Tatenda and Thelma , one couple that made me envious and believe in perfect relationships. They were inseparable , best buddies in sync. Tatenda was the wild one in our group no woman could tame him until Thelma came along. She had interesting contrasting behaviour equally wild but more rooted in her principles. I remember getting a call from an elated Tatenda’s mom who constantly complained of her son’s alcoholism, thanking us because for the first time her son was sober throughout their last family vacation but all credit was to Thelma.
One day they came up with the craziest idea of having a group HIV test. The local New Start centre was doing a self testing pilot program and they thought it was a cool idea. We always talked about HIV but usually as something that we were immune to. Thelma was enthusiastic as usual when she broke the noble idea but everyone else was uncertain, and Tatenda was sweating , a give away sign of his anxiety. We all planned to go in two days but by the end of the day most of us had bailed out. We loved to think we were a careful bunch and educated enough to make wise choices, in retrospect a stupid excuse. Thelma was adamant and they wanted to take their relationship to the next level so we promised to cheer them on.
The weather can be weird at times but I try to brush aside some of the supernatural conspiracies. It was a cloudy dark day and my mood was not helping . I got rained on. Normally I do not mind getting myself wet but on that day I was irritable. As I got into my house I had about 5 missed calls from Tatenda and urgent Call me Backs were suffocating my inbox . When I called he picked up as soon as it went through and suddenly the foul mouthed Tatenda we thought we had buried resurfaced calling Thelma all sorts of obscenities. In the midst of all this shouting I managed to pick up that he was at home and quickly called a cab and in a few minutes was at his house.
He is not an emotional guy but the moment I set foot through his front door he embraced me and the grown man was sobbing like an infant. He was smelling of alcohol and I had to drag him to his couch . In between sobs he informed me that Thelma had tested positive and he was negative meaning they were discordant. I was speechless for a while. It was hard to take in but I had to act quickly. I had to ask him not to tell anyone else including other members of the crew because it was not in his position to disclose her status to other people without her consent. As he was snoring I was on my way to Thelma ‘s place. I took Tatenda’s phone with me because I could not trust what he was capable of especially when drunk.
2215 I was knocking on Thelma’s door. She peeped through the window before letting me in. She was busy on her laptop with the lights off with some depressing music in the background. I could tell she was trying hard to keep herself together. She broke the silence by offering me coffee. I did not know where to start. I just let out an anxious “How are you keeping”. She looked at me then she said probably the whole world knew by now. I assured her that no one else knew and was deeply concerned about her. She seemed to have taken her HIV result well and was already talking about pre-treatment counselling. She then broke into tears when she mentioned Tatenda and talked about betrayal. I held her as she poured her heart out until around midnight when she was now drowsy . I left her to sleep then went back to Tatenda’s house where I spent the night. Fortunately the next day was a Sunday. In the morning I had to endure a grumpy Tatenda who avoided discussing what had transpired the previous day . I encouraged them to talk about it and avoid impulsive decisions. They eventually decided to take a break and think through the implications of their new development.
The next day I asked my colleagues’ opinion on dating someone who is HIV positive when they are negative and got following responses came
“Man it’s a death sentence, I am too young to die.”
“You are suicidal.”
“That’s like marinating yourself in fresh blood then getting into a cage of hungry lions”
Most of these responses were disturbing and seemed to propagate stigma. As much as we have done a lot of awareness campaigns most people are still pessimistic about a possible HIV infection. The sad thing was most of the people were not aware of their statuses and were reluctant to get tested.
My friend’s response impressed me the most and reignited hope . He was a health freak with impeccable health seeking behaviour.
He said. “ Well I would rather date someone HIV positive on treatment who is virally suppressed because I will deliberately be careful instead of being blindly with someone who does not know their status”
This was an interesting response which I least expected . I have heard that in the developed world dating sites now recommend people to include the following information about their HIV status
- Last time when you got tested
- Negative and on Pre-exposure prophylaxis (Pre exposure prophylaxis is anti retroviral drugs taken to prevent HIV infection)
- Positive on treatment
Positive and virally suppressed (Virally suppressed means the virus is at undetectable level in the body. When the viral load is undetectable the risk of infecting your partner is reduced)
This is a great way of fighting stigma because being HIV positive will be appreciated as normal as having any other chronic disease..
I decided to read and ask more about discordant couples and I realised we need to have the HIV conversation in a more realistic way without sweeping things under the carpet. It will help to fully address stigma and improve access to treatment. Before we had prevention of mother to child transmission a number of children were born with HIV. Yes there are people born with HIV and these are our friends , siblings , relatives , classmates and family . Each day we hurt them with our stigma and they fall victim to bullying. Our attitude and fear towards HIV/AIDS does not make it better. HIV has taken a new face since the 80s. With the advent of continuously improving treatment, i can be HIV positive and still live my life to the fullest. I can also date someone HIV positive and still remain negative and have children who are HIV negative.
I was inspired by two couples recently. The first couple has been together for more than 15 years and the wife was HIV positive on treatment when they got married. Now they have 3 HIV negative children and the husband is still negative . In the second couple the husband got infected but his wife remained negative .He was motivated to adhere to his medication and use protection to keep his wife negative. They have been discordant for 7 years now . This is more possible now that we have more options for protecting ourselves . There is Preexposure and postexposure prophylaxis. Condoms come in different shapes , flavours and styles . Getting tested is also becoming easier with the soon to be introduced self testing. You can still have a happy and healthy relationship with someone regardless of their or your HIV status.
Tatenda and Thelma separated for a month which was the worst period for our crew as we were used to having them around with Thelma keeping us in check. They finally realised they could not live without each and decided to go for counselling. This was reviewed to us when we were summoned by Thelma to her house for lunch. Well the rest of the crew were not aware of everything that had taken place. Thelma decided to disclose her status to the crew with the help of Tatenda and also announce their engagement. It was amazing and seeing Tatenda look Thelma in her eyes and declare ” She is HIV positive and I love her ” before kissing her passionately.