Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What is it like to find out your girlfriend has HIV? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
We’ve been together 4 months. We have regular sex with a condom. She’s extremely strict about that. We’ve never had oral sex since she’s even more strict with that.
Last night we were in bed together. I really wanted to go down on her and she told me no again. I was trying to understand her lack of desire for oral sex when it happened. I asked her if there was some other reason like she had HIV or something. She paused and said, “Yes, I’m HIV positive,” with a nervous laugh. She always laughs when she’s nervous, but, in this particular case, it wasn’t cute, it’s was frustratingly ambiguous.
It took a few double takes before I realised she was telling the truth. The girl I was naked with in bed was HIV positive. HIV POSITIVE. My stomach imploded in on itself in a fiery ball. It’s like that scene in Fight Club, “Please return your seat backs to their full upright and locked position.” Out of instinct I edged back and looked away. This has to be a sick joke.
I asked a barrage of questions, starting with how come you didn’t tell me before? We’d been having sex and isn’t that something you tell someone? Her response was, “You’re only legally obliged to inform if you’re having unprotected sex.”
When did you get it? 12 years ago. Are you taking medication? Yes, I’ve been taking anti-retroviral treatment for some months and now I’m “undetectable”.
That was the first time I’d ever heard that term and I thought she was making it up. I opened the laptop by the side of the bed. Google: “hiv u… autocomplete.” Ok, so what’s that? It means it’s virtually impossible to pass on. So why didn’t we have oral sex? I wanted to play it safe until I was ready tell you and until you got a full STD check.
I didn’t realise but oral sex is far more dangerous for women than for men because of the relative exchange in bodily fluids. It makes sense.
There were more questions. I entered detective mode, piecing together a big jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time.
“I’m going to the clinic tomorrow morning,” I told her. Of course, she said, I’ll personally take you to my clinic.
Finally we went to sleep. She faced the other way. I faced the ceiling.
Six hours later, we woke up and headed to the sex clinic. Was this was some horrible dream? If you’re reading this then it wasn’t. Ninety minutes later and we arrive. She goes there every 3 months for blood tests, so she knows her way around. She told me it’s like a secret club and you can quietly recognise the people around town from the waiting room.
Reception. Rapid HIV test, please. Sit. Wait. My girlfriend sat reassuring me I couldn’t catch it, but I was unsure whether someone could make that promise. I couldn’t bring myself to entertain the idea that I could have it so at this point I was simply going through the motions.
Name called. Walk in. Close door. Explain situation. Answer questions. Open kit. Prick finger. Observe. Wait.
Ten seconds later I had the result.
I laughed, dipped my head, cried for like 1.5 seconds (some weird micro-cry), laughed more, apologised, and put my head in my hands and took some deep breaths. Whatsapp to girlfriend: “Negative.”
I can be fairly certain of two things: 1) that I didn’t have HIV before I met my girlfriend, 2) that I didn’t have HIV 4 weeks ago since HIV has a 4-6 week window period where rapid tests often give false negatives.
Blood tests, health advisor session. Then we left together.
It’s been 5 hours since I saw my girlfriend and it’s had time to sink in. I’ve learned something really important about HIV which is the main reason I’m sharing my story.
I learned that the word HIV blinded me to see a human being in a matter of seconds.
My first reaction was to edge away. Questioned her for not telling me sooner. Demand answers that I couldn’t bring myself to trust 100%. I felt terrified by the person in front of me. And I believe a lot of people would have had the same reaction.
But now imagine it’s you that has HIV. If you tell people, they’ll edge away like you’re contagious. If you start a relationship, you’ll have to tell your partner and it’s not a great chat-up line, nor something you can trust with everybody. Most people would run for the hills. You’d have people constantly wonder what you “did wrong” to get it. Having HIV must feel completely alienating and terrifying and unfair.
The stigma of HIV lives on. The films that raised it’s awareness leading to the great treatments available today are 20 years out of date. HIV isn’t the killer that it used to be and people live long, healthy lives and have kids, at least in the West where medication is available.
I can’t tell my friends about this to protect my girlfriend’s identity. That’s why I’m telling you.