*The following narrative is from one of our HIV-positive scholarship applicants. It has been minimally changed to remove any identifying information.*
In May 2013, I was diagnosed with HIV. My diagnosis came as a result of a routine HIV test that was required for a life insurance policy my single mother was trying to purchase for me. I was notified of my status via a bizarre series of events: Currently, I am living in Florida and going to school. I had to go into a local insurance agency for this policy, and they conducted an oral swab on my cheek; taking tissue and saliva. The notifying agency came from a separate county than were I was living. It came from the county I moved from, where my mother resides. I was asked to go to the local health department in said county, but was not told why. Shortly afterwards, the insurance agent contacted me and told me that my application was rejected for drug usage. Rather curious, as I have never been a drug-user. Finally, I was able to go to the health department back home, and was given the truth of why I failed the life insurance application: I had contracted HIV.
When I found out, I would say that I reacted as anyone normally would– I was scared, I felt lonely, and I cried. My mother was so concerned for me, but she was never disappointed in me. She stayed strong, and we made it through the immediate reaction phase together. Although my mother seemed so strong for me, I later found out that it was a façade. About a month later, she was checked into a hospital without my knowing. I only found out when I went home on her birthday to surprise her. My mother had developed a drinking problem. I assumed it was due to the stress of me having HIV. She was having liver failure, but they were able to take care of her. She was released home shortly after my own birthday, and was doing a lot better and was taking care of herself.
A month after her release, I took a trip to Italy for a camp that related to my degree. While there, I had trouble getting in contact with my mother and found out it was because she had returned to the hospital. She wasn’t feeling well, despite having stopped drinking. She was weakened by her previous bout in the hospital. but was again nurtured back to health and released. Several days after my return to the country, I received a call around midnight informing me that my mother had been in a coma for several hours and was going to pass away. They told me that there was nothing that the doctors could do to save her. I was an hour away and I got there as soon as I could. She passed away 15 minutes before my arrival, having succumbed to septic shock as a result of her previous hospitalization. This was all two days before I had to return to school for the new semester. I had auditions coming up and didn’t know how I’d make it through without her.
My mother became a single mother after the sudden death of my father shortly after I turned five years old. She was my best friend, my rock, my mentor, and my inspiration to do the best I could in life. She supported me, gave me a great life despite being a single parent, and gave me the encouragement to do whatever I wanted (even changing my college major at the last moment locked me down for another four years of school). She always encouraged me to do what my heart led me to, which has always been music. I know it is not the most secure of career areas, but she advocated for my happiness, which made her happy. In turn, music is what allowed me to continue past this massive tragedy in my life.
I never discovered who had transmitted the virus to me and I am sure I never will. For me, that is not an area where I need closure. I am certain that I contracted it sexually. HIV has turned my life upside down, and I have learned to take better care of myself. The fall season after I discovered I was HIV positive, I started treatment on Stribild and have been HIV-undetectable ever since. I never discovered why my mother’s sudden alcoholism came about her, and I cannot say it for certain it was my contraction of HIV. It is a speculation that I will always live with. Regardless, I know she did not drink with the intention to end her life, because she and I were each other’s lives.
I have learned from this ordeal to not take life or sexual protection for granted. I know that often flyers and videos on STDs, HIV and AIDS are over the top nowadays, but what I cannot stress enough to individuals living free of this disease, is that they should always pay attention to them. Although there are ways to maintain the virus, not everyone has the same means as the next person, meaning they may not be able to maintain an infection. STD and HIV tests are generally free at your local health department. One can always take the time to head down there to make sure they know their status; testing should never be a one-time ordeal. HIV-negative individuals do not know the type of segregation and disgust we experience from those without the virus. We are the same as you, and I am proud to say that I maintain this infection inside of me. However, that is not enough for the rest of the public out there. To most individuals, I am “undesirable” in terms of romance. It really is a struggle to try to have a love life, and it is the biggest struggle I face having HIV. I found out everything I can do to protect others from contracting the virus from me, but this knowledge is not enough for someone to give me a chance at romance. I would want those who are HIV-negative to understand what it means to have an undetectable viral load, and to know that with the right precautions a friendship or even a romance can blossom.
I have knowingly been living with this disease for three years, and have been undetectable since shortly after finding out. I plan on maintaining this. I was recently accepted into a prestigious music program and am following my dream. HIV does not mean I cannot; it motivates me to do.