The HIV Equal Survival Guide: I Just Found Out I'm Positive
The moments after learning about your newly diagnosed HIV-positive status can seem like a virtual free fall. In a matter of seconds, you are sent into a tailspin of what-if scenarios and your vision is filled with horrific images from a bad movie montage. Your mind races, then stalls completely, working in frantic fits and spurts and grasping onto the nuggets of information you can remember about what it is to be HIV-positive today.
The nurse tells you that you are going to be just fine and that HIV is now a manageable disease. The doctor tells you that if you take care of yourself, you can expect to live the same amount of time as you would have if you were HIV-negative. But still, there is an inescapable fear of the unknown. What does it mean to live with HIV? What is going to have to change in your life and, more importantly, what can you expect to remain the same?
Luckily, you aren’t very special. There are so many others who have gone through the exact same thing and have already asked all the same burning questions that you need to know the answers to. Below are some short and sweet answers to those questions of yours.
What do I do now?
The first thing to do is to stop panicking. You are the same person that walked into the clinic before receiving your test results. Although it may seem like everything has changed, it hasn’t. But there are some things that you can do to ease your mind and find your way back to being okay.
Find a doctor who works for you, and that means a doctor who is highly knowledgeable about HIV. You might be surprised about howuneducated your average family doctor is about HIV and what it means to treat it. The last thing you need is to be treated by a doctor who has just as many questions as you have. There are many HIV specialists who know exactly how to treat you, and that includes how to ease your concerns. These doctors can also act as your general doctor, but with the added piece of mind that they will keep your HIV diagnosis in consideration when minor health issues arise along the way.
I found a doctor, now what?
During your first appointment, your doctor will do your initial lab work. This is to see what your CD4 count and viral load is. Your CD4 count is the amount of white blood cells you have in your body and your viral load is the amount of copies of the HIV virus that are in your system. Your doctor will also determine whether the virus you have is resistant to any medications; which is unlikely.
This sounds scary, but doesn’t have to be. No matter what your CD4 count may be, most people can bring their count up by simply taking a single-pill regimen. The same medication will also reduce your viral load to an undetectable level, making it highly improbable for you to transmit the virus to someone else. Most likely, this will be the extent of managing your virus, along with regular checkups with your doctor to make sure that your body is healthy and that your medication is working. As with any medication, the key to staying healthy and keeping an undetectable viral load is to never miss a dose.
Can I only have sex with other people who are also HIV-positive?
Of course not! Today, there are multiple ways to have safe sex and, believe it or not, most men are knowledgeable enough to know that informed sex is the safest sex of all, regardless of status. Again, staying compliant with your meds and maintaining an undetectable viral load is the best way to ensure that you never transmit the virus. This method of prevention is for your protection just as much as it is for your partner.
How will I tell my friends and family?
First off, you don’t have to tell anyone except your future sexual partners. But talking about your status is the best way for you to feel like yourself again. Believe it or not, there are probably many people around you who are either HIV-positive or have been affected by HIV in one way or another. The first time you tell someone may be scary, but it gets easier every time. The first step is to just say the three little letters out loud. Start there.
What does it mean to manage my virus?
For most people who are diagnosed today, managing your virus simply means being compliant with a one-pill-a-day regimen. Once you find a doctor, start medication and achieve an undetectable viral load, you will just need to have your lab work done every four months or so to make sure that everything is all right.
I am afraid of dying.
Here’s the deal. A person diagnosed today has roughly the same life expectancy that a person who is HIV-negative. However, your virus does make you more susceptible to several health risks that you need to be aware of. Some of these risks include cardiovascular disease, kidney problems and bone density loss. But before you start to panic again, these issues can be prevented with the proper care. Being knowledgeable about what to look out for is the best way to ensure a long and healthy life.
Am I going to get AIDS?
The term AIDS does seem scarier than HIV, doesn’t it? The truth is, many people who are living with HIV will never be diagnosed with AIDS. HIV is a virus; AIDS is just a diagnosis that a person receives once the virus reaches a certain point. When your CD4 count dips below 200 and your immune system is low enough that common illnesses can be life threatening, it is classified as AIDS. As long as you stay on your medication and keep a healthy body and mind, you can keep your CD4 count in the healthy zone and far away from the level of AIDS. And if your CD4 count is already in the danger zone, the correct medication can bring you back up to healthy levels.
Your diagnosis is not the end of anything, but it may be the beginning of living a more informed and health-conscious life.
Illustrations by: Clarione Gutierrez