I was diagnosed with HIV almost 20 years ago now and have lived well with the virus ever since. It’s not always been easy, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in that time and grateful for those I’ve met along the way.
One of my biggest achievements is being part of National HIV Testing Week and working with Terrence Higgins Trust. My face has appeared on billboards and bus stops as a woman living well with HIV. I’ve done this to encourage others in my community to get tested quickly and easily at home.
It’s simple – like a lateral flow test for the coronavirus. And, of course, most people who test get a negative result.
When I first saw my face looking back at me, I was jumping up and down. I said to myself: I am free. I am not hiding. I am sticking up for other people and I will help educate those who see it to get tested.
I speak publicly about living with HIV to show that all the rumours about HIV are false. It’s been 20 years and I’m not sick. I am not dying. In fact, I’ll live as long as if I wasn’t HIV positive. The medication I take keeps me well by suppressing the virus and also means HIV can’t be passed on to partners. I am not “contagious” or a risk.
My faith and going to church has helped me to process my diagnosis and my church community in north London remains a key part of my life. But I don’t feel able to talk about HIV there and I have heard stories of other churches not being very up-to-date on HIV.
I hope that is changing because it would be so powerful to hear our faith leaders preaching about the progress that’s been made and playing an active role in saying “no, that isn’t right” about many of the horrible things people say about HIV.
Because the reality is that there will be people like me in many, many congregations. You can’t see our HIV status, but we are impacted by the stigma and the hurtful things people say.
I was diagnosed in 2003 following my first ever HIV test. I didn’t know a lot about HIV, but I’m ashamed to say back then the views I had about people with HIV back in Zambia weren’t very pleasant.
I was in a relationship with a man and I found what he told me were his sleeping pills. But these were not sleeping pills – but were in fact his HIV medication.
After that I went to get a HIV test because my friend said I should. I was absolutely sure I would test negative. Back then, you had to wait two weeks for the results – now you can do it at home in minutes. Throughout this time I still didn’t think I had contracted it. That was until the results came back positive.
The doctors tried to educate me about HIV and what I needed to do, but I wasn’t listening. I was in shock. At that time I didn’t have a smartphone so I couldn’t just google answers to my questions or look at Terrence Higgins Trust’s website.
I stayed with my boyfriend for two weeks after finding out my status but then made the decision to end it. I never told him why. I saw him recently and we said hello. I don’t feel anything for him. I have forgiven him and moved on.
The fact is he obviously wasn’t taking his medication properly, which is why he passed it onto me. Because if he had been taking it every day – it wouldn’t have been possible for me to become HIV positive.
But I’m glad I know my HIV status and am managing it well with my medication. HIV is just a condition – it doesn’t mean anything about your character. It doesn’t make you a good or bad person. I take my medication every day and then I get on with my life.
So my message is get tested for HIV. You’ll most probably get a negative result. But whether positive or negative, you can then make the best decisions to look after your health. And if coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s the importance of our health and of those around us.
Order your free HIV test
Testing for HIV is now quick and easy. You can do it at home by ordering a free test kit now from startswithme.org.uk which will be posted through your door in plain packaging.
If you have any questions, you can contact Terrence Higgins Trust in confidence via 0808 802 1221 or tht.org.uk/thtdirect
Written by: Charity Nyirenda