This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email email@example.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.
In 2014, Gabriel Positive* already noticed “an abnormality in my (feeling of well-being),” he said. “Late last year, I had frequent sore throat and tonsillitis; I initially believed this to be normal, so I just took antibiotics for a week and the discomfort would disappear. “
This March, he started having recurrent dry coughs, which forced him to go to different hospitals, where different doctors gave him different high dosage of medicines. “They always said the same things: swollen tonsils, enlarged tonsils, allergic rhinitis, gerd… you name it. I panicked and asked myself what is wrong with me. Particularly since, after taking the medicines, I remained not fully well. I started thinking that there is something wrong inside my body that I needed to know, and that brought me to have myself tested to confirm.”
Gabriel Positive said that prior to getting tested, he did a lot of research about HIV, “so I sort of knew (about it).” The test was, for him, only to confirm for himself if he was infected. “And like what I expected, the result turned out reactive. I was becoming sick because I had the virus already,” he said.
In hindsight, he may have been infected by previous sex partners – e.g. those he met through a common friend, sex dating sites, et cetera. “Though I also suspect my ex-boyfriend with whom I had a receptive intercourse. We only know each other for months, and neither of us disclosed – or maybe even knew – our HIV status.”
Yes, Gabriel Positive said he was shocked upon finding out his HIV status. “I think that’s a normal reaction. But then again, just a few minutes (after finding out), I said to myself: ‘What’s next?’” In fact, during the counseling session done prior to the testing, “when the counselor asked me what I will do if I tested positive, I just said: ‘Continue life.’ Because life goes on. My life doesn’t end from my having HIV.”
Gabriel Positive knows that the antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) are “free”**, and that “I can be better because of the medicines. I know can live a long and healthy life despite having the virus.” Nonetheless, upon knowing his HIV status, his productivity was immediately affected. “During the weeks (after I knew of my HIV status), I had to file a leave (from work) for my baseline tests, et cetera.” This was a requirement for him to be able to access the ARVs in a treatment hub.
Gabriel Positive started taking ARVs in April. “During the first week, the drugs really gave me discomfort because my body was not yet accustomed to the drugs. For the first few days, I felt dizzy, nauseous, I was vomiting, didn’t have appetite, had headache… I lost 4.4 pounds in just two weeks,” he said.
Still, Gabriel Positive said that “knowing my status maybe helped me to be more appreciative of my health; I became health conscious. Nowadays, I don’t give in to vices. I always say yes to healthy living.”
For Gabriel Positive, stigma is – arguably – the biggest issue faced by PLHIVs.
On the one hand, there’s the “stigma within yourself.” “Stigma of yourself is the biggest challenge because when you stigmatize yourself, you allow yourself to get depressed. Acceptance is the key. You won’t be able to move forward if you yourself can’t accept it. Change must start from you. You must know how to handle yourself first to be able to handle outside situation,” he said.
On the other hand, there’s the stigma and discrimination from society. In Gabriel Positive’s case, “the biggest challenge for me is if I will (disclose) my status to my parents. I don’t want them to know this early because I’m still young. I’m afraid if they knew, then I’ll be the reason why my parents’ health will deteriorate due to depression and pity for their son.”
Gabriel Positive added: “Being a PLHIV is really a sensitive issue especially in our country where stigma and discrimination is everywhere. HIV will not kill you, the stigma and discrimination kill PLHIVs because people like me are afraid to come out and seek medical assistance.”
In Gabriel Positive’s case, there are only four people who know his HIV status three from work, and another a close friend “who I suspect is in the advanced stage of HIV infection. I disclosed because I want him to get tested and that there is life even if you are PLHIV.” He said that “before disclosing, you must know not only the reason why, but also the benefit you can get from disclosing.”
His current sources of support now include: the bosses in his company (with whom he disclosed his HIV status), support groups in social media, and “blood brothers” he eventually met when accessing HIV-related services.
As a person living with HIV, Gabriel Positive offers this advice to those who are HIV-negative: “Love your body. Love your health, specifically. Be safe always. Avoid things that can compromise your life while it’s still early.”
And to other PLHIVs: “Be strong and courageous. Our battle for life is a long battle. Have faith. Don’t give up. Be happy always. Continue your life and don’t stress yourself too much. Act like you are the same with everyone not having the virus. Have a healthy lifestyle and live healthy.”
*NAME CHANGED AS REQUESTED TO PROTECT THE INTERVIEWEE’S PRIVACY
** IN THE PHILIPPINES, ACCESS TO ARVs (AND NUMEROUS OTHER TREATMENT, CARE AND SUPPORT SERVICES) IS DEPENDENT ON ENROLMENT TO PHILHEALTH