One student lived with the horror of HIV/Aides for six months after an inconclusive HIV/Aids test. Filipa de Oliveira delves into his personal hell.
He could be someone you know really well, someone you talk to every day or even someone you just wave hello to from across the street. He is just an ordinary guy, another Rhodes student working during the week on his Bachelor of Science degree and partying hard during the weekend at the Rat and Friar’s. But for the past six months, this ordinary guy, someone you may have seen in the library photocopying readings, someone you might have sat next to in a lecture or had lunch with in your dining hall, has been keeping in a difficult secret that built up inside and slowly ate away at him. For the past six months, this guy was coming to terms with the idea that he was HIV positive.
Last year, Damien* decided that he wanted to go get tested for HIV. He was convinced that he was negative and was just going so that he would be able to say that he had gone and knew his status. Damien was tested, like most Rhodes students, at the Student Union buildings. Following correct procedure, he was counselled first and then went for a finger prick blood test. The first result came up as positive and he was asked to take another one. “You assume Aids is somebody else’s problem. I just wanted to walk out of there and not know the
result of the second test because actually knowing I was definitely positive would mean that I would have to come to terms with it and tell my family. At that point I was happy with living with the ignorance,” he said.
But Damien waited for the second result and it came out as inconclusive. The counsellor, having heard about Damien’s previous sexual history assured him and encouraged him to go for a full blood test even though he was confident that he was actually negative. “The counsellor was sure that I was negative from what I told him about my sexual history but I hadn’t told him that I had once slept with a girl without protection. So I got home and I was all right when I was around other people, but as soon as I was alone I just began to completely freak out. I didn’t know what to do with myself” he said.
Damien put taking the full blood test off for a little while longer. The next few months were spent in limbo. Not sure of what to do with himself, he tried to push away any thoughts of being HIV positive out of his head and tried to get on with his life. “I went through stages. During exams I freaked out quite a bit. Obviously when I wasn’t studying I went out and just drank myself into a stupor all the time. I just found that drinking made me not think about it and it made me stay happy for a while,” he said.
Damien managed to eradicate the fear from his conscious mind for a while but when the April vac came and he found himself alone, the choking fear that he had been so good at suppressing was starting to overwhelm him and take over. He broke out in sores all over his body, which might have been symptomatic of Aids, and which upon reflection he was sure was as a result of stress. This coupled with all the other stress he was facing finally pushed him to go for a full blood test.
At that point Damien was convinced that he was HIV positive and had started eating healthier food and had quit smoking and drinking. He explained that waiting for the final results to come was one of the most nerve wracking experiences of his life: “The fax from the labs arrived while I was in the doctors office and I just put my hands over my ears and closed my eyes so I wouldn’t be able to tell from the doctor’s walk or expression what my result was. He looked at me and told me my result.” Damien was negative.
This experience has changed much of how Damien views HIV/Aids and the risk of having unprotected sex. “It’s more the irreversibility of it; the fact that I could’ve prevented it and didn’t. That’s what really got me.” Damien also experienced the isolation that many HIV victims face, “I felt dirty. I felt like that there was something in me that I could never get out. I had no choice in the matter – it was there and it was irreversible. It was the irreversible facet that really messed me up a lot,” he said. Coupled with that, Damien became more aware of the issue of HIV and how it was taken so lightly by his friends: “I mean people make random jokes about it and don’t think that someone in the group could be HIV positive – and it was me in mine – and you don’t know how it’s affecting them. It just creates a false stigma around it” he said.
Damien is experiencing a much more relaxed and happier existence nowadays but is aware that his happy ending was simply lucky and not at all a true reflection of what life is like. “I don’t want people to go through what I did. I got lucky but some people won’t be. It was the most mind altering experience I’ve been through. I was faced with my own mortality and that scared me so much” he said.
*not his real name