I found out I was HIV positive. When I first attended the Grahame Hayton Unit, the HIV clinic where I receive my treatment, I arrived as a terrified patient. The clinic is situated within the Royal London Hospital, in East London. It is tucked away at the side of the building, behind a terrace of houses. Posters line the walls, including some promoting the services of Positive East, which is situated nearby in Mile End. My experiences of HIV services have all centred on East London. It is for this reason that I hosted my annual HIV Visibility Dinner with Positive East on 8 September. Guests ranged from celebrities, such as Vogue Williams, to politicians, such as Ben Howlett. I wanted to give something back to the community that has been so supportive of me. Positive East has this year celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Over this period our understanding of the virus has changed dramatically. There are now effective treatments for HIV. Life expectancy is normal. The flipside of this is that as people live longer, services such as those provided by Positive East become even more crucial. Stigma remains rife. I went through an empowering process of acceptance surrounding my HIV. It took me several years to come to terms with my HIV diagnosis. I am now a happy, healthy and POSITIVE young gay man. We should celebrate the bravery of all people living with HIV, as well as Positive East's amazing contribution to their lives!