NARRATOR’s NOTE: I am no writer. I merely told my story, and Pink Panther turned them to words. For being able to transform my grief to words, I thank him. And for reading and empathizing, I thank you.
My name is Dubem. And I am HIV Positive.
My telling of this story was prompted when a friend recently revealed to me that he’d just found out he was HIV Positive. He didn’t tell me because he knew I had the same status. (In fact, he was shocked when I told him I was positive too) He told me because he was confused, distraught and didn’t know anyone else to confide in. And so, I decided to tell my story, for him to know, for anyone else reading this to know, that with HIV, there’s struggle, there’s pain…and there’s also survival.
It started with a hook-up I was going to have two Decembers ago. An acquaintance I made online. We had talked a number of times over the phone, and decided to hook up at an LGBT seminar that was scheduled to hold in Lagos Island. The venue was picked in a bid to neutralize the threat of any intended set-up; plus my hook-up (let’s call him Emmanuel) was a staff of the organization in charge of the seminar. So the plan was, we would meet there, check each other out, and if there was any chemistry, we would adjourn to a nearby motel who owned some rooms that his organization had leased for some purpose.
The seminar was quite educative. Some things were said that I already knew, and some others I was happy to learn. Emmanuel was quite the good-looking dude, and I liked him. And judging from the spark of interest I saw in his eyes as he checked me out, he liked me too. That motel room was looking very probable.
During a break in the seminar, I went with him to his office. It was small and not-so-well appointed. And it had lots of medical equipment in it. I am a graduate of Microbiology but I’d intended to study medicine; disagreeable JAMB scores and an impatience to get on with my university education had seen me opt for Microbiology instead. But I still had an avid interest in all things medical. And so I questioned him about the equipment in his office. What does this do? How does that work?
Eventually, I saw a familiar small kit on his table. I recognized it to be a HIV screening kit; I knew what it was because I’d had my HIV test done two years ago. Emmanuel noticed my eyes on the kit and asked if I knew what it was. At my nod, he asked if I’d done my HIV test before.
“Yes, of course… like two years ago,” I said. “And I was negative.”
“Ah, two years is a long time,” he said with slight reproof. “You have to be checking your status at least every six months.” He gestured to the kit. “Do you want to check now?”
“Sure,” I said with the blithe confidence of an optimist. I wasn’t even the slightest bit uneasy. I’m a slight depressive, and the only way I know to battle the ailment is a perpetual optimism and a relentless cheer that I love to wrap myself with. I try not to let anything bother me too much. Besides, I was negative a mere two years ago; naively, I didn’t think I would become positive in the time between then and now.
That was not to be.
Moments after my finger was pricked and my blood taken, Emmanuel stared at the result section of the kit, and whatever he saw told me my status before he opened his mouth. My heart began a sharp drop to the pit of my belly as he turned to me and said to me in a low voice, “You are HIV positive.”
Just like that, my world ended. And I started my descent into Hell.
In that moment, my first instinct was to see, in my mind’s eye, the death of my dreams, the death of my relationships, the death of my life as I knew it. Even seated right there, facing Emmanuel, I could see that spark of interest snuff out from his eyes. That motel room no longer seemed like it would happen after all.
But to his credit, he maintained his professionalism, and said encouragingly, “I know what you’re feeling now is as if you have been given a death sentence. But it’s not like that. You still need to confirm your status. I have the contact of a friend, a counselor who works in the communicable disease section in Yaba Military Hospital.” He was scribbling something on a piece of paper. “He’ll run the confirmatory test –”
“You speak like there’s a hope my status will change to negative,” I interrupted in a dull tone.
He paused and stared solemnly at me. “No, it won’t change your status. But at least it will inform you on what necessary steps to make to secure your health.”
“What health? What health are you talking about?” I snapped.
“Calm down, Dubem,” he urged. “Like I said, this isn’t the end of your life. On a brighter note, given the fact that you tested negative two years ago, there’s a strong possibility that you won’t even be liable for antiretroviral drugs, despite your positive status.”
“What do you mean?”
He started to explain, but I was too preoccupied with my shock to pay attention. He noticed that, and finally said, “Look, why don’t you go to Yaba Military Hospital and see my friend.” He handed me the sheet of paper upon which was written a name and number. “Call him, and go and see him. He will walk you through the process.”
I stood and left his office. And that was the last time I saw Emmanuel.
As I left the Island, I found myself still reeling from the news I’d just received. I found myself thinking about how much this had to explain a few inconsistencies of my recent past. For instance, I’d been in the job market for nearly a year at the time. I moved from Port Harcourt to Lagos to stay with an aunt and her family to increase the chances of my employment search. Recently, I’d been going for job interviews at Zenith Bank, and by all accounts, I was right for whatever job they were offering. I passed the aptitude test. I dazzled during my interviews. And on the basis of my cousin’s opinion – she not-so-jokingly said once that Zenith Bank usually hires pretty people – I was good looking enough to be on the bank’s payroll. And then, we went for the medicals, and the HR informed us that we would be recalled for our employment letters in batches. It had been a month since then, and the three friends I made during the interview process had all been recalled, all started work in their respective branches. I was still the one at home, praying to get called any day now.
With what I’d learned about my HIV status, it became apparent I would never get that call.
However, I called Emmanuel’s friend (Chima) that same day. He asked me to come over to the hospital at once. I did. Again, my blood was taken, and Chima asked me to return the next day for my result and subsequent treatment plan. I went home, and sought to be by myself, sinking further into depression as I sat in a corner alone. But I was dry-eyed in my grief. No, actually, I don’t think I was grieving then. I think I was still in shock, feeling suspended over a black hole, feeling as though any moment, I would be let go to tumble down into that hole. I was devastated, and yet, I could not believe my predicament. A riot of emotions warred inside me, and none of them was my habitual sunshine of optimism and gaiety.
The next day, I returned to the military hospital, where Chima briskly told me that yes, I was positive (still!), but that I was not eligible for the drug treatment. I asked him what that meant. He started on a long medicalese about how my viral load wasn’t threatening yet, and how my CD4 count was still too high. He took me to see a doctor, who pretty much told me the same thing Chima said. The doctor added that I should live healthy; if I smoked and drank, I should stop, and I should eat well, take fruits, and drink lots of water. Throughout his speech, I listened, partly paying attention, and partly still unbelieving of what I was going through. Eventually a file was opened for me, and I was given a new date to visit the hospital. During the file-opening process, the desk clerk asked me for the number of my contact person. I recoiled inwardly from the question and its implication.
“I don’t have any contact person,” I said.
“You have to have someone,” she returned.
“I don’t need anyone,” I maintained.
“Yes, you do,” she countered.
“Why?” I snapped. This woman was starting to really annoy me.
“Just in case you don’t show up for any hospital appointment, we need someone who we can call,” she explained.
“Don’t worry, I don’t intend to miss any appointment, unless of course I’m already dead.”
“Sir, we need your contact person,” she reiterated. I could see that she was struggling to rein in her temper.”It’s a requirement.”
And I wracked my brain for the number of anybody who I trusted enough to risk him or her knowing about my ailment, anybody who might get a call about my HIV status and would not withdraw from me thereafter. I thought about my parents, my siblings, my aunt, my cousins, a couple of friends. I couldn’t think of anyone I could trust not to turn away from me when my secret was divulged to him or her.
There has to be someone, a voice urged in my head. You can’t be that alone.
And I thought of someone, a close friend of mine (Bassey) who is in the medical profession himself. He is the most compassionate man I have ever known. I was sure I could trust him, but I didn’t test that resolve, so when I gave his number to the desk clerk, I didn’t call him to tell him anything. As far as I was concerned, I would not give the hospital any reason to call him.
I returned home to my brooding solitude once more.
Meanwhile, my guardians had started to worry vocally about the delay in my appointment with the bank. My aunt’s husband knew someone whose daughter had gone for the same interviews and she had already started work. Unbeknownst to me, my aunt had queried her cousin, my uncle, the man who hooked me up with the Zenith Bank program, and he started prodding at the HR for the reason I hadn’t been recalled. The man he called must have known about the reason the bank was delaying, but wanted to be delicate about it. So he told my uncle to inform me to come to his office. And that was when I was enlightened to the goings-on, when my uncle called me to inform me to go back to the bank HQ and see so-so-and-so person.
During that phone-call, I wanted so much to blurt out to him what I suspected about the delay. At that time, my secret was weighing down on my soul, like the burdensome load hefted on the weary back of an Israelite during the period the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt and building up Pharaoh’s empire. I wanted to tell him. To tell someone. But I was afraid. And my fear made me feel so lonely. And my loneliness drew me further down the pit of depression. Even the family I was staying with had begun to notice my melancholy, and their attempts to get me to talk about whatever I was going through met with verbal road-blocks.
So I went to see the executive at the bank HQ. He thought I knew nothing about my medicals, and asked me to go conduct my blood tests again, this time on my own dime. He sedately told me that he was interested in knowing what the result would say, to compare with what the bank already had. Inwardly, I laughed sardonically at him. You know what they have, I wanted to say. Why don’t you not be a coward and tell me to my face? But I shrugged my acceptance of his instruction. It wasn’t going to be my money anyway. I’d called my uncle, and he willingly offered me the cash to go conduct the test at the same hospital that offered their services to the bank.
When I got there, and informed the consulting doctor of my situation with the bank, he retrieved my records. And he, finally, was the one who revealed to me what was in those files, what I’d already deduced. That I was HIV Positive. He also hinted that that could be the reason I hadn’t been recalled. As he spoke, he stared solemnly at me, expecting the visible display of shock and hysterics. You know, my reaction to when Emmanuel broke the news to me. But I simply stared calmly back at him, and told him that I already knew my status; and then I told him about Yaba Military Hospital, and told him about what the doctors had told me there. He seemed pleased with my calm, precise reaction and my proactive updates. Then he asked me if I still wanted to re-do the tests. I said yes. The tests were re-done, and days later, I returned to the bank executive with my results. He looked at the paper. I looked at him. I saw his features sag with disappointed expectation, like he’d been hoping for this not to be the case, like he was wondering how he would break the news to me that I would never be hirable by his establishment.
I understood my situation from his expression, and when I eventually got home that day, the grief finally crashed down on me. I thought about how in spite of the fact that the world liked to think of itself as past the discrimination against patients of HIV, it really wasn’t. If my HIV status could be the reason I was getting denied an opportunity at employment, despite the apparency of my good health, then I was very much being discriminated against. The knowledge of the fact that this was the kind of insurmountable stumbling block I stood to face in my job market endeavours saddened me. And with it came, for the first time since, my tears. I cried as my self-pity welled inside me. I cried as I realized that I was now an outcast. I cried as I remembered what Chima told me that first day at the hospital: ‘You have to be careful about your situation now, especially in your dealings with TBs. You must have to use condoms whenever you are hooking up. But you shouldn’t tell anyone of your hook-ups about your status. They could never understand, and even if they do, there would never be any intimacy. So, unless you want to remain celibate, and be tainted by your revelations, because we know that TBs are worse gossips than women, you have to keep this to yourself.”
I cried, and I sank deeper into my funk.
Meanwhile, my uncle had called his bank executive friend, and the man finally told him what he knew. My uncle didn’t call me to talk about it, no. Instead he called my aunt. And she must have reacted with horror, to learn that she was housing such an abhorrence in her house, amongst her family, because it wasn’t long before I noticed a change in her attitude toward me, a change in the attitude of the entire family toward me. First I was moved out of the room I shared with my cousin to one of mine alone. Then, she instructed that I start using a separate MARKED dish and cutlery for my meals. My cousins became distant from me, and one evening, when I was going to cut my hair, my aunt made sure to ask if what I had in the small bag in my hand was my personal hair clippers. When she asked that question was when I knew. That was when all the strange happenings made sense. And I was slammed afresh by the painful realization that I was getting branded by my status. Like the black slave by his degradation. Like the un-Raptured Christian by the devil’s mark.
My guardians didn’t stop there. They called my parents. And days later, without pre-informing me, I saw my father and brother drop in on an ‘unannounced’ visit to Lagos. I was surprised and suspicious of their sudden presence. My father wouldn’t tell me why he came. That night however, I got to know. Four adults – my father, aunt, uncle and aunt’s husband – sat me down in the living room and talked to me about my ailment. First they had questions, like how long I’d known, and when then they got to know that it was way before the Zenith Bank brouhaha, my aunt flew into a rage, one that she held in check out of respect to my father. Then more questions came, hard and fast, with my aunt’s husband acting like he knew more about HIV/AIDS than I did, and vocalizing his misguided knowledge. My father sat, mostly silent, throughout the meeting, watching me, even though I refused to meet his eyes; while the other three yakked and yakked, and judged and yakked some more, saying hurtful things most of the time.
Their censure stung, and a great tide of sadness welled inside me. Tears threatened, much to my horror. I did not want to exhibit my weakness; I did not want to show them that I was getting beaten down by my ailment. I suppose that must have galled my aunt, because at some point during the interrogation, she snapped, “And you are not even acting like you are taking this seriously, like you understand the gravity of this issue…!”
How am I supposed to act, dear aunt? I wanted to snap back. How, pray tell. By gnashing my teeth and bemoaning my lot with the tears that you can see? By exhibiting embarrassing, tearful displays of my distraughtness? I had no words for her, for any of them. Instead I struggled to maintain my stoicism. But when the tears started stinging the back of my eyes, I mumbled my desire to be excused, and fled to my room, where I gave free rein to my misery. I sat, hunched in a corner and wept again. I threw clichéd questions to God, like: Why, God, why me? Why did You condemn me to such a fate? I felt bereft, dejected, and so, so alone. I had to talk to someone. I needed to talk to someone. I desperately craved understanding. But who would I get it from?
Your contact person, a voice whispered in my head.
Bassey! And before I could question my resolve, I called him. And while still sniffling through my tears, I blurted my story on the phone to him. I sobbed and I talked, and he listened. He listened, he heard me out throughout my blubbering narration, and when I was done, he started to say his own piece. There was no recrimination in his words, no judgment, no questions, no rejection – just the much-appreciated outpouring of love and understanding. He talked to me about maintaining my peace of mind, as it was crucial to my healthy living. He talked about ignoring the discrimination of anyone who knew about my status, and for me to focus on me. He talked about a strict adherence to any line of action that would protect me and everyone around me. And because he knew about my depression, he talked about resurrecting my optimism and positive thinking. He talked about how HIV isn’t a death sentence, and how normal the lives of HIV patients can be, about how life was not assured to anyone simply because of their HIV status, about how death can come to anyone in a number of different ways. He talked about my dreams, how I should strive harder now to achieve them all, about how I should invest more now in my zest for life, and damn any hesitations or draw-backs. And then, he told me he would always be there for me whenever I needed him.
As I listened to him, I shed more tears, tears of a lot more of emotions, one of which was gratitude.
That same night, I eventually talked to my father and brother. And they accepted me, warts and all, without any question. My father looked at me with kindness and told me this had changed nothing about the love he had for me. And when they were returning home to Port Harcourt, I went back with them.
But I came back to Lagos. I got a job, and returned to the city to start work. After a few months of squatting with some cousins, I got an apartment and moved out, into my new place. And since then, my life has returned to relative normalcy. I still have the friends I’ve always had. I still get to have hook-ups whenever my job gives me the breathing space to have a social life. I still go for my hospital appointments and get told the news that I still am not eligible for the antiretroviral medication. One doctor took a look at my file one time and told me I needn’t come back for another six months, so minimal was my viral load. I still strive to be happy and pursue my dreams. And in my darkest moments (yes, I still have bouts of depression every now and then), sometimes, intuiting to my feelings, Bassey would call me, other times I would call him. And we would talk.
My journey to Hell was a sharp drop, and I am still on my way back from it, learning every day that I have a friend, and I have a life, and I have happiness.
Written by Dubem