[OPINION] Unsent letter from a person living with HIV to his mom
You don’t know, and it breaks my heart that I can’t allow you yet to love me more because I might scare you. Do you remember one time I got terribly sick, quivering with cold sweats? You woke up and whispered, “Stop doing that. You are scaring me.” You are so brave.
One Saturday morning I went to an HIV hub and got myself tested out of curiosity. That the rapid increase of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) cases among males here made me anxious, but knowledge is more empowering, I thought.
I was confused when the counselor told me I got a reactive status. I hadn’t shown any terrible symptoms we saw on some sensationalist dramas. My awareness on HIV and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is thorough. Most of all, I have never remembered a recent unprotected sexual encounter, except for my ex-boyfriend who is HIV-negative, and a very few guys 10 years ago.
I couldn’t help but ask, “Sir J, when shall I die? Can I join you for lunch?”
Sir J sighed and said my imagination on HIV being a death sentence is far from what’s really happening.
The 3 of us ate at the nearest eatery. With their low voices, they told me to think of my next phase as a form of self-care, not as a survival mechanism. When we’re done, Sir J offered to pay the bill for us.
My dark, self-deprecating humor set in, so I said, “You won’t let me pay my meal and my fare because I will die soon.” They didn’t laugh.
Mom, that day was overwhelming for me that I went back to the hub and joked to them about how my life was a wreck: that I might be fired from my job; that my ex-boyfriend whom I still love might stop talking to me once I disclose this to him; that my virus will sever my dreams of going abroad, my wish to be a triathlete, and my quest to find someone who will love me.
Sir J and Ma’am A reassured me that people living with HIV now are leading healthier lives, and my overthinking isn’t helping me. Besides, even if the test is very accurate, the confirmatory result from the laboratory can only declare my being HIV-positive.
Sir J stalked my Facebook account and came across your picture with dad. You took me back to childhood, Mom, and suddenly I wailed and hyperventilated, my face buried on Sir J’s shirt.
He embraced me, told me it’s okay, and said, “Do you want to know a secret? I have the virus too. But now I’m undetectable.” He showed to me the bottle of antiretroviral (ARV) pills inside his bag.
I held his hand and thanked him for letting me know I am not alone, but he needed to leave me to attend to some clients. I just needed to cry it all out and compose myself so you wouldn’t see a trace of pain as I arrived home.
My ex-boyfriend once visited our house, but you knew him as my friend. We lasted for many years, in spite of me being away from him and being a cheat. You sometimes ask where he works now, because of all my friends who had dropped by my house, he hadn’t come back. I assure you he is by far the kindest, most tender, most fragrant person I know. And I will not replace him as my best friend.
Against my peer counselors’ advice (they told me it’s safer that I would only tell this to one person, and that’s you), I told him everything. I joined him in the hub where I was tested, because the one nearest to him was reported to have rumor-mongering counselors.
He tested negative, Mom. He had moved on with someone else too.
We hadn’t talked since and I felt pushed away, but to be seen by him was my greatest privilege.
One Sunday morning, I saw Sir L, one of the peer counselors in the hub. He said he only had two hours of sleep because of his schedule. He paused and said, “By the way, the laboratory sent us your confirmatory results already.”
“So HIV-positive, huh?” I expected for the worst, but wished for him to say another.
“Can I see the paper tomorrow?” I had no plans on knowing my body was in shambles. I just wanted to sound unaffected.
“Sure.” He offered me water and bread, but I refused and walked home.
The new reality was something I can’t handle, so I went home not meeting your eyes. I sulked in my room the entire day, both lightheaded and wanting to vomit.
The walls of my room separated your oblivion from my depression, Mom. It’s a dark place in here. It’s embarrassing to admit I had often thought of ending myself. I had known abandonment too well, and I had known debilitating isolation too.
With all the precarities I had grown, I never claimed to dare greatly at this. But it sometimes surprises me to not betray myself by choosing courage.
You would’ve been proud if you knew my first essay on HIV had saved lives and forged strong bonds among HIV-positives, and even HIV-negatives who have nonetheless suffered almost the same sadness as mine. We both could have drowned in the anonymous display of love and prayers my new friends had offered.
The world has its way of surprising me too. I see how nourishing the world is when I wake up without discomfort from flu. I see beauty on the sidewalk when a blind street musician continues playing with a friend assisting him. I see hope with every news on HIV research. I see self-worth as I share my insights to my friends, bright-eyed and nodding.
I can’t wait to be ready to tell everything to you, Mom. I’m excited to tell you what I have read on one AIDS survivor with only one CD4 count but is now healthy because of effective treatment. I’d be clear on explaining to you what it means to be undetectable, and I'm leaning towards that.
I didn't wait for a year to be an HIV activist, because in one way or another, I had advanced the cause through writing. I would like you to visit the hub and get to know the people who have helped me cope with the disease.
Despite all these favors, I can’t promise to get any better. There are still times I shrink and hurt myself. But I believe I am enough, Mom, and that’s enough.
The author’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He is 25 years old, takes his antiretroviral drug daily, and champions for public health. The author has requested that his identity not be revealed.