It’s National HIV testing week: a campaign that I strongly believe in. As a naïve 17 year, I met, and quite quickly moved in with, a much older man. It was the late 1980s and AIDS. was grabbing the headlines. Ineffectual government TV adverts and sensationalist headlines didn’t penetrate my psyche and I ignored the whole safer sex message. As far as I was concerned it wasn’t a worry for me. Condoms were readily available in the gay bars I frequented and for various reasons they stayed gathering dust in my bedside drawer.
Five years down the line I started to have concerns. People around me in the sleepy Midlands town where I lived were starting to get diagnosed with HIV and a contemporary of mine died of AIDS. in his mid twenties. Famous people starting dying, people who were remote yet whom I could relate to. I’d not been especially promiscuous (yet) and had only had a handful of sexual partners. Of course, this didn’t mean a thing, as the sexual partners that I’d had unsafe sex with had all had a fair share of sexual encounters. I’d effectively opened myself up to the transmission route of every partner they’d had too. The thought that I might have HIVbegan to niggle away at me.
I did the worst thing possible and ignored it. I flicked past articles about the subject, avoided novels and films with an AIDS theme and tried to supress the thoughts whenever they arose. Trying to keep your eyes, ears and mind closed to something is incredibly counterproductive. Pushing down thoughts can be like trying to hold down a beach ball in a swimming pool: the harder you push it down, the more velocity it attains when it bounces back.
My hypochondria worsened. Every blemish, ache or swollen gland was a sure fire confirmation of my fears. I actually convinced myself that I definitely had the illness and made changes to my thinking accordingly. I stayed put in a bad relationship for much longer than I should (falsely) believing that no one else would want me if I was positive for HIV I tried not to plan ahead or think about the future, as I was convinced that I didn’t have one. I worried and fretted and tried to keep busy to avoid thinking. Treatments were only just coming out to slow the progress of the virus and during this time, several more acquaintances became ill and died. When one of my partner’s exes was diagnosed with the virus, I was certain that my days were very limited.
It took several years before I finally plucked up the courage to have a test. There was no flash of light or defining moment. I was just so sick of worrying and doing nothing that I eventually came to the conclusion, that whatever the answer I was better knowing rather than living like I was. The test was negative. A week of anxious waiting proved just how wrong my thinking was. I was so convinced that I had the virus that I had a repeat test a month later. My mind-set took some readjusting.
Knowing what I know now: I look back and see that had I been positive, I would have somehow coped with the diagnosis. Delaying the testing lead me to not take steps to address the issues and left me stuck in a process of denial and grief. Of course, treatments are better now too and the testing process is much easier and faster with a range of testing options. It’s so important to know your status.
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.
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