Diagnosed with HIV: looking back after six months

Published 06, Jan, 2014

New PositiveLite.com writer, Toronto-based student and activist Rodney Rousseau recounts the day six months ago when he first learned he was HIV-positive and what he went through with the man he dated the night before.

Diagnosed with HIV: looking back after six months

In my mind I’ve had an endless debate of what this first PositiveLite.com piece should be about. What’s an appropriate theme for an introductory article? I feel confident with my writing, and inspired and passionate about my interests, but something about putting my thoughts out for the world makes me feel like a bit of an imposter. Does what I have to say really matter that much? My hope for what I have to share is that it can inspire others, or at least feel relatable. So, here goes . . . 

I was diagnosed with HIV six months ago, on the 4th of July, 2013. Let me share some of what being diagnosed looked like for me. 

Although I’m newly diagnosed, I’m not new to HIV. My introduction to AIDS service work began more than five years ago when I was working as an employee at the AIDS Calgary Awareness Association. That experience inspired both my interest in advocacy-based social justice work, and also informed my understanding of the social value of scientific research. In time I returned to university to focus my efforts in both scientific and social HIV work. 

Fast forward to summer 2013. I left Toronto for the summer to complete a laboratory project at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I had been single for months and was beginning to be open to the dating scene again. It had been too long since I was tested for HIV, so I went in to the Edmonton clinic during the last week of June and had my blood drawn. They still didn’t have rapid testing in Alberta. I wasn’t terribly concerned about the test because I knew I hadn’t been engaging in any activities that should put me at significant risk. This is a good lead-in to the first lesson I’ve learned about living with HIV… 

Very few people need to know my infection story. I have told my infection story to people that don’t need to know. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, but observing people’s responses and subsequent actions has shown me this. From my experience there are two general reasons why people want to know the details. The most common reason is to judge my or someone else’s behaviour. Did I deserve it? Do I use drugs? Was the other person an asshole? Do I even know who it was? Am I a victim? 

Nobody deserves HIV. Nobody. Sharing how I was infected does little more than perpetuate notions that certain actions deserve an HIV infection, and others don’t. I see greater value in standing in solidarity as a community of people with HIV. Like everyone else, we all have our stories, but none of us deserve to be judged on how we became infected. The other reason some people want to know is so that they can help us work through the stress of what has happened. Very few people are typically looking to offer this kind of support, either to me or others. And among the people with whom I'm comfortable sharing everything anyway, no asking was necessary.

Back to being tested. Like I said, I went in and had blood drawn during the last week of June. I had been talking to a guy for a few weeks, and we went on a date on the night of July 3rd.  The date ended with what would be classified as ‘low risk’ sex. It was a great date. 

The next day, July 4th, I was working in the lab when I received the voicemail to call the nurse with Alberta Public Health. I called her back as soon as I noticed it. The nurse asked me to come to the clinic to receive some information. I insisted that she tell me what the news was, and she told me over the phone… I was HIV-positive.

 My mind was in about a million places at once. Fortunately, because of my history of AIDS service work, there were a few friends I could call immediately and instantly feel supported. My thoughts shifted to the date the night before. Questions flooded my brain. It was all low risk, right? I’m not on treatment… my viral load is likely high, does that mean increased risk? 

I texted the guy instantly and told him that I just found out I was positive. His initial response was a mix of disbelief and unconcern. We hadn’t engaged in any ‘high risk’ activity, after all. But that wasn’t enough for me. I knew that there was some risk. I knew that my viral load was likely high, and I knew that Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) existed and could more-or-less ensure he would not become infected from me. I proposed the idea to the guy. He was hesitant. I knew that I needed him to do this or I would hate myself if he became infected as a result. I offered to pick him up and drive him to the hospital and sit with him in the emergency room while he waited. 

It was a near-overwhelming experience. There I sat in an emergency room on the day I found out I was HIV-positive. The guy had to explain to the nurse that he had potentially been exposed to HIV. After he was taken to the rear the gaggle of nurses were gossiping and they kept looking at me. He was prescribed a PEP regimen. Afterwards, we went for dinner. I could barely eat. 

Follow-up tests have confirmed that no transmission occurred on July 3rd. 

I spent the following weeks functioning as regularly as possible, trying to adopt to my new life as a person living with HIV.