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HIV/AIDS Let’s talk about it

By Linda Thompson



February 7 is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which means it’s time to talk about HIV again. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but we can’t ignore it and remain silent. Because when it comes to HIV, silence can be deadly. The awkward part of talking about HIV is addressing how people are infected with it. Sex and injecting drug use are {{more}} what we think of first, and it’s easy to tell ourselves, “I’m not doing those, so I don’t have to worry about that, thank goodness.” But sometimes things aren’t as simple as they sound. Sometimes folks are infected through silence and trust. How? Here’s a true story, of a woman we’ll call Grace. Grace is a fairly ordinary, mature woman in her thirties – single, hardworking, church-going. She’s had ups and downs, struggling with childhood abuse issues and crack addiction, but she’s made peace with her history, and has several years in recovery from drugs. Her trials have given her a strong faith in God, and she’s looking for a husband who shares her values and beliefs. She wants a good, dependable man to raise a family with. She finds him in the place you might expect: in church. She falls in love. He’s everything she hoped for. They date for several months. They have endless conversations about their plans, hopes, goals, dreams. He proposes, they have a wonderful wedding, with all their friends and family celebrating the start of their new life together. Fast forward a couple of years. Grace applies for an insurance policy. Some routine tests are done – blood sugar, cholesterol and others. The results come back, and Grace is told, “I’m sorry. You have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.” HIV? How did that happen? It can’t be true. Grace was tested years ago in the treatment center, when she first stopped using crack. She followed the testing guidelines exactly. She waited three months after her last possible risk before testing, because HIV can take that long to show up on a test. The result was negative. Just to be on the safe side, she tested again three months later, and that result was negative too. So she heaved a big sigh of relief, thanked God and went on with her life. Since then Grace has done nothing to put herself at risk for HIV. No injecting drug use, no sex until she married. She’s completely turned her life around, with God’s help. So how could she have HIV now? It’s a mistake. It has to be a mistake. The test is wrong. It’s a false positive. Those happen sometimes, don’t they? But Grace is a responsible woman, and a woman of faith. So she says a prayer out in the car, and stops by the health department on her way home. She has another HIV test done, just to double check. She marks on her pocket calendar the day to return for her results, then goes home to tell her husband the astonishing events of the day. And is devastated by his response. Yes, he says. It’s probably true. She probably has HIV. He does. He wanted to tell her when they met, but he was afraid. He thought she wouldn’t marry him if she knew. He was sure they belonged together, and he couldn’t lose her. He always meant to tell her; he was waiting for the right moment, but he never found it, and the words got harder to say as time went on. Grace is so stunned she can barely speak. But she manages a few questions. How long has he known? For about five years. How was he infected? He’s not sure. But like Grace, he has a past, although he never told her about it. Unlike Grace, his past involves both unprotected sex and intravenous drug use. And sometimes, he’s ashamed to say, hustling to get his drugs. Hustling – having sex in exchange for drugs? Um, yes. With – um – with women and men both. Addiction is crazy, they both know that. Grace is reeling. She can’t think what to say, what to do. “But I told you everything about myself!” she cries. Well, yes, you did. And I wanted to tell you. But you’re stronger than me, Grace. You always have been. Grace stares at her husband, a man she thought she knew, who has suddenly become a stranger. “Does your family know?” Yes, they know. And they support his belief that God will give him the strength to live with HIV. Grace is praying for strength, too. Fervently. Because they knew – her husband’s parents and sisters and brothers and grandparents – they all knew, and no one told her. They thought I should be the one to tell you, Grace. “You should have been.” she agrees. You can decide if the story ends happily or not. Grace’s marriage didn’t survive. Her faith was shaken, for a while. She went back to crack cocaine for about eighteen months. Then slowly, one step at a time, one day at a time, she found her way back to God, to recovery, and to living with HIV. She’s lost friendships. Some family members won’t speak to her. She’s open about her HIV status, and she’s lost jobs because of it. She doesn’t live in her hometown, because her presence creates problems for her family. Especially in church. Grace is in her forties now. She works as an HIV prevention educator and activist, speaking to all kinds of people, but especially women, about the risks of HIV infection. There’s a man who loves her and has proposed marriage. He shares her values and beliefs and faith. He’s HIV negative, and Grace has told him everything about her disease. She’s not sure about marriage, though. “I just don’t know if it’s fair to him.” she says. Grace really wants to be fair. Sadly, Grace is not alone. Too many people, too many times, are infected through silence and trust. Most people with HIV don’t actively lie about their disease, or keep silent while exposing others to possible infection. Most feel honor bound to speak up when it matters, regardless of the painful consequences of honesty. But there are a few who don’t. And there are many, many more who don’t know their HIV status because they haven’t been tested. And the harsh, cold, bottom line reality is that whatever the HIV positive person does, it’s every one’s responsibility to protect themselves. Some facts to keep in mind: Most blood testing does not automatically include an HIV test. Neither do most routine gynecological check ups, for birth control or any other purpose. Never assume that a doctor visit of any kind will produce HIV test results, or that no mention of it means you don’t have it. Ask: Will you test for HIV? And if so, will I be informed of the results, even if they’re negative? Never assume that your partner – sexual partner, needle sharing partner – doesn’t or couldn’t have HIV just because they didn’t bring it up in conversation, or you know them well, or you’ve been together for a while, or whatever. Your partner can be the next-door neighbor you’ve known all your life, but if you don’t ask about HIV status, you can still get infected through ignorance. HIV infection rates are on the rise among a lot of diverse groups. Young people, for one. Nationwide, AIDS is now the leading cause of death among young black men. But nobody’s getting out easy. Senior citizens, dating again after divorce or the death of a spouse, are increasingly being infected. So are women, particularly minority women. All women are nine times more likely to be infected through heterosexual sex than men. And unfortunately, women are often too willing to keep silent and trust our partners. Men and women both hesitate to approach a scary subject that might create conflict in a relationship. But lots of men may not know their HIV status, and ladies, you need to know that. We have to take responsibility for ourselves. Moral of the story? Have the conversation. Take the test. Use the condom ‘till you know for sure. Information and free HIV testing are available at Big Country AIDS Resources, 1109 Walnut. Our phone number is 672-3077. An appointment is good, but if at all possible, we will test walk-ins. All testing is done confidentially, meaning we won’t reveal anything about you, your visit, your information, your partners, your risks, or your HIV status to anyone without your permission. That’s true for drug addicts, minors, married people – everyone. You can even use a false name for testing, if you choose. And by the way, we don’t use a needle and we don’t draw blood. It’s a mouth swab. Tastes bad, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s a small price to pay for knowing exactly where you stand.

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