Guest Blogger

Getting the Call: Conversion

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 25, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: HIV/AIDS, Marc Anderson, positive test results, seroconverting, STD tests

Editors' Note: Marc Alexander is a recently sero-converted graduate student. He has volunteered as an HIV advocate before, and now hopes to use his experiences to help other HIV positive individuals. Test tubeMarc blogs at sayencrowolf.com

There is no good way to find out that you are HIV positive, but how I found out was particularly bad. It was early in the morning on Friday September 1st. I had just gotten home from dropping my mom off at U-Haul where she was picking up a truck that would take my furniture down to my new apartment. It had been three and a half months since I had graduated from college and I had recently finished my second week of graduate classes. I was looking forward to my birthday only a few months away. I had just let the movers hired to pack the truck into the apartment to survey what needed to be moved and we were simply waiting for my mom to come home. I had lost my keys and gotten a loan refund check in the mail from my grad school. That was when my doctor called.

I had known in the back of my mind that something was up when I didn't get a quick negative from my tests. My doctor didn't know if I had already moved to my new place, so he broke his established protocol and told me over the phone instead. I had known that there was something strange going on with my blood work because it had been almost five days since I got tested and I hadn't heard back yet. Normally I get the all-clear call within two days. I had become a bit worried, but I had just pushed it to the back of my mind.

The fear came flooding back, however, when I heard my doctor on the phone.

He told me that the test was back and the results were not good. When he said that, it felt like something heavy had fallen from my head deep into my gut. Like an elevator crashing. I immediately responded, "Oh god, what do I have?" I was impatient to hear it, in a way, and frightened to death of what the results were. I ran through in my head the full list of STDs I had been tested for and their symptoms and treatments. I was less concerned about HIV than I was ones that could actually cause huge immediate problems. My biggest fear was syphilis. But in the mere moments before my doctor spoke again, I had managed to worry about everything.

Then it came: "You tested positive for HIV."

I remember that moment with vivid clarity, can still feel everything I felt. The chairs had all been taken outside for the movers to put in the truck, I couldn't sit down. I stumbled a bit. It felt like a thin slit had been cut below my chest, between the bottom of my ribs, and someone was slowly and methodically pulling my intestines through. It honestly felt like something was being pulled from my body. I pressed my hand to where the sensation was coming from and entered the denial stage of grief. My first thought was that I was dreaming, but I knew that wasn't true. Then I began to question if it was a false positive, but I had my blood drawn and a Western Blot test done, something I have never known to be wrong.

I felt crippled and like my entire life had shrunk down to keeping my composure and trying to stay clear while on the phone with my doctor. I asked him questions I already knew the answer to, but I had started to doubt everything I knew about HIV.

My doctor wanted me to come in that day and see him, but I had a busy day of moving before me and my mom had walked in the door. Seeing her walk in was a reminder that there were other people who were going to be affected by my conversion. I knew I was going to have to be strong and not let the news cripple me. I would have my break down later, but my mom needed me to be strong and help with the move. She needed me to keep it together. But she also needed to know in case I broke down during the move. She needed to know so that she could help me deal with the news.

My mom and I walked outside away from the movers and I told her I had just been diagnosed as HIV positive. Understandably, her first reaction was, "What?" But the second thing she said to me was, "Thank god you get tested as often as you do."

Somehow my mom had said the very thing that I needed to hear at that moment. Earlier that summer she had been surprised at my habit of getting tested every three months, thinking it was a little excessive, but now she was praising me for doing so, for being brave enough to know. She helped me realize something very important in that moment. I am lucky to know, and I am happy to know. I'm not happy to have converted, but I am better off knowing the truth.

I know the fear of the virus that can cripple people. Plenty of people will say that they don't care what their status is, but that isn't true. They do care; they are just frightened of the answer. But now that I know, I can be sure that I take precautions in my life. I can protect myself from opportunistic infections and stop myself from spreading the virus. A lot of the reason for the spread of HIV is lack of testing and education about testing. As far as I know, everyone I had sex with in the past six months knew their status, and knew their status was negative. Clearly one of them was either lying or doesn't know. That means whoever infected me could be infecting others and getting sicker and sicker, all because they don't know.

I am happier knowing. Now I know what I have to do and I can get on top of the virus. I have the tools in front of me and the support I need. I can do what needs to be done. I'm lucky. How many people are there now who are untested and don't know what is happening to their immune system? It is frightening to think that something could be breaking you down without you being aware. I know, and I can use that fear to fuel my drive to live.


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Marc: I think it takes alot of guts to a/learn about your conversion over the phone and b/have the stones to even write it out. I've never been a fan of notifications that aren't in person, but in your case your lifelong doctor knew that there would not be any emotional fallout and that you were leaving town. I have to imagine that learning this felt alot like having the rug pulled out from under you.

I appreciate your putting your life out on display. In all the HIV reading and writing that I do, I can't say that I recall the last time someone stepped up to the mike and said "Hey, I just turned positive." Tons of preventative reading, tons of articles on cure initiatives, cuts in government spending and the whole lot. Taking it all back to a personal level brings it all home to me, and I'm hoping to others as well.

..daniel

Thanks for your support. It is hard to write about, but I'm happy to do it if it helps anyone who reads it.

-Marc

Of course you don't have to say if it is uncomfortable but I am wondering how you were infected and whether you talked to the person who infected you. Did you have anal intercourse without a condom with anyone or were you infected some other way?

I'm not actually sure who infected me. As far as I know, all my recent (past six months) partners (except for two who I was very careful with) have been negative. It is likely that someone who I was with just did not know they were positive. Or maybe I was lied to. Hard to say without a lot of wild guessing, so I don't think about it too much.

-Marc

So, did the author have unprotected anal intercourse or not? If yes, why was he at all surprised that he tested positive. Getting HIV is not rocket science.

Hey, Marc! Great name! Thanks for your comment. I'm happy to answer your question with the following statement: I have had unprotected sex with both male and female (even transgendered) partners, and I refuse to sort my partners based on sero-status. I am much more cautious with a positive person than a negative one, sure, but I have found wonderful sex both safe and without a condom. Why was I surprised, you ask? Well, all those I had unsafe sex with recently were in fact negative. I wore a condom for the two positive partners I have had in the past six months. I will point out, however, that there is no reason to believe that those positive partners were not the ones who gave it to me, just like there is no reason to believe one of my negative partners was unknowingly positive or lying. HIV is not something I've expected in my life; I'm not a bug chaser. I've known it as a risk from the kind of sex I have, but, like the Spanish Inquisition, I could not expect it. Hence the surprise. And you're right, getting HIV is not rocket science. It is one of the easiest things to do, judging by the number of people infected every day. However, this was not written to instruct how to get HIV, but more as an exploration of what to do once one is infected.

Thanks, hope that cleared up your questions.

-Marc

I don't think whether the author got HIV from having unprotected sex, a needle stick or any other transference method is the point of his stepping up here.

The point is that you can scour the internet, and in particular some of the more popular sites like this one. Authors are not lined up to talk about their recent seroconversion, much less be willing to break it into detailed posts on how this impacts their lives.

I was exposed to HIV thru direct contact occupationally, and thanks to a great health plan, knowledge of PeP and a pretty good background in HIV advocacy I didn't convert. If I had, would that have made my seroconversion a sympathetic event while Marc's recent HIV status is "well - he asked for it?" Nobody who becomes HIV positive deserves it.

I stand behind my earlier comment: I think it takes some serious stones to put this in print for the benefit of anyone else. If it even helps one person have a better understanding of what it's like to become HIV positive then it's purpose is fulfilled...

..daniel

Hi Marc (yes, it's a great name, and great spelling): I am not judging you. All I am saying is that, if a gay man is going to have unprotected anal intercourse with anybody but a monogamous HIV-negative partner, he should just assume that eventually he is going to become HIV-positive (especially as a bottom). Someone verbally insisting that they are HIV-negative is absolutely worthless in making safer-sex decisions (people are unaware, or sometimes lie). The pool of HIV-positives in the gay male community is just too high to be otherwise. Once again, if a gay male is going to have unprotected anal intercourse (especially as a bottom) with anyone outside of a monogamous relationship with an HIV-negative partner, EXPECT TO BECOME HIV-POSITIVE. It is not rocket science.

And I write this so the Bilerico readers will understand the importance of using condoms for anal intercourse, because as a person living with AIDS, I know that this disease is difficult, it's expensive, it changes your life in many difficult ways, it is painful for your loved ones, and it is almost completely avoidable by USING CONDOMS.

Except with a long-term uninfected mutually monogamous partner (or such a long-term uninfected partner who you know is consistently using condoms with everyone except you), it is absolutely imperative that all gay men (really all people) use condoms every single time they have anal (or vaginal) intercourse. No exceptions.

My impression is that there has been a widespread breakdown in this most critical aspect of education in terms of reducing morbidity and mortality caused by a disease that is still incurable, infectious, effectively 100% fatal and 100% limiting in terms of the quality of life (although both the mortality and morbidity have been thankfully slowed to a great extent and reduced to some extent since the advent of better treatment drugs around 1996). There are a three critical facts that it is clear some gay American men (particularly young men) do not know. These are: 1) The prevalence (perhaps 25% of gay men infected!) and incidence (50K new infections annually - >60% in gay men) of HIV are extremely high among American gay men. 2) Unprotected anal (both receptive and insertive) and vaginal intercourse are high risk and the best protection is condom usage. Never trust a casual partner's assessment of his current HIV status and never have a period in your life where you are having anal intercourse without a condom with more than one partner. 3) Even with modern drugs, the health effects of HIV on the body and all aspects of life are extremely grave. This is true even for those whose body responds well to the drugs and keeps the level of virus in the blood low and is become more obvious as more HIV infected people age.