In January 2020, I took my first HIV test in nearly ten years. I remember clearly how terrifying the experience was. Considering I had been sexually active for about half of those ten years, I was drenched in a mix of anxiety, uncertainty and dreadful fear. The question, "What if the result returns as positive?" lingered on my mind for hours. Despite knowing full well that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence, I still trembled for this giant 'What if…' that stared me in the face.
The result returned. I was negative! But my curiosity persisted. The question became "What if the result returned as positive?". For a lot of people, testing positive for HIV can leave you in a dark, dangerous place. From distress to regret, anxiety and even hostility, there will be a lot of negative emotions to feel and express. However, once you are done processing all of these, you must now take charge of your health and life, with an intent to stay healthy and live longer.
At that moment where you felt like your world had crashed, you must have had a million and one questions: "Now that I have HIV, can I still have sex?", "Can I get treated and how?", "Is it safe to continue to live with my family?", "When does it become AIDS?", "How much longer do I have to live?", "Is it reasonable to inform my employer and friends of my status?", "What are the risks of infecting others?", etc. You will only find answers to these questions and access to resources to manage your new lifestyle if you consult a health care expert.
There is an erroneous belief among a percentage of the population that an HIV diagnosis marks the beginning of the countdown to one's death. One can attribute this to the initial hysteria and bad publicity that the virus got years ago. Although HIV has no cure, it can be managed with the meticulous use of antiretroviral medication. Antiretrovirals keep the virus from spreading in the body and reduces its risk of being passed to others. It is advised that you get on the treatment as soon as you get diagnosed; this is the best way to prevent your immune system from further damage.
Your body is no longer the same, and with your new status, you must pay extra attention to and take care of it. HIV attacks your immune system and diminishes its ability to ward off infections and diseases. But you can boost your immune system by maintaining a healthy diet, staying active through exercise, avoiding stress and very importantly, staying away from alcohol and drugs.
A positive diagnosis will take a toll on your mental health. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, "people living with HIV are twice as likely to have depression compared to those who are not infected with HIV". Depression can manifest if you face rejection from family, friends and employers as a result of your status. Also, your antiretroviral medication can either make your mental health better or worse, depending on how your body reacts to them. Whatever you face, you must speak to a mental health expert about your condition. You can also surround yourself with friends and family who are supportive.