Status: Probably HIV-positive
“There’s a strong chance that you could be HIV-positive.”
Up until this point in my life I had tried to do everything in my power to prevent myself from becoming a part of the more than 100,000 people in the United Kingdom living with HIV. I carried and wore condoms, there had only been unprotected sexual activity when I was in committed relationships and only two one-night stand slip-ups - one in upstate New York and the other in London. I did not want to become another African American gay male who contracted the disease that wiped through a generation of sons, brothers, fathers, artists, singers, writers, dancers, politicians and prostitutes in the eighties. According to my mother, this was God’s curse on homosexuals - AIDS.
Yet those words “strong chance” were to become my inescapable reality. An interlude of sex texts and romantic words on Grindr led me to someone who I thought was Mr. Right - someone I actually did not know at all. In the heat of the moment - like so many men and women - I allowed him to penetrate me without a condom after only just meeting him. I had convinced myself I trusted him. I asked, of course, if he had condoms and lube - he had lube, but no condoms. Lured by passion, I chose to leave aside that precaution. Red flag number one - any gay man that does not have condoms in his flat probably routinely participates in bareback sex - a fact revealed to me by the nurse, who was filled with revelations, one of them being my new status that I was probably HIV-positive.
However, in the world of modern medicine, where cloned mice and stem cell created body organs are normal water-cooler chatter, there is perhaps a cure for those exposed to HIV. Because my infected partner was kind enough to tell me only a few hours later after our sexual encounter that he was positive, I made the 72-hour cut off to be prescribed Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
This wasn’t my first encounter with HIV though. As I mentioned, I had previously penetrated a man in London, who allowed me to do so, again without a condom, after only just meeting him - red flag number two. If a gay man allows you to top him without a condom, this is another sign that he normally participates in bareback sex and is at greater risk of being positive. Midway through penetration, reality had slapped me in the face and I quickly asked - “Oh, by the way are you HIV-positive?” His reply, “Yes, but I’m undetectable.” I withdrew, and fast - but the damage had been done.
A debate between my flatmate and I after this first incident had led me to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning to be met by an African doctor who scanned me with eyes filled with absolute disgust as he asked me the routine questions - “Do you normally participate in anal sex?” and “Do you take illegal drugs during sexual activity?” I had sat trembling, feeling like a statistic as he slid me a box filled with horse pills. In this instance, because I was the top or the penetrator and my partner was undetectable, my risks of contracting the disease were very low. So I had opted not to take the PEP on this occasion, afraid of the side effects, which I’ll explain later, and met good fortune finding out three months later that the disease had not managed to invade my body.
However, in the second instance, because I was the bottom, the risks were higher of a possible infection and, upon speaking with doctors in the 72-hour window of time granted, I was strongly advised to take the medication. Five pills a day, three at night and two in the evening for 30 days - sounds pretty simple right? No, because these pills cause hallucinations, vomiting, chronic diarrhoea, headaches, upset stomachs, insomnia and depression - symptoms I would have to live with for the 30-day treatment. However, with an 80% medically proven success rate, I’d have to take the consequences for my irresponsible actions.
In the end, I only lasted two weeks on the medication. It literally tore me apart physically and emotionally. The decision to stop taking the medication had the potential to change my ‘probably’ status into ‘definite’ - PEP works by killing off the HIV virus before it duplicates itself in your system, preventing it from spreading and further replicating itself to a level where eradication is not possible.
The final two weeks when I should’ve been taking medication were spent in a dark, deep depression. I feared this time I would not be spared and fate would take its course. My mother’s prediction of me catching HIV would become a reality. I never prayed so hard in my life and, as I waited patiently for the results from my final routine check up three months later, tears rolled down my face. The nurse looked at me - another statistic - with a face that had probably seen more tears and felt more trembles then she could remember.
Sir, you're negative.
[“Undetectable” is the term used when a person that has been diagnosed as HIV-positive has undergone antiretroviral therapy (ART) and has achieved undetectable levels. The risk of a person diagnosed as HIV-positive transmitting the disease is dependent on their level. For someone that has an undetectable viral load, there is a 96 percent reduction in the risk of transmission. As long as the person is acquiescent with their ART medication, once they have achieved an undetectable status, it can be possible for them to remain at this level.]