What Does A Person Living With Hiv Look Like?

If I had been asked that question before I received my HIV results back in 2008, I’d probably have described a person already on their death bed, suffering from a bad cough, fever and an itchy rash. I didn’t have any of those symptoms when I made a quick stop at a local clinic before heading to work. I expected the usual counselling session with a nurse, the drawing of my blood and, finally, a negative result. But that wasn’t to be. I found out that morning that I was HIV-positive. ‘I honestly thought I was going to die; that I would not live past that week, that month or that year. But the nurse who gave me the results was very helpful. She asked me how I was feeling.

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I was bitter. Who wouldn’t be? I was faithful to my boyfriend. We had been in a longdistance relationship for most of the time we were together. I lived in Durban and he was based in Port Elizabeth. After a year of our “commitment” I made a decision to move to his town so I could be closer to him. I was excited about starting a new life – and taking an HIV test formed part of it. ‘I couldn’t speak when the nurse gave me the news. Mixed emotions overtook me – I was angry, scared, confused. I was angry with myself more than anything.

How could I have let this happen? I knew everything there was to know about HIV, so why hadn’t I taken all the precautionary measures? ‘The support I received from my older sister was incredible. She too was in shock, and probably took the news harder than I did. She suffered from insomnia after I disclosed my status to her. I love that she told me our bond would never change, and that my family would always have my back. Her reaction gave me great comfort. I felt that I could tackle any challenge ahead because of the love, acceptance and support I desperately needed from my family. ‘I got none of that compassion and love from my then-boyfriend, a man I was so madly in love with. His response to my disclosure was, “Why did you go for a test?” ‘Things got messy after that confrontation.

But I didn’t blame him for infecting me; I was responsible for my own health, and I should have condomised. We did try to make the relationship work afterwards, but after two years we both knew it was over. Working on my health needed to be a priority. I began to squeeze in three cardio sessions per week because gym helped me keep positive and energetic. I also worked on a healthy diet: not a day passes without me drinking warm water with one chopped clove of garlic. I also juice raw vegetables such as carrots and spinach, which are packed with nutrients. ‘I won’t lie: I often wondered whether I would ever find true love. Dating after a break-up is difficult enough – now add being HIV-positive to that! I believe in early disclosure in a relationship. It creates the right expectations and prevents you from getting hurt before you’ve invested in someone. When I met Sipho* at a house party in December last year, I was nervous about talking to him about my status. We were introduced by mutual friends; I immediately fell for his mannerisms. He made sure that I was comfortable and taken care of at the party.

‘We went on several dates before I broached the topic of being HIVpositive. It was a Friday evening and we were alone together. It took all my courage to say, “I have HIV.” His reaction took my breath away: he hugged me and kept asking whether I was okay. I couldn’t believe how maturely he took the news, with respect and compassion. Everything seemed to be okay until he called me the following Monday and asked to think things through. I was convinced he was going to dump me. But he didn’t. After some time, we met up to discuss the practicalities of dating someone who is HIV-positive: how we could have a relationship without compromising his health; the precautions we needed to take; and the honesty we would need to have with each other. ‘Disclosing to a potential partner is not easy. You have to be prepared for rejection. That’s why, after being diagnosed, it’s important to work on yourself first. If you want others to be okay with your HIV status, you have to be okay with it.

The first step is accepting your status, and getting counselling and treatment so you’re empowered to know that life does go on. Then you can start thinking about dating. You’ll be in a better place to date the right kind of people: people you feel comfortable talking to about your health; people who are willing to have the difficult but important conversations with you, and are willing to talk about how to make things work; people who will love and respect you no matter what. ‘I am blessed to be with someone who treats me like I’m the only woman in the world. We are both educated adults and know how HIV is contracted. We use condoms when we have intercourse, and our sex life is the same as any healthy couple’s. I’m comfortable with Sipho – and I can see that he’s comfortable with me, too. ‘Are you living with HIV/ Aids? Then live positively! There is a beautiful person inside you, a person with a bright future. Being HIVpositive doesn’t make you less of a person, lover or friend. Wake up, pray, gym, slay at work. You’ll find a partner who will be swept up by your principles and zest for life, and not your HIV status.

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