‘I didn't see myself as someone at risk of HIV. I didn't go to sex parties or gay saunas and I chose my sexual partners based on my impression of their sex lives.
In the 3 months following my previous HIV and STI tests - which were both negative - I had always used condoms when I had sex.* Because of this, the symptoms I had did not make me think of HIV at all. I had a very severe fever for a few days, diarrhea now and then, I was often tired and I had an incredibly bad hangover after a night out. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. I thought I had a heavy flu. I also had a fungal infection on my hands. I went to my doctor with it. He said, ‘Ah, that's not contagious; you just have a weak immune system’.
So I didn't find out it was HIV until I had my 3 monthly STI test at the GGD (municipal health service). When the doctor told me my test results weren't good, my first thought was that the test had gone wrong. But he didn't mean that. Even when he made clear the test indicated that I had HIV, I didn't want to believe it. They’d mixed the test up with someone else’s, something like that must've happened. When my second test at the GGD also came up positive, it finally got through to me: I have HIV.
I was in shock. Of course, I'd known for a long time that HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore. I also knew that, when treated, you can’t pass the virus on anymore, and that you can lead a totally normal life by taking 1 pill a day. But I still didn’t think this applied to me. ‘Those pills won't work for me’, I thought.
3 weeks without medication
I waited 3 weeks before getting treatment, because I was registered with my parents’ health insurance. I didn't want them to know, so I had to apply for my own health insurance first. Those 3 weeks were a difficult time for me. I felt sick and disgusting. My internist told me I could only have sex if I used a condom and not to let anyone give me a blowjob. But I didn't feel at all like having sex during that period.
When I started to take the medication, I immediately felt I was getting better, as if the pills worked like magic. I could feel the virus being suppressed and I started to feel healthier. After the virus had been suppressed to the point of being undetectable** I felt like having sex again. I did have side effects and I had to switch pills a few times. But that's just part of it. Now I just take 1 pill every day and I feel healthy.
Coming to terms
I had a hard time accepting I had HIV, but in time, I was able to see it as part of my life. I found out that worldwide 1 in 6 homosexual men get HIV at some point in their lives. That reassured me and made me feel less alone. I know there is a stigma about HIV and I feel it too. I still haven't told my parents about it. They are deeply religious and are old enough to have seen people on TV dying from HIV/AIDS. Who knows, maybe I will tell them later on. Actually, nothing much has changed in my life, so I don't think it's that necessary. But a select group of friends know about it, and they have really helped me to come to terms with it.’
*Jake was probably infected with HIV shortly before his previous test. The combination test the GGD use can only detect HIV 2 weeks after the infection. In exceptional cases, it takes even longer for HIV to show up on this test.
** HIV treatment ensures that the virus is supressed. At a certain point, the virus is supressed to such an extent, that it is undetectable in your blood. You then have an undetectable viral load. People with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus to other people (U=U, undetectable = untransmittable). So you can have sex with other people without passing the virus on to them.
Jake wished to remain anonymous, so we used a stock photo for his story.
Text: Arjan van Bijnen