“OK, so we’ve just seen two dots form on the testing membrane and that means you’ve tested positive for HIV.”
Nothing really prepares you for this. It’s the evening of October 14, 2014 and at this point I’ve been testing negative for HIV for longer than some of you have been alive. I think I’m fairly well informed and I believe myself to be at minimal risk. I’ve come into Toronto for my regular test yet again (since you can’t get an anonymous HIV test in Peterborough, where I live) and as always I’ve mulled the possibility that the test could turn out positive but I doubt that it will.
I feel fairly well prepared for the possibility.
But nothing has prepared me for the certainty. I feel my life change with a lurch in the few seconds it takes for the technician to speak those words. A threshold has been crossed and it is definitive. How exactly remains to be seen.
And then the uncertainty comes rushing in, piling imponderable upon imponderable. I feel my hands go cold and a pit opens in my gut. I force myself to listen to the tech as he draws confirmatory blood and asks me about any likely partners.
I tell him I have no idea. I suggest that we call the guy “Dick” since I only ever would have known him as that. We chuckle. I’m floating.
The tech is kind. He tells me that I’ve picked a great time to contract HIV. Treatment has come a long way. It isn’t a death sentence. He tells me as I’m leaving that the Health Department will get in touch. To date they never have, but we don’t know that then and I thank him for the heads up. I need air and I desperately want him to wrap it up so I can get out of there.
Yes, I’ll be back in touch in a couple of weeks. Thank you. Goodbye.
I somehow float down the stairs and onto the street. Once outside, I buy coffee and take it to a nearby park. I find a bench and sit there just breathing for about five minutes. Then I sip the coffee slowly as I consider the ramifications of my diagnosis.
So it’s actually happened. How it happened doesn’t matter to me. Don’t know, don’t care. It’s happened, that’s all. Papa’s got a brand new bug. What to do about it now seems far more important than worrying about how or from whom I contracted the bug.
My head feels like a helium balloon about to fly off. The tension unfurls in the pit of my stomach and I feel it as a serpent of fear, then anger, then sadness. Then all of them, great swirling serpents gyrating there in my stomach. Fear of facing, not death but an enslaved horizon. Who can I trust now? Anger, not for whoever passed the virus on to me but rather at the social stigma associated with it and also at the sheer stupid luck of it, being handed something like this just days before retirement. Sadness at all of the above and how very tired it all makes me feel. To what extent will my freedom, my privacy, etc. be curtailed?
I do a bit more breathing just to calm down again and as I do, it’s as though a curtain opens in my mind and in comes streaming… could it be relief? Am I smiling? Why am I smiling?
It’s because I suddenly just feel so damn lucky it’s ridiculous.
It’s because it’s just dawned on me that I no longer need to worry about getting HIV. That’s been a concern for a long, long time now and it feels just great to be able to kiss that worry off for good. Also, now at least I know basically what’s going on and that means I can be treated. If treatment is successful my viral load will be undetectable before too long and wouldn’t that be great?
I tell myself to prioritize. First, I’m not likely to die of anything HIV-related. Several poz people have blessed me with their friendship over the years and I feel deeply grateful to have been able to learn from them. This lets me feel a bit serene about the whole thing until I reflect that some of my fellow humans are more likely to kill me than the virus and that would be because of my HIV status.
With that thought I feel the tension, still there in the pit of my stomach, beginning to intensify and turn into something else: a sort of calm, floating rage that prevails as I define its causes for myself.
It’s easily done: stigma and discrimination are the reasons. Prejudice. Bigotry. It’s the human, social dimension of HIV that I find the most chilling; far more than any likely physical effects the virus might have on me.
I feel a strong need to talk with someone but not yet; not before I’ve had the chance to think a bit more. I don’t want to go home angry or sad and sadness is closing in as well. As I sit there in the park it is dusk in Toronto. I look up at the sky and it is beautiful, deepening gradually from blue to black and a sprinkling of stars just beginning to show. As I look I wonder just how circumscribed I truly am now. How limited, how defined socially, professionally, sexually?
I decide that for now I will only disclose to those close to me, including those few family members I still talk to. This goes against the grain for me. I want to live my life as openly as possible but I live in a small town where stigma is alive and well.
I understand very well that there are those who would take a dislike to me based on my HIV status. From what I’ve ever seen of such folk I doubt that I’ve much cause to pine for their friendship. Why give them a chance to hurt me? Why waste my time, especially now? It’s none of their business anyway and I’ve lots else to do.
I resolve to get on treatment and achieve undetectable status ASAP. The anger is becoming a sense of purpose and determination now. I know that the HIV meds cost more than my pensions are going to give me each month. I’ve no idea where the money will come from, so I need to learn about what resources are out there, pronto. I need to learn so much. I’ll start tomorrow by going to ACT.
The peculiar floaty feeling is still there. My head feels inflated. I decide I like floaty and light a joint. I’ve spent longer in the park than I’d intended. Checking my phone I find several messages from the poz friend I’m staying with. He’s quite a guy. Let’s call him “The Wizard of Poz.”
The Wiz knows where I’ve been. He’s anxious to hear my result as my health has been off lately and there’s no one I’d rather talk to right now. I text him about my new status and say I’ll be back soon. I light another joint, smoke it and then I’m off to see the Wizard.
It isn’t a long walk. Once I get inside I have a nice long chat with Wiz about the new positive me. Well to be fair, it’s mostly me venting but I feel so grateful for the support. Soon though, I’m officially and completely HIVed out. I don’t want to hear, talk or think about it anymore for now. Sure, I’ve got lots to do and learn but I can’t do it all tonight. For tonight, this is enough.
So then we have about four hours of intense, heartfelt, mind-blowing sex. At first I’m reticent but before long I’m thinking this is exactly what I need and infinitely preferable to going off by myself and imploding for a year or two. For a while there I could have gone either way.
But sometimes I’m so damn lucky it’s ridiculous.
Robert W. Olver is a former education worker with an alternative life in experimental music. Currently retired and living in Peterborough, Ontario, he is a gentleman of leisure and the friend of all cats everywhere.
On October 14 2015 Robert celebrated the first anniversary of his HIV diagnosis. Yes, that’s right. Celebrated.
“It was given to me just after my birthday and just a few days before I was to retire. I felt a bit overwhelmed initially but there’s nothing like a crisis to help you sort out what’s important to you. Let’s just say I found myself needing to revise some of my plans.
A year on, I find much to celebrate and I’ll be blogging to explain just what I mean by that and lots of other things as I navigate this journey".