Positive people share their diagnosis stories.
I was 29 years old, it was the late 1980s and I was living on the fringe of Sydney with my partner of eight years. We decided on a three-month separation and he moved interstate. After three months he returned and we resumed our relationship.
Having both had sex with other people during that time we knew it was important to be tested for HIV and visited the GP we shared. Bloods were taken, and we awaited the date for our results. I remember vividly that day. Sitting in the waiting room I watched the doctor’s door open. I can still see the look on his face; his eyes as they met mine. It was a look of shock, and my heart jumped a beat as I made my way into his room. “Paul, I am very sorry to have to tell you that your test has shown a positive response to HIV antibodies. This means you have the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. I am referring you to a clinic at Parramatta Hospital, where they will test you again to confirm your results.”
I drove home, walked inside, fell into my favourite lounge chair and began to cry. Over the next three hours my mind raced through myriad thoughts. Tears continued to flow, my body at times heaving. I recall reaching a point where I said to myself: “This isn’t a bad dream I will wake up from.”
When my partner arrived home from work, I learnt his test was negative. There were more tears as we talked late into the night. My positive diagnosis was later confirmed at Parramatta, and the next stage of my journey with HIV commenced.
I found myself in the emergency department being cared for by soft-spoken nurses. I had no memory of getting there and realised I did not know who I was; only that I was safe. The nurses explained I had suffered a seizure and I was taken for a CAT scan. Not long after, a doctor arrived with a clipboard and a serious look on his face. He proceeded to tell me that the CAT scan revealed five tumours on my brain. “I'm very sorry,” he said, “but you have secondary brain cancer."
I was almost at peace with the idea that I would be leaving the world soon. You see, I had been sick for months and was so tired; exhausted from fighting fevers, fatigue, and debilitating coughs that left me struggling to breathe. A few days later, I was having brain surgery. After surgery, a team of doctors started asking questions about my recent health. Given my past months of sickness, they suggested there might be another reason for my ill-health other than brain cancer. They told me I had toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis, they explained, is one of the opportunistic infections that comes from HIV. They then asked my permission to conduct an HIV blood test.
A couple of days later, the doctors came back with my results: I was HIV positive. I took a deep breath and sighed with relief. “Thank God!” I exclaimed. Seeing the doctors’ bewilderment at my response, I explained that I was relieved that it wasn’t brain cancer after all; I knew HIV medication was saving people and that I would not die.
It was only then that I learnt I was in the late stages of HIV. Due to the numerous opportunistic infections I had presented with, I was told I may have had the virus for up to a decade. The news immediately made my heart stop. You see, I had an eight-year-old son. The idea I may have infected him was more than I could bear. In the event I had not.
I came to Australia in November 2011 from South Carolina in the USA. I was approaching my 30th birthday and was drawn to Sydney because of its large gay community, and had been told Mardi Gras was worth experiencing at least once in my life.
Months after arriving, I came down with the flu. I had a fever that wouldn’t quit, chills, and a wicked cough. I was long overdue my annual HIV and STI test so I booked into the Sydney Sexual Health Centre. While my blood was being drawn, I asked if rapid testing was available in Australia. The answer was no, but they had a few tests left over from a recent study. I hate waiting, so I agreed to sign the study paperwork and have a rapid test.
As I sat waiting for the result, I thought through my recent sexual behaviour — a positive result was entirely possible. Thirty minutes elapsed, and I was taken into a room and told I had tested positive for HIV. There was, however, a one-in-200 chance that the result was a false positive, so I had to wait for the results of the blood test. I was confused, overwhelmed and scared. A week later, the results were in: I was, in fact, HIV positive. The psychologist asked, “How are you doing?” My response was simply, “How do I meet other recently diagnosed gay men in Sydney?”
Has HIV changed my life? Absolutely. But I feel it’s only for the better. It’s gotten me active in a community that I had previously ignored. I’ve chosen to take a negative situation and use it as an opportunity to participate in the community and play my role in fighting stigma and educating others about HIV. I disclose at any opportunity and live openly as an HIV-positive gay man. And I feel I’m better for it.