It was a Tuesday in August. I had sent off a HIV rapid test in the mail the previous Thursday evening, not long after my boyfriend did the same thing.
When he got a text message the following day to confirm that he was HIV-negative, but I heard nothing back within the same time period, I got concerned.
We mailed the tests only a few days apart, but the lack of confirmation for me was worrying.
I went onto the rapid test’s website, where I could track the test’s progress – if the blood sample was received, if testing had begun, and so on. I noticed that the website reported the sample ‘highly hemolytic’, which I soon Googled to learn that it meant that many red blood cells had burst.
It meant that the sample had the possibility of returning a ‘false positive’. The test’s results hadn’t been confirmed yet by the website, but I grew more worried. During this time, my boyfriend tried to assure me that there was ‘no chance’ it would come back as positive.
‘I got a voicemail from a woman, saying it was about my test result. My heart started to beat in my chest’
He was wrong. On Tuesday, I got a missed call on my phone as I was in a business meeting. I didn’t recognize the phone number that rang, but I got a voicemail from a woman, saying it was about my test result. My heart started to beat in my chest.
I had taken STD and HIV tests before, both in health centers and using postal ‘rapid kits’. I knew that only a positive result for any STD would warrant a phone call.
The only other possibility was that the blood sample I sent became too hemolytic, or I hadn’t sent enough blood to test properly. Despite the other options, my mind already prepared me for what I was about to hear when I tried to call the woman back.
On Tuesday evening, just as I left my office building, the woman called. She asked me to confirm my date of birth before she continued. And then she said it:
‘I’m afraid the result did come back as reactive, which indicates that you have HIV.’
Weirdly, I didn’t get upset. I sighed with disappointment, like I had just let myself down, but I didn’t even want to cry.
I listened to the woman, who advised that I get to the local hospital as soon as possible for a full test, as treatment could not start until then. She told me to be careful who I told, because ‘once you tell someone, you can’t take it back.’
‘I got the distinct impression that someone was trying to tell me that life goes on, but I had no idea what to do next’
I had already decided that I wouldn’t be open about it with anyone other than my boyfriend, but I didn’t know how I was going to do that. She told me to visit websites which were official authorities on the topic of HIV, but I had forgotten them by the time I had put the phone down.
The evening was beautiful. It was windy, but it felt like summer. The sun was shining, and people were happy to be done with work for the day. I got the distinct impression that someone was trying to tell me that life goes on, but I had no idea what to do next.
Well, actually, I did; I had to go home to my boyfriend. He made things worse, though. On the bus home, he texted me:
‘Yep,’ I replied, ‘en route home now.’ I couldn’t tell him by text message. He knew there was a problem then:
‘Is it ok?’
Telling him was the hardest part, because it was no longer just some surreal phone conversation I had had an hour earlier, with a woman I never met. He was dumbfounded, confused over how it could’ve happened.
‘I didn’t have sex with either of them for too long – probably no more than a few seconds…’
I figured out that it must’ve happened when we both visited a gay sauna earlier on this year. I vaguely remember being penetrated by two guys that night, but I wasn’t in the mood for intercourse.
I didn’t have sex with either of them for too long – probably no more than a few seconds – but I also didn’t like that neither used a condom.
Not long afterwards, my upper back and shoulders developed an irritant rash, while my cheeks developed a weird acne-like redness, both of which I thought were allergy-related.
I had never made the connection in my mind, because I always thought that HIV was symptom-free. Not so; they were my first symptoms of seroconversion. When my boyfriend realized that the rash was a symptom through a Google search later that evening, it all started to make sense.
The following Thursday, I went to the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) for a second rapid test, hoping on my last hope that the first test’s result was a ‘false positive’.
I explained my story to the worker there; how I already got a rapid test, but the sample was highly hemolytic, and I wanted to be extra sure. He was fantastic, understanding and ready to help.
‘This was now a reality; I had HIV’
We did the test.
Positive again. My heart sunk once more, but I wasn’t as upset. This was now a reality; I had HIV.
The worker asked how I felt. From the previous 48 hours, I hadn’t cried. I had definitely been in shock, but I wasn’t really in denial. I treated it with a mixture of realism and optimism, knowing the most important thing of all: HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was.
Here in the UK, our national health service supports people with HIV with medication. Today’s treatment means that people live full and happy lives, and I knew that if someone was on steady medication, they’d become ‘undetectable’ and unable to pass on the virus.
Knowing this gave me hope, but I didn’t expect to never be down, either. My boyfriend and I would have to accept that the next few months will be the hardest we’ve ever faced, but we’d get through it.
The worker at THT explained what I needed to do next. He would refer me to the local Sexual Health clinic at the nearest hospital, meaning that I’d be seen straight away.
There, I’d get a ‘proper’ blood test for HIV, and if/once the result was positive, then I’d have to get more blood tests done to determine the viral load (i.e. the level of HIV in my blood) and my CD4 cell count (to see how my immune system was fighting it, AKA T-cell count).
From there, I’d be told exactly what state my body is in, how it’s holding up against the virus, and what treatment I need to go on.
I’ve now done those extra set of bloods – they had to take 11 vials of blood – and I have to wait two weeks to get the results back. I’ve managed to keep it a secret from everyone except my boyfriend, but I get the occasional urge to tell a friend.
For now, I’ll use this blog as a way of discussing it and the emotional rollercoaster that comes with it.
Either way, I’m not dying. That’s the important part, right?
Chris Yates is the pen-name of a HIV-positive blogger based in the UK, who was diagnosed in August 2016. He writes about his personal experiences of living with HIV. He is based in the English Midlands and tweets at @chris_yates84. This article first appeared on Medium.