For the first time in a very long time I recently made the decision to engage in unsafe, unprotected sex. Pause...yes you read that correctly and yes the first question that came to mind is "How could I let that happen?" The second, "What from this experience have I learned that can benefit others?"
As an avid advocate in the world of HIV/AIDS, carrying the message about protecting oneself, the link between self-esteem and prevention, being a proponent of testing and treatment in our work through Human Intonation, to testing for HIV on camera and posted it online a little more than a year ago, the decision to engage in unsafe, unprotected sex is one that I did make by choice. Still the reality of the possible consequences of that choice hit me like a ton of bricks.
How Did I Get Here?
My recent experience with engaging in unprotected sex was concurrent with the onset of a newly committed relationship. As I have done in the past the person in my life received all the required questioning about their status regarding HIV and STIs, and they passed the initial lightening rounds of this is who I am and these are the values I stand for... but that was not enough. In the discussion about the possibility of taking such a step in our level of intimacy, I stated that I would require the two of us to get tested for everything together, only then would I feel comfortable relaxing the stance I have consistently held around using protection each and every time without fail since 2008. Yet, I compromised before those test results were in. Why?...
The reality is for those few fleeting moments I lost my sense of worth, the barometer of self-love that I continue to advocate for in women (and in all genders) that guides us toward healthy choices because for us our lives matter. As a result of those few fleeting moments, I spent the next month in a mental torture chamber of "what ifs." For the first time in a very long time, I was face to face with not knowing my HIV status. My mind worked round the clock in anxiety, guilt, regret, compassion and research. Anxiety, guilt and regret all rolled into one as I thought about the loss of my cousin Wesley to AIDS; feeling that the one obligation I have in life to my cousin and my followers is to remain HIV negative. Compassion stemmed from my now increased ability to empathize with others in similar situations and from receiving support from those persons with whom I shared my concerns. Research was critical to calming my obsession for needing to understand my options. Here is the information I gathered.
Two Tests, Twice the Results?
In understanding that the earlier a person detects their HIV infection and starts treatment the better, I wanted to know of any changes in my HIV status as soon as possible. Being most familiar with the rapid HIV antibody test I knew I would need to wait at least three months to test since the results will come back negative for someone who was infected very recently. This test looks for antibodies produced by the immune system to fight HIV, which can take two months or more to produce.
On the other hand, what I did not know is that the option for an HIV viral load test is now more readily available. The HIV viral load test measures the amount of HIV virus in your blood during the early time period after HIV infection (also known as the acute infection stage), when large amounts of the virus are being produced in the body. We can now test in as little as 11 days after possible infection, however unlike the rapid HIV test where we have grown accustomed to receiving results in 20 minutes, the viral load test throwbacks to testing in the 80s and 90s, requiring 2 vials of blood and 10 to 14 days to get the results. I took the rapid HIV test first as practice to work up my courage, then took the plunge with the viral load test. For two weeks I waited.
So What Did I Learn?
As I anticipated receiving my test results I sat with the gravity of the possibility that my results could be positive:
1. I was reminded of the fact is that I am human too. All that I know and stand for in the world of HIV/AIDS does not make me immune to stumbles and falls. Fortunately, when we fall we have the opportunity to correct our course. Not only has this experience re-awakened my sense of self-worth and my stance on using protection 100 percent of the time, it provided an opportunity to find common ground with my partner as we continue to protect ourselves and each other.
2. Secondly, I found that there is still a great deal of information about HIV/AIDS that I do not readily know, and maintaining a thirst for knowledge around this disease is critical to taking care of oneself. There are more options available to anyone who is concerned that they may have been exposed to HIV. We will continue to gain advancements from prevention with Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) also known as the "HIV Morning After Pill", to treatment with the consistent use of antiretroviral therapy (ART), that can prevents the HIV virus from multiplying and destroying the immune system.
3. Last but not least, my experience showed me how it is often easier to have compassion for others before myself. While seriously contemplating the question "What if I test positive for HIV?," I had to acknowledge the level of stigma that I still carry about the virus for myself, that I do not hold against others. I realized to work to break the cycle of stigma that I advocate for, I must begin with myself by journeying toward a new level of self-acceptance, while my supporters have also encouraged me to continue to advocate, educate and empower others about HIV/AIDS no matter my results.
In closing, on this National HIV Testing Day #NHTD I share my recent experience not to excuse my decision making, but to encourage others who may find themselves in a similar situation to take action. Acknowledging that fear over the possible outcome of testing for HIV can be paralyzing, each of us must be empowered to be fearless and to take control of our sexual health. Ending the spread of HIV/AIDS begins with each of us knowing our status, knowing who we are to make the best possible choices for ourselves and understanding the earlier we know our status the earlier one can start treatment and take steps to live the healthiest life possible, for as long as possible. After two weeks, I received the results of my HIV viral load test and today I know my HIV status ... Do you know yours?