My name is James, a 26 year old male living in Birmingham. Training five times a week in my local gym, eating my weight in food daily, I was in the best shape of my life. All of this suddenly changed….
It all began in May 2012, whilst dating a guy called Sam in Manchester. Sam and I had been together ‘officially’ for several months and all was going well. We hit the gym together, cooked for each other, and most importantly made one another smile.
I awoke early on Saturday the 26th May to be greeted with a burnt body from head to toe caused by my trip to Thorpe Park the day before. Clearly factor 10 wasn’t strong enough… My body felt tired, yet I was wide awake. The pain in my muscles was an unfamiliar one, but I disregarded it and lumped it with ‘gym related soreness’. After a shower, some breakfast and a large protein shake, I began to feel slightly better. I had arranged for some friends to pop over in the evening for a few drinks, so my priority was that of making sure the beer fridge was fully stocked. The night went well and after consuming my body weight in alcohol, we hit the sack.
Sunday morning was not a pretty sight. My hangover could only be described as horrific as I reached for my third pint of water. Normally I’d suffer with a slight fuzzy head and maybe a bad stomach, but this was something much worse. I was due to work at 1300, and therefore began getting ready for the 10 hour shift ahead. On arriving at work, I had the usual from colleagues: “oh dear, someone clearly drank too much, heavy night was it?” Normally I’d make some witty remark back, but on this occasion I remained silent. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally finished my shift. My bed seemed like heaven as I finally switched off the light on Sunday.
On Monday morning I still felt ‘hungover’. My body was tired and achy, and my eyes hurt when moving them from side to side. I was in no fit state for work, so had no alternative other than to report sick. This was my first absence since breaking my leg three years before. My condition worsened over the next few days. My body ached uncontrollably, my temperature was through the roof and all I could eat was soup. Nights were spent drenched in sweat, yet I would shiver non-stop until morning. My mood was extremely low and I was constantly tired.
The Wednesday soon arrived and with it came a large red rash which covered my entire face, shoulders and chest. I ran to the bathroom clenching a pint glass, and did the infamous tumbler test. Was this meningitis? I looked up at the bathroom ceiling, let out a big sigh and just sobbed. I rang my Doctor and asked to be seen urgently. Luckily an appointment was available that afternoon.
After dragging myself through the city, I arrived at my doctor’s surgery. I was seen by a female nurse to begin with who couldn’t understand what was causing my symptoms. Moments later she summoned a Doctor who began asking me a series of questions. I remember her asking personal questions like, do you take recreational drugs? Are you on any other medication? Are you gay? It dawned on me. I knew where this conversation was going and I didn’t want to hear it. The doctor asked if I had recently had a new sexually partner. Surely Sam couldn’t be HIV positive? Blood tests were taken and I was told to rest as much as possible.
Being so close to my family, my mother came and picked me up on the Wednesday evening. She fed and watered me until I started to feel better. On the Saturday I decided to go back home, as I began to feel human again. On my arrival at home, I was greeted by a letter addressed ‘Urgent and private’. Hand trembling, I quickly opened the letter. ‘Dear Sir, after your recent blood test, we have reasons to believe you have Acute Leukaemia, please attend hospital as soon as possible, regards, Haematology Unit’. My heart sank and alI I could think of was death. Head in my hands, I called my mother to tell her the news. Unbelievably, she was calm and reassuring.
I waited until Monday arrived to see a specialist at the haematology unit. After several more blood tests, it was confirmed that I did not have leukaemia. I was so overwhelmed. My mum looked at me and smiled with relief. We both went home and gave the rest of the family the good news.
I had arranged a follow up appointment on the following Wednesday to see the same Doctor. I waited patiently in the seating area, whilst some cheap music played in the background. Moments later, I was directed into the doctor’s room. The doctor was sat at her desk typing away. She greeted me with a smile and asked me to take a seat. I automatically began chatting to her about the emotional roller coaster of a journey I had been though during the past week. Sympathetically, she sighed and shook her head in embarrassment at the thought of receiving a leukaemia diagnoses through the post. I carried on chatting, expressing my relief, when all of a sudden she stopped me in my tracks.
Her next sentence not only changed my life but still haunts me to this day. “Unfortunately I also have some bad news, your blood test has come back positive for HIV”. Surprisingly, I wasn’t shocked, upset or angry. I can’t describe my feelings that day other than confused. I tried making myself cry, but nothing would happen. My body and mind were emotionless. The doctor was speaking, yet all I could hear was silence. Calmly, I reached over to collect the paper she was handing to me. I stood up, thanked her for her time and walked out of the room. What just happened? Is this some kind of joke? I can’t be HIV positive. Positive people look sick, old and thin in the face. That’s not me, I’m 26 and healthy. I walked home in pure silence, gazing at people as they continued with their lives.
I arrived home and went straight to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror was like staring at a stranger. I felt sick and utterly disgusted with myself. It suddenly dawned on me, I needed to tell Sam. Before ringing him, I unexpectedly realised that he had been my own sexual partner in six months. Surely I couldn’t have caught this from Sam? Picking up my phone, I selected ‘Sam Mobile’. Before he had chance to ask me a question, I told him I was HIV positive. The deadly silence began. He couldn’t speak to me so I ended the call. Around an hour later, he called back and began bombarding me with questions. Still in a confused state, I kept repeating that he needed to be tested. We ended the call in an unfamiliar manner. Why wasn’t I angry with Sam? Maybe I gave it to him? All I wanted him to say was: it will all be fine.
A few days passed and not a word from Sam. On Sunday, I received a call early in the morning. It was Sam and he too had tested positive. As selfish as it sounds, I was glad. Knowing that he had it made me feel less isolated. Even though he had infected me, my feelings towards him had not changed. Friends still question me to this day and query why I have no animosity towards him. I still cannot answer that question. Maybe it’s because I care for him and know that he didn’t do it on purpose.
The next day I arranged an appointment to see a specialist at the Hawthorn Centre at Heartlands Hospital. I remember arriving at the centre completely bewildered. I was petrified and hovered outside for around ten minutes before braving it, and going through the door. I gave my name and took a seat in the waiting area. My mind was racing around the room and I kept thinking people were gawping at me. This wasn’t the case and I was soon called into another room. I was met by a pleasant nurse who automatically made me feel at ease. She began by making light conversation which in turn led to me discussing the reasons for my visit. I completely opened up to the nurse, expressing all of my emotions. Tears racing down my face, I described to her exactly how I felt. Having a specialist who knew little about my life listen to all of my problems helped me to better understand my illness. I walked away from that day reassured, and confident that I still had a future. I wasn’t going to be dead in a few years’ time – well, not from HIV anyway.
Today I am still that gym freak I was six months ago. The medication I am taking has caused me no problems and after four months my viral load is now undetectable. I have my bad days but I can honestly say it isn’t as bad as everyone makes out. If anything it’s made me a better person. Sam and I are no longer together but we keep in regular contact.
HIV awareness is the way forward. Being aware of the risks of unprotected sex, knowing the signs and symptoms of the illness and getting tested early will help us reduce the rate of infection. If any of you are struggling to come to terms with the illness, then seek help. There are people out there who understand how you feel and care deeply about you. I am happy to offer advice and support to anyone who needs it.
Whilst growing up my mum always said to me, “A problem shared is a problem halved”. This is the best advice for anyone reading this story.