The first of this month marked World Aids Day. It’s been 33 years since then US President Ronald Reagan acknowledged that AIDS/HIV had indeed become an epidemic in his country. And it’s been two years since I was diagnosed with HIV.
I remember the day clearly. I was completely shaken, trying to gather my bearings while the doctor refused to even look at me. My mother was with me. She kept quite through the whole process. But later that night, when we got back home she got really upset. She said that my illness was a result of god punishing me for my sins, for my lack of religiousness.
As I left the doctor’s chamber that day, I texted my friend three words, “I have HIV”. She called me immediately but didn’t know what to at that moment. Then I called another friend, but I didn’t talk. I howled and said I didn’t know what to do. Passersby stared at me, probably wondering what had happened. There was such immense pain in my body. Actual. Physical. Pain. As if my heart was going to pop out of my chest.
Even in that state, I knew I had to call my then boyfriend Parul. I said, “Baby you also get checked” – That one sentence took away all the strength from my body. Later, I met all my friends to break the news to them. It was an eerie day. First, there was silence, then, silly jokes. The rest is blank. I don’t remember what happened after.
At first, my mother was very paranoid about my illness. She wanted to separate everything – toilets, towels, etc. My Dad was no better and blamed my illness on my lifestyle. But with time both of them became more understanding.
My friends and I have come a long way since then. Life has moved on. They have stayed with me through these difficulties. I can’t really thank them enough for their sensitivity and courage. They have never used it as an incentive against me.
However, the process of getting diagnosed and then navigating social situations was full of pitfalls. Starting with doctors and going up to acquaintances, I struggled to extract any empathy from them.
I went to a private hospital for my first series of tests. A week passed and they were still refusing to give me my reports. So then I went to a private doctor in the same hospital. He had to call the pathology lab to find out about my illness. After learning about my disease, instead of addressing me as he talked, the doctor would look intently at my mother. Even as the doctor told me what to do after this diagnosis, he refused to look at me. He told my mother that she shouldn’t be surprised that this had happened to me since I worked in the media industry. He added that media people have loose morals and that we indulge in “free sex”. After all this, the doctor referred us to another doctor who worked at a medical college and specialised in tropical diseases.
This doctor turned out to be extremely homophobic. He told me that my disease was the direct result of my queerness. This doctor told me that he would not discriminate against me, but added that he thinks queerness is a disease.
The third doctor I went to seemed liberal on our first meeting. But during my second visit he learned that I am more sexually active with men, and his homophobia creeped in. On that visit he said that he had no problem with my lifestyle but that he would not be able to talk to my parents about my queerness or talk to them about what that entails. He came up with this without me ever asking him to do anything of the sort.
Outside these hospitals and clinics, my acquaintances were suddenly very skeptical of me. It was clear that everybody was talking about me but not to me. I would sit with a group of people and everybody would immediately fall silent.
On Facebook, in the middle of a heated comment war on feminism, a detractor commented on the thread, saying something like, “Abu I heard that you have HIV. Do your friends know about your illness?” The intention was clear – he wanted to use my diagnosis to humiliate me into silence. He was trying to make me vulnerable in public in order to shut me up.
Thankfully, I’ve found ways to handle these things with the help of my friends. However, the stigma against HIV+ deserves a much wider discussion.
Today 70% of HIV+ people don’t know that they have HIV. Of the other 30%, 10% live in denial while the remaining 20% know but don’t tell the people they are sleeping with that they have it. That’s the power of stigma. The fear of discrimination is so high that a person would rather risk someone else’s life than tell them that they have HIV.
I never figured out who gave me HIV. I have often wondered if he knows that he is HIV positive. To this day, I fear that he is passing it on to other people.
There’s already a huge shortage of medicine in third world countries. There’s a shortage in this country as well. Thankfully, so far I never had to go off medication. But there are people who are living their lives without effective treatment, not knowing when they will get the next dose of this life-saving drug. Many have lost their lives waiting. Many have fought for a better world.
On this World Aids Day, I wished that HIV+ people around the world find all the support they need, both medical and emotional.
Over two years on, I am in a much better place – both mentally and physically – about my status. I am not afraid to talk about it openly in public for I don’t understand why HIV should be a hush-hush topic. I wish people knew that HIV doesn’t spread from normal interactions with people. I wish people were more informed and sensitive about how they deal with people who are HIV positive.
Feature image credit: Reuters