Nobody wants to be told that they are HIV positive. They definitely do not want to be told whilst on holiday, halfway up a mountain and nowhere near a HIV specialist.
However, that’s exactly what happened to British artist Paul Chisholm.
Paul was raised in Leamington Spa. He now splits his time between London and Spain.
It was in 2011 at the age of 27 that he took himself for a HIV test. He was in a relationship and tested regularly.
A week later, he want back for his results. He felt the usual relief when told they were negative and thought little more of it. Paul hadn’t been expecting a positive result and had a skiing holiday with his boyfriend in Switzerland to look forward towards.
He says it was 7-10 days after being told that his result was negative he received a call from the clinic. They told him there had been a mistake and he was HIV positive.
Paul’s story was recounted in a Facebook posting by sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust.
‘I went off on holiday skiing in Switzerland with my then-boyfriend, and was really happy about the results. But half-way through the holiday, I got a call from the hospital asking me to go in because they had made a mistake with my results.
‘I was in the middle of a mountain and found out I had HIV because of a computer error – it was quite shocking after being told I didn’t have it.
He says he didn’t know how to handle it, what to do or how to tell his boyfriend.
‘I felt like jumping off the mountain – I didn’t know where to turn or what to do.’
Shock at HIV positive diagnosis
Paul says that he took the call alone. His boyfriend was out skiing. He himself was due a snowboarding lesson. In a daze, he met his boyfriend for dinner that evening, but he did not discuss his news.
‘I was in shock,’ he says in a phonecall to GSN from Spain. ‘I just pretended I was feeling ill and had an early night. The next day, I skipped my snowboarding lesson and called the Terrence Higgins Trust.
‘They basically told me that “You need to tell your partner, and you need to tell him today or you’re going to have to tell him when you come back to London.”
‘My partner at the time was incredibly supportive. One of his exes had HIV so he was fine, although it did cause problems in the relationship.
‘We later split up, and then got back together and married, before we eventually split again. Splitting and getting back together was recurring theme in our ten-year relationship,’ he chuckles.
Paul says that the phone call to THT made a huge difference.
‘The guy chatted to me for an hour-and-a-half and if it wasn’t for him explaining, telling me it was okay and giving me information about medication, I don’t know what I would have done.
‘He really placated the shock, fear, and stigma, and allowed me to carry on – it was a lifeline.’
An investigation was carried out at the clinic as to why the mistake had occurred. It was due to the installation of a new computer system.
‘Because of the new system, the doctor hadn’t known I’d had a HIV test. I decided not to make a claim or sue because it was the NHS.’
Paul is on medication and has an undetectable viral load, but says that living with HIV has been a psychological challenge.
‘A lot of people nowadays say, “It doesn’t matter if you get it, you’ve got the medication and you can carry on living,” but actually, there’s still a tremendous psychological impact, even if there’s not a physical impact.
‘There have absolutely been bouts of depression. There is a lot of social stigma still surrounding it, and a lot of shame and guilt. And the long-term effects of HIV medication are unknown really.’
Turning to art has helped.
‘I was working at the French House in London as a waiter at the time. My ex partner moved to Zurich, and I decided to leave London and concentrate on my art.
‘I began re-building a new body of work, moving from photography and painting to a more conceptual, ready-made practice. I immediately found that I was dealing with my diagnosis through my art, producing work like Viral Load.’
Viral Load is a dildo encrusted with glass-headed pins. Paul says he wanted to depict HIV in ‘its most violent and disturbing form, in part from its scientific depiction and also from what I interpret as affiliations to a voodoo doll.’
Grateful to the Terrence Higgins Trust for its help, Paul donated Viral Load to the charity’s most recent fundraising auction, where it sold for over £2,000.
It was through his art that Paul discovered Visual AIDS. Set up in the 80s, the US-based non-profit supports HIV positive artists and art that raises awareness around the virus.
Visual AIDS was the organization behind the creation of the AIDS red ribbon – still used today to signify HIV awareness.
Paul’s work has been exhibited in New York in connection with Visual AIDS. It was also this connection that led to him to decide to be open about his status, saying that it was impossible to not talk about it given the work he was now producing.
‘I found it very difficult to tell my parents. And when my brother found out he was very upset.
‘There’s still so much shame and stigma surrounding the virus. If you got cancer, you would tell your family and boss. But with HIV, you end up not telling people, and that needs to change. There shouldn’t be stigma around it.’
‘It’s safer to know your status’
If you are diagnosed HIV positive, there is no ‘right way’ to react, says Paul: individuals deal with it differently.
‘It’s something you learn to live with. For me, to be honest, it’s about putting on a brave face and going out to face the world. My art is important to me.
‘Self-help groups can work for some people, while some people will find it to be a very private issue and they won’t want to talk about it with everybody.’
If you’re reading this and putting off getting tested, Paul has blunt advice.
‘If you’ve been putting off a test, get to a clinic as soon as possible.
‘It’s safer to know your status than walking around with potentially high viral loads in your body. There is support out there. There is hope and things are getting better.’
For more information on HIV and AIDS, those in the UK can call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221. Internationally, check out these support helplines for more advice.