Some people were born with a silver spoon, some others with a rubber spoon. Unfortunately, I came around the time when all the spoons were exhausted. All my years growing up were faced with battles – battle for love, battle for self actualisation, battle for inner peace, and currently battling to leave a print on the sands of earth. I constantly aspire to be fulfilled but after each battle, another commences. Sometimes, I’m contending with two or more battles at a time. I fall under the category of persons who don’t know their purpose in life or better still, are on the verge of self discovery. I have chosen to keep learning divergent things, hoping that the universe will unravel my fate. I constantly hope that all the things I’ve learnt are just parts to a whole. The whole which I seek, the whole meant to complete me – the whole which will mean my fulfillment. I look forward to seeing the steps, mistakes, choices, regrets and decisions I’ve ever made become a façade of my purpose.
Only then will I take a chill pill. I probably will stop pushing so hard. And then I will look back with the satisfaction of a survivor at all these things that didn’t break me but only served to make me stronger.
In August 2015, I wrote my second year exams. Prior to that time, I’d had two serious relationships. In between the relationships, I had the occasional sexcapade, one night stands, casual hookups where the two people involved know very much that there’s no future to it. I was young and adventurous, and always bearing at the back of my mind the consequences of being queer and of being outed in Nigeria, in my place of residence in Abia State. My mother would die of a heart attack, should such a thing happen, and my sister would be the most disappointed. I had no confidant and my closest friend was facing the same insecurities.
Even though I was sexually active, I never got tested. I’m scared of hospitals and syringes. So, going to check my HIV status wasn’t something I ever looked forward to doing. The first time I did, it was at the school teaching hospital. I’d just finished and was leaving the hospital when I saw Iyaa Michael. She was a friend of my mother and a senior nurse at the hospital. She saw me first and called my name. I was instantly panicked, and my mind began to work overtime on what to responses to give as I walked over to her. She was smiling. I smiled back and greeted her. She acknowledged the greeting and asked what brought me to the hospital. I told her I’d come to see a classmate who was on admission. We talked a bit and then she had to go attend to some patients. Upon her departure, I found myself breathing again. I imagined her seeing me doing the test and shuddered at the thought, because my mother would be first to hear of it. I was asked to come back in six months after the test but I never did. Partly because I dreaded running into the woman again and partly because I assured myself that I couldn’t be HIV positive. I mean, I always believed HIV was for those boys who trade in sex, who go about on runs. So high was their promiscuity that I believed HIV was their consequence and not at all for someone like me.
The naiveté though!
And now, back to August 2015. My blood genotype is AA, which increases my vulnerability to malaria. It’s the only ailment I’ve only ever suffered growing up. A few months before August, I’d noticed myself coming down with malaria, but the symptoms weren’t usual. I was constantly headachy and dizzy, and these occurred too frequently and severely. The treatments I took were abortive; I would feel alright upon commencing treatment only to fall back to being ill few days after the last dosage.
Then settled at the back of my mind the thought that I should go do my HIV test; I made the decision to do this after my exams. This decision was helped along by an incident that happened one night, a day to my last paper for the session. I fell down after using the loo due to acute dizziness. And so, after my last paper on that Thursday, I went to a particular clinic I’d heard people talk about. It was close to my lodge and I could abate the chances of running into someone I knew by going there. I got to the hospital in the afternoon but was told to go and return on Tuesday. I wasn’t pleased by this, considering how much I’d had to work on my fortitude to get here in the first place.
Tuesday was September 1st 2015. And I was there at the clinic, sitting in the hospital chair, feeling my world upended. I’d just tested positive and the inept female nurse had announced my result openly, to the hearing of other patients who had come for testing. A guy in the room was someone I knew, although we were not close. I was feeling a lot of things in that moment, embarrassed by how my private business had just been made so public, pissed at the nurse for her irresponsibility, and weirdly amused; I laughed when I heard my result. I couldn’t explain that. A male nurse in the room took me by the hand to a more serene part of the hospital and tried engaging me in a discussion. I didn’t say a word to him. I couldn’t say a word to him. I simply sat there, staring at him and not hearing him. I was lost in my thoughts. I tried to recollect all I’d ever heard about the HIV virus and all I could see was death staring me in the face.
When I got home, my immediate environment suddenly felt different. I looked at myself in the mirror and began to feel the devastation creep up on me. I looked healthy and fit, but superimposed on that reflection was an image of me looking skeletal, alone in a secluded room, waiting for death to come.
And then the tears came. I went to my bed, curled up and the tears flowed. I lay there, quiet, hoping to doze off. I hoped to wake up to a realization that this had all been a dream, a horrific nightmare. When I woke up however, it was to missed calls and a text message from a friend. The male nurse had called the friend whose name and number I’d provided as an emergency contact. I texted him and he called me back. He had nothing but words of encouragement for me.
The few days that followed, before I returned to the hospital for commencement of treatment were hellish. I could not eat and I could not stop thinking about death. It was as though I learned I had HIV and AIDS began claiming me straightaway.
The following week, I went back to the hospital to start treatment. My CD4 count was out and at 291. I was reminded to take the medication and my health serious henceforth. I was never to skip drugs, meals and appointments. I chose to take the drugs at night, 9pm on the dot.
It was semester break and I had to go stay with my sister. I got to her neighbourhood with my bag, inside which was my ARV. Someone called my name on the street and I turned to see my sister’s neighbour walking up to me. She resided in a compound adjacent to my sister’s. We didn’t talk to each other much, save for the occasional greeting. Her husband was a pastor who operated a ministry of their own in front of their building next to his wife’s grocery kiosk. She was one of the prayer warriors, who would often depart from whatever prayer session was going on to attend to a customer, after which she’d return to speaking in tongues. Some other times, she would decide to stay back in her shop while service was going on. She had a reputation for being a gossip and troublemaker.
“Nna!” she hailed. “O gi nwa bu ihe a? Itachasia nno ahu. O kabuzikwa school nwaa?” (Boy! Is this you? You’ve become so lean. Is this one still a result of school stress?)
I dredged up a smile for her and replied, “Yes ma, it has not been easy lately.”
I turned immediately and moved on, still feeling too raw and self conscious about my new state of health to get chatty with a nosy neighbour. Besides, she’d remarked on my weight loss; that observation didn’t bode well for a mind that was tortured with thoughts of imminent death.
I settled when I got to my sister’s house and dropped off into a fitful nap. I was awakened when my sister was home and had prepared dinner. After dinner, I went back to my room waiting patiently for 9pm to take my ARV treatment. I took the drug and in less than two hours, it started reacting. I began feeling incredibly hot and was sweating profusely. I tried getting up to use the loo but my whole body was trembly and I felt intoxicated. I barely got any sleep that night.
I woke up in the morning around 10am. Breakfast was ready and my sister and her son had left for work and school respectively. The drug was still taking its toll on me. I freshened up, played with the meal and left to my ex’s office to continue resting. I had told him about my status and even though he acted like he still couldn’t believe it, he was supportive and never ceased to find out how I was doing. Our bond became stronger when I thought he would despise me. He even asked for us to get back together but I refused. His concern at a point had me nursing some suspicion about him, it was what it was.
My sister, Sister Doosh is like a second mother to me. She is a very perceptive woman and was always quick to notice any change in my demeanour. So I tried to minimize her catching on to my situation by limiting my contact with her as much as I could, seeing as I was staying in her house. I got out of bed when I was sure she had left for work, and sequestered myself in my room when she got back home at night.
One day though, she was at home when I returned from my private business. She was seated on her favorite floral upholstered couch, her entire countenance one of someone who was bothered by something. Normally, I’d notice this and ask her what the problem was. But I didn’t. I greeted her and was proceeding to my room when she called me back. She asked me to sit for us to talk. Worry was etched on her face and I couldn’t look her steadily at her.
“Benjamin, what did I do wrong?” she began without preamble. “How did I offend you? You know you can tell me whatever it is. I promise to apologize and not do it again.” She said with feeling, meaning every word.
“Big sis, I don’t understand. You didn’t do anything wrong to me and I have never insinuated that. If you had, you know I would have told you, right?” I said, wondering what had happened.
“Yes, and that’s why I’m worried. Since you came here, you haven’t been yourself. Did anything bad happen in school? The normal you usually visit with a special kind of energy. You will tell me stories about the happenings in school. We would gist and laugh until I am ready to go to bed. You always make breakfast before I wake up and prepare dinner ahead of time. But not this time… Since you came, you haven’t entered the kitchen. The house chores you usually help me out with, you’ve abandoned. I know you love watching movies but I’ve not seen you in the sitting room since you came. Even your nephew is feeling your distance. You no longer play with him, and you have not once helped him with his assignments. The house is just the way it is when you’re not around even with you in it.” She paused to take a breath and plant me with a stare. “I am worried, Ben. What is the problem? Do you have a girlfriend now? Are you two having issues?”
“Sis, it’s nothing,” I tried reassuring her. “I’m ok. You know you’re the first I’d talk to should there be any problem.”
She looked steadily at me, clearly not believing me. For a moment, I thought she would pressure me some more. Instead she said, “Well, it’s obvious you don’t want to talk about it yet, but know that I’m here for you anytime. You’ve grown so skinny and I want you to go see a doctor tomorrow for general testing. I need to go and sleep now. I’m very tired. Good night, dear.”
Doctor, testing – Ha! This is serious. The thought of this turn of events kept awake most of the night. The next morning, I was awakened by Doosh, and she gave me directions to a clinical lab and money for the test. I called a doctor friend who had been of great help to me since I found out my status, and he told me I was not under any obligation to go, that I shouldn’t if I didn’t want to. But then, what would I tell my sister happened that made me refuse to go get tested? It’d have been easier had it been anyone else but Doosh. She was only looking out for me. I decided that I’d go but would caution whoever was in charge not to divulge any statement that I don’t consent to.
At the lab, I got to find out that the testing was done via a computer programmed to scan your system as you hold on to a sensor. No drawing of blood, and so I was sure HIV testing was out. And it was. I went back home with the decision to start acting like I use to, in order to at least avoid further suspicions. And I tried. I did try. But when I began feeling overwhelmed with the front I had to put up to mask my inner pain, I decided to go back to school.
I had my bad moments. Times I discriminated against myself. I read meanings to every glance I got on the road. I feared every task ahead of me. I feared that this status might become too expensive to handle. I avoided my friends and cleared all the contacts in my phone. I shut myself from the world and sank deeper into depression. The worst moments were when I thought of how to terminate my life. I considered hanging, poisoning or any other means that’d make my exit as pain-free as possible. I just wanted to end it all, so that I could stop living my pain day in, day out. One day, I came as close to my suicide mission as I could when I obtained a piece of cord, and I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, shedding tears and contemplating my imminent death. Then I stood up to get it over with.
And my emergency contact friend called. I had missed an appointment at the hospital and my friend was displeased. He spoke for long and made me promise I would dress up and go to the hospital once we were done talking.
I got to the clinic and saw a little boy that had come with his mother for a refill. I got to learn that the boy had gotten the virus out of the carelessness of his parents. And yet, here he was, as rambunctious as ever, jumping about happily and healthily.
Then I saw another young guy, about my age, being wheeled into the clinic. He was so emaciated, I could almost count his bones.
I glanced about me, at every patient seated in the reception. Some seemed content, complacent, unbothered, and the least number of them looked worried and gloomy.
And then I looked inwardly at me. And I began to speak to myself. Look at this little boy, Benjamin. Look at him. Look at these others. If these people can find a way to live well despite their statuses, then you too deserve to live well. You deserve to be happy, against all odds.
And that became a turning point in my life. That afternoon, I made a choice to live every moment of my life happy and positive. I left the hospital with a new lease on life. I rekindled my love for myself and my relationship with family and friends. I started taking my medication and appointments judiciously. I started facing my fears one after the other and conquering them. I came out to my sister, told her that I am queer and she responded, “Are you serious? I’d actually thought about it. I’m glad you trusted me this much, and no matter what, I’ll have your back.” I resumed my focus on my academics. I started two businesses in school. I ate right. I exercised. And I loved myself with a love that transcended to everyone around me.
A few days ago, I got my viral load testing which indicated that the virus is suppressed and can’t be detected in my blood. At this, I pondered on my journey so far, on how I’ve moved from misery and confusion to a state of self worth and clear-eyed perspective. One thing became clear to me, that everything that has to do with you is about you and the choice you make. You can choose to sink and wallow. You can also choose to soar and be happy. I chose to be happy, and every day, I live that choice as though that day would be my last.
Written by Benjamin