Wednesday, March 2017, my life changed forever. Like any other day, I was all about “Good Vibes Only” and expected everything to be “Stunnnning” – these are just some of my favourite phrases I say on a daily basis. I was excited about going to work and spending the day with my best friend Tanya. I saw one of the most incredible sunsets, everything seemed so perfect – I was happy. I have a job I’m extremely passionate about, I have just been promoted, I have loving family and friends, I have no major debt. Come on life, give me a challenge, something to look forward to, a new adventure! It’s strange how the worst day of your life often starts just like any other. I had spent most of day with my phone off, only to turn it on to be flooded by messages from a friend of mine who had frantically been trying to get a hold of me. We eventually spoke, the phone call was brief, the ending less than graceful. He told me he had been feeling sick and just could not get better, even after antibiotics, so his doctor ordered some blood tests and he decided to randomly check for HIV as well. “Well Wade, the results came back today – and I’m HIV-positive”. Suddenly it all made sense… I had had sex with him without using protection. I realised I too needed to get tested. I told him that I would not be able to do this alone, I needed him now more than ever. I rushed over to his house and once that first tear broke free, the rest followed in an unbroken stream. My palms were numb and adrenaline flooded my system, shutting down my ability to think logically. I wished it was just a bad dream, pleading with God for me to just wake up. Before arriving at his house, I wiped away the tears so he can’t see me crying again. He has seen me cry too often. I need to be strong this time. I wiped away my tears and put on the famous “everything-is-going-to-be-okay” mask although I was scared. When I arrived at his house, he walked up to me and asked for a hug. I hug him tightly while holding my tears back. I’m was scared. He taps me on the back ending the hug session and advises we go to the hospital to get me tested. Normally this isn’t a scary thing for me, I get tested at work regularly, but this time it just felt different. In my mind I already started preparing myself for the worst. I couldn’t drive properly my legs were shaking, speeding as fast as I could to the nearest hospital.
We rushed to the hospital as I needed to urgently have blood tests, but the hospital was busy, there were people waiting to see a doctor too. The only words I conditioned my mind to hear were “Mr Schaerer, we’re ready for you”. I could hear nothing else, it felt like the world was slowly disappearing in front of me. Or maybe it was just me who was fading away. Those moments didn’t matter anyway, all I wanted was to know was my status. Inside the hospital there was a 24-hour pharmacy, I decided to walk there to find out if they had any rapid HIV testing kits. We bought one, but were hesitant to do the test ourselves, we didn’t want to mess it up. After reading the instructions over and over we are now finally confident enough to do the test ourselves. My heart was hitting my chest so hard I thought it would break my ribs apart. The longest 15 minutes of my life. I had done this before, but this time is was different. I waited for the lines to appear – those cruel, horrible, necessary lines were there, the two lines that were needed to indicate a positive reading on a rapid HIV test. In 15 minutes my entire world had changed. It’s difficult to remember exactly what happened after that, I don’t know where my friend went, he had probably gone outside to smoke a cigarette. When I eventually saw a doctor I told him that I had just tested HIV-positive on a rapid test which I had bought at the pharmacy inside the hospital. He asked me to do another rapid test – it felt like I was re-living the worst experience of my life. Again, the rapid test indicated that I was HIV-positive. The doctor said the rapid HIV tests are quite accurate. I will call a nurse to take your blood as a confirmation. “It’s not a death sentence anymore.”, as the he walked away. His words splinter inside me causing more pain than a blunt knife lodged into my heart. All I remember crying and falling to the floor. The nurse came back to run tests, she tested for HIV viral load, a full blood count, liver function, Hepatitis B Virus markers, Hepatitis C Virus markers as well as a CD4/CD8 count. I looked away at the wall, denial, trying not to centre my attention to the needle embedded in my arm. I didn’t know what she was talking about, I just kept quiet. I’ll admit I was ignorant, I never knew a lot about HIV and even as I tried to recall what I did know, I quickly realised it was little. I had always thought this would never be a challenge I would ever face, even as a gay man
My friend and I left the hospital and I spent that evening at his house. Initially I think we were both still in shock or denial. He had been told earlier that morning that he was HIV-positive too, he knew first-hand what I was experiencing. At the time there was just nothing to say really – we’re both HIV-positive and who is to blame? I know what he is thinking and I’m sure he knew what I was thinking. The awkwardness was like touching an electric fence – not enough voltage to kill but sufficient to keep things uncomfortable. Naturally you want someone to blame for every blow that life throws at you. We decided to talk openly about previous sexual partners, this proved to be the wrong thing to do, it angered both of us, but still who is to blame? It is impossible to know who infected who, besides, what will it change? I can say today that: I gave myself HIV – it doesn’t matter who gave me HIV – I need to take full responsibility for my actions and lifestyle. I learned to forgive myself and to forgive the person who gave me HIV. I have always known that forgiveness is the key to life. In July 2016 I met with the man who murdered my Dad and I forgave him, so why can’t I forgive the man who gave me HIV? Forgiveness is the most powerful thing we have. You never forget the pain. You never forget how it hurts, but yet you are grateful that God has given you forgiveness. So when you give it to others, it comforts you. That’s the only way you’re going to heal. I won’t allow any negativity to surround what has happened to me, it won’t do me any good, or my health. But moving forward, I’ve learned to love and respect myself more. I know who my true friends are, and most especially, I’m happy with the love and support that I’m getting from my family, friends and fellow people living with HIV. There is always life after an HIV-positive diagnosis, it’s not easy I know, and this will always serve as a reminder to me to live my life to its fullest
Telling my Mom that I am HIV-positive was probably the hardest part of this journey, it’s the last thing you want to tell a parent. I knew it would hurt her, I knew it would disappoint her, I am her only child. Coming out as HIV-positive is 100 times worse than coming out as gay, there is something so destroying about revealing your status to people who love you, you can almost see the sadness in their eyes. My mom went to bed and didn’t say much, she said she needed to process it. It took her a while to come to terms with my diagnosis. She felt guilty that she wasn’t able to protect me. I tried going into education mode, trying to tell her that I was still going to live a normal life, but at the time I still knew very little about HIV and AIDS – and I was still awaiting the results of the blood tests that were taken. In the back of my mind I was still hoping that somehow the rapid HIV test was inaccurate. I spent all my free time on the internet researching facts about HIV and AIDS. I soon realised that I shouldn’t spend all my time reading up about HIV and AIDS, most of the content is harsh, one that I battled with was: “Life expectancy 20 years with the use of ARVs” for me that meant I will be dying at the age of 45, I cried until my eyes ran dry and my chest heaved violently. I’m not ready to die at 45! I never will be. I know now that this is not true and I will live a normal long life, as long as I maintain a healthy lifestyle. I scheduled an appointment with my family doctor who would explain my blood test results. He confirmed that I indeed had HIV, but reassured me that I was still healthy. It was difficult to believe, mentally I felt sick and disgusting. Even though my CD4 count was normal with a low viral load she still suggested that I start ARV (antiretroviral) treatment immediately – the sooner you start ARV treatment the better. I decided to disclose my HIV status to my family and close friends soon after I was diagnosed, again this was not easy as I wanted to tell them face-to-face. This is not something I wanted to discuss over an email or text message. All my aunts cried when I told them, I could see the sadness and fear in their eyes, I’m sure it was the last thing they were expecting to hear, having said that – I have the most supportive family and friends who only want the best for me. I am incredibly blessed. “Nothing changes, I still love you, now and always, no matter what” was a common comment.
A triple therapy antiretroviral drug – efavirenz [ef–AV–ir–enz] – emtricitabine [em–trye–SYE–ta–been] and tenofovir [ten–OF–oh–vir] all packed into one big orange pill, a pill that I will need to take for the rest of my life. I opened the bottle and took out the pill, I looked at it and held it close to my racing heart. I closed my eyes and asked it to only do its magical healing super-function. I remember thinking “What is this pill going to do to my body?” I had taken 2 weeks off from work after being diagnosed, I needed time to allow my body to get used to the side effects of this pill and I wanted to be in the comfort of my own home, during this time the side effects I experienced from the ARVs were intense. About 45 minutes after taking the pill, the first side effect starts kicking in – dizziness, everything surrounding you starts to spin and you feel unbalanced, shortly after that a series of hot flushes spread over your body, combine that with feeling nauseas as well. I had no appetite, bones and joints ached and felt constantly tired. The side effects have subsided now but I still have constant lower back ache since starting treatment and most nights I have nightmares too. I had never believed in taking pills – not even antibiotics, I am a person who believes in the healing power of nature and eating healthily. I read online about the potential damage these pills could cause my kidneys and liver but if you don’t treat HIV with ARVs it can lead to AIDS, so I really had no choice if I wanted to live. I just had to deal with the side effects. I started combining my ARV treatment with ozone and oxygen, a natural treatment that involves having ozone gas pumped into your veins intravenously every day. I’m not sure how effective this alternative treatment is, but I’m willing to give it a bash too. Although I dislike taking this pill and I’m extremely worried about the long-term damage it may be causing my body, I know that this pill is designed to slow down the replication of HIV within the body, repair damage to the immune system and reduce the viral load (the amount of virus in your bloodstream). Eventually my viral load will become “undetectable”. People with undetectable viral loads stay healthier for longer and they are also less likely to transmit the HIV infection to others.
Although HIV/AIDS has become very common, it is still surrounded by silence. Then all we hear is negativity when the silence is broken. People are ashamed to speak about being infected and many see it as a scandal when it happens in their families. People living with HIV/AIDS are exposed to daily prejudice born out of ignorance and fear. By sharing my personal story with you, my hope is that I can break the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS. Don’t be a silent witness when it happens to you or around you. There are a lot of assumptions made about the kind of people who get infected with HIV. Some people think that it is a reality for homosexuals, drug addicts or the promiscuous, the truth is, it can happen to anybody. What about people who have been raped and subsequently become infected with HIV? What about the faithful partner who is infected with HIV from an unfaithful partner? Or the thousands of babies who are born with HIV and kids orphaned by HIV. So the next time you have something to say about HIV, think about who may be listening, you never know what their story is. Don’t be naïve about the kinds of people who can get infected with HIV, because no one is exempt. Learn how to react and deal with the news in a better way when someone confides in you and has the courage to tell you they are HIV-positive. Don’t be ignorant… get informed on how to protect yourself from getting HIV. Take responsibility for the prevention of HIV in your community. Challenge negative attitudes and behaviours that contribute to HIV stigma. More than half of young people who are living with HIV are unaware of their status. Get yourself tested – regularly, know your status. Fight against HIV/AIDS, it is your responsibility. I won’t give up – ever – HIV is not my death sentence, it was just my wake-up call. You are not a victim for sharing your story. You are a survivor, setting the world on fire with your truth. You never know who needs your raging courage. I am living with HIV. I am not suffering from HIV so please don’t say that – or call me a victim of HIV. My name is Wade.