a man climbing a ladder, where each rung is an HIV test

An HIV Test Saved My Life, but Not How You Think

I took my first and only HIV test 3 decades ago. It saved my life, but not in the way you might be thinking. I already knew the results, even though I hid behind the myth of, "Maybe I'm not HIV positive."

I remember when there were 2 ways to find out if you had HIV. One was to take the test. The other was to get sick and die. The only people I knew who wanted their results were more interested in confirmation than doing something about it. Because, at the time, there were no treatments.

I was firmly in the camp of "I don't want to know" even after AZT was approved to treat the virus. It was a situation where the medicine was as bad as the disease. And I wasn't alone. None of my friends took the test. We wouldn't even walk on the side of the street near the building where free testing was taking place. That's how much we feared being associated with anything involving the disease.

HIV and AIDS come into my life

During that time, I started dating someone. Eventually, dating became something more serious, and we moved in together. Then 6 years later, he finally told me he had tested positive the month we met. And he had never said a thing.

I wasn't surprised. I had developed a Kaposi's Sarcoma lesion on my thigh. I knew what was happening in my body. Still, I resisted getting tested. It was like I was hanging onto some wild hope that things weren't what they seemed. But during his admission, he begged me to get tested. So, I did.

A fear of being tested

Back then, there was a 2-week waiting period between the nurse drawing your blood and the volunteer at the AIDS task force office giving you your anonymous results. I honestly think I worried more about my status during those 14 days than in the decade I had lived under the specter of possible infection.

I remember sitting in the small hallway, waiting for my 6-digit identifying number to be called out. Twice, while I waited, I almost left the building without the results. Finally, I was called into the room where the volunteer told me the news.

Not only was I HIV positive, but my T-cells were so low that I was almost at the level where I would be considered to have AIDS. I let that sink in.

Had I waited too long to take the test? The volunteer pointed to a poster that read, "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER." I read it several times before something inside of me snapped. A survival instinct kicked in that I didn't know I had.

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My life changes, for the better

I signed up for a treatment and lifestyle conference that very day. I curtailed my self-destructive behaviors, and focused my energy on learning what it would take to survive. My desire to live began to rage inside me even after my doctor told me to get my affairs in order and to prepare for the end.

That test and the results gave me the strength to fight back. I learned how to support my body in its battle. I studied the recently approved medications and understood how they were being used.

I developed a plan to start treatment. And my goal was set. Stay healthy long enough for new medications to become available. Stay alive long enough for a cure to be found.

My lifestyle changes had a positive effect. I experienced a bump in my T-cells. This gave me protection from opportunistic infections setting in. As luck would have it, this was just when viral load testing became available.

I began a combination therapy regimen with 2 medications shown to have the most significant effect in reducing a person's viral load. Mine plummeted, and my T-cells skyrocketed. I had bought myself more time.

Eventually, that was enough for protease inhibitors to reach the market. I began a new regimen, and my viral load became undetectable. Except for a few hiccups, I have lived that way since 1999.

Looking back

I think back sometimes to that young man sitting in the office that had avoided walking past the testing office so many times. I do that to remind myself of the fear I lived in by not knowing whether I was HIV positive or not.

Testing gave me the strength I needed to live. There was no more avoiding the truth. No more guessing if a fever was just the flu or something more serious. Testing gave me the necessary answers to choose how I would live my life. And here I am - living with HIV 30 years later.

Thank you, HIV test.

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