Sometime in April, I escorted some relatives to the market to get food stuffs. There I was, seated somewhere in the market, waiting for them to get done, when I was overcome by dizziness. After being indoors for most of that day, I assumed a brief change in environment must have led to this sickly feeling I was getting. So I bought sachet water and expected to get better afterwards.
But I was wrong. My condition worsened so much I had to call my relatives to tell them to get done quickly because I wasn’t getting myself anymore. They eventually finished buying. But while we walked home, what I experienced got even worse; a general wooziness and fever that came with serious weakness. I couldn’t lift a thing or sit on a bike, so we were forced to take a drop back home. I immediately knew this was malaria. Although it happens very rarely, it always comes with this sort of force. I get useless almost immediately but a dose of Coartem and Paracetamol tablets gets me back on my feet within a day at most. So I took this routine medication coupled with the invaluable care I got from this relative, and I was good. Sadly, that wasn’t going to be the end.
Less than two weeks later, the same experience repeated itself, this time more protracted. I went for malaria, typhoid and blood count tests, and malaria and typhoid were detected, albeit in small proportions according to those who understood the result. I could barely do anything including eat. I remember surviving on custard, drips and oral drips for that one week, alongside tablets of course. Not too long after I got better, I got struck down again, this time as brief as the first.
When I finally recovered, I knew I had to go test for something more underlying. These episodes were unusual. Having and treating malaria back to back like this wasn’t normal for me. I always knew I needed to go test for HIV. I wasn’t ignorant of all the awareness and education and stigma that existed out there. For some reason, I just hadn’t made up my mind, mostly because I rarely fell ill and was always fine. I wouldn’t say I was scared, although I knew I’d been reckless and the statistics showed that persons like me were more likely to contract the virus. I just didn’t see the need.
But it happened that on that fateful day, I walked into this private hospital nearby and paid 1, 500 naira for the test. This was the same hospital I had gone for the previous tests. After waiting for a few minutes, I was beckoned by the lab scientist who extracted blood again, as if to confirm what she saw. At this point, I already knew my fate. After much hemming and hawing, she called on the doctor on seat to have a chitchat with me. After asking questions about having a girlfriend and all that stuff, she revealed I was reactive (what you call positive) and, as if to give me hope, said this was just a screening test and I needed to visit a big lab facility on the other side of town for a confirmation test. She talked about the probability of a false positive but also recommended where I could go to if it was confirmed. She did succeed in giving me hope, using semantics like ‘screening’ and ‘confirmation’ to allay my fears. So in the meantime, I didn’t conclude. I just looked forward to the confirmation result.
I went for the confirmation test, charged at another 1, 500 naira, and both fortunately and unfortunately, it took about five days for me to get the result. According to them, they had to send the sample to another city for proper confirmation. Quite rigorous of them. These few days gave me time to process the whole thing; keeping an open mind and expecting the good or the bad equally. At least, I didn’t have to be bombarded with two HIV positive results in a single day. That would’ve been terrifying.
The D-day came and I collected my fate enveloped like a parcel. On my way out, I tore open the envelope and alas, it was confirmed. I can’t recall the particular strand of HIV that it was, but it was there – REACTIIVE, in bold letters this time.
A deluge of emotions ran through me as I walked home. Questions and answers, both rational and irrational preoccupied my mind. Is it really better knowing this? What does my health become from here? Where do I go to receive medication? How much is it going to cost me? What does my sexual and relationship life become henceforth? Who and who do I confide in? Who and who are open-minded and educated enough to be of assistance and won’t be superstitious and judgmental? What friends and relatives are worth sharing this discovery with? These and more were the tough questions I got submerged in during this panicked period.
But through all this, a dear friend stood by me. The most important thing I needed at this point was someone I could talk to, someone to unburden and release myself to, and he was right there for me. He told me to be strong and that I was going to be fine. I certainly knew openly gay men living with HIV and I knew they were fine. The likes of Bisi and Brandmuse were perfect examples. But at this moment, I needed those words said to me and this friend was there to repeat them over and over again. He was my crutch at this critical period. I didn’t tell him I was broke, but he sent me the money for my second test. I was getting ready to visit a general hospital around to start medication when he sought my permission to speak to a friend of his who had also confided in him and disclosed he was positive. I and the guy got talking and he recommended a place he believed I could go to get better attention. I never really liked the idea of a general hospital in the first place from stories I’d heard about treatment of patients there, so I baulked at this option. Though quite a distance from where I stay, I don’t regret going there for medication. I spend a whole day to and fro, but since it’s not something I have to do every day or even every week or month, I take on the stress. It’s my health after all.
I was able to overcome that phase and I’m glad to say I’m doing very fine presently, thanks to these two guys and a pharmacist friend of mine I eventually told after much consideration. Knowing I’m living with the virus has been an experience these past few months. My CD4 read 435 and I was placed on drugs the first day after receiving some very helpful sensitization from a nice nurse at the hospital. I was also placed on TB prevention tablets after the first month of taking ARVs. I try to take my diet seriously as well. Experts say fruits and vegetables can do a lot of magic and I’m heeding accordingly.
Since my discovery, I’ve taken time to educate myself on the current info there is about the virus, how best to go about living with, stories and interviews of persons living with it and most especially the scientific progress that’s been made so far, all of this through the internet. I must confess, this process of self-education has been most liberating. I understand there is a lot of ignorance and stigma out there. I know humans prefer ignorance to knowledge; the former is comforting and blissful. I know that many of us aren’t quite as open-minded and educated as we love to think we are, both consciously and otherwise. I further know that henceforth, I am a minority within a minority and my story will from now on become more peculiar. But in all this, I take hope in knowing that there are many like my dear friend out there. Out of carefulness, I have become more self-engrossed these past few months. Every chance or opportunity to get laid comes with lot of self-criticism. Anytime someone expresses their admiration for me, I feel like asking them, “What if I told you I have HIV?” If I find myself doing the admiration, I also ask, “What if I give this person the virus?”
I know there is protected sex, but I’ve not summoned enough courage to freely go that ‘safe’ route. I know I will, eventually. I understand that stuffs like PReP and PeP aren’t very available in Nigeria at the moment. But even with all these precautions, I still get curious: how many persons will get down with a person knowing they have the virus? How many will get into a relationship with a positive person? How many are cool being friends with one? I assume there are some, like my good friend, not to be totally pessimistic. But what will you do if that friend, that handsome guy, that random gay guy, tells you they had HIV? Will they become a walking avatar of sexual promiscuity in your eyes? Will they become a blight on the gay community and humanity at large to you? Will you go telling it on the mountains, over the rivers and everywhere that this one has HIV? Or will you rather dwell in that blissful bubble of your ignorance?
Written by Luther