I am 28. White. A Female. And a former Peace Corps Volunteer. I am HIV Positive. This is my story of how a few months, a few people, and a few events in Zambia changed me and my life forever. This is the story of how I contracted HIV and brought my Peace Corps Journey to a crashing halt... and how I am working now to pick up and put back together the pieces of my life as a newly diagnosed person living with HIV. This was not the journey I had originally planned... my path has traumatically and dramatically changed... but it is the one I am on now. There is no going back. There is only forward. I welcome you to follow along with me as I attempt to explore this new life ahead of me, whether you are someone from the Peace Corps community, or someone living with HIV. I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions, and opinions. Let us go forward together. To start from the beginning, click here He Gave Me More Than A Bracelet.
Saturday, January 28, 2012
To Date or Not To Date?
Those of us with HIV will have to struggle with this dilemna for the rest of our lives... telling potential partners of our status, and making ourselves vulnerable to rejection and pain.
I can honestly say that prior to my infection, I probably would have answered "No" to this question. In fact, I had a situation where this kind of came into play. I want to tell you a little bit about something that was going on with me in my village prior to meeting my "townie" and contracting HIV.
I had been in my village for a little over 3 months. I had made very close friendships with my fellow teachers, men and women. However, there was one male teacher that I formed a particularly close friendship with. I was attracted to him, and it was pretty clear that he was attracted to me too. We flirted and joked with each other. We spent time together during school, after school, and even on weekends. We really got along well. However, even with the growing closeness and attraction, we kept things strictly at the friendship level. The other teachers and villagers started noticing our relationship though, and comments started being made. It didn't really bother me. However, it did bother him, and he actually started putting some distance between us, because people were "bugging" him about it. We eventually discussed this and once it was out in the open, we started to move past that hump.
We had just gotten to the point of discussing the possibility of taking our friendship further, when some of the female teachers approached me about something. They told me that this particular male teacher had been having a sexual relationship with another female teacher. Furthermore, they told me the rumors that that this female teacher was known to "sleep around" and also that she was "sick". (They don't really say that someone has HIV, they just reference them being "sick"). Suddenly, I was faced with this dilemna that the man I had grown so close to, and thought I had such a good friendship with, was possibly sleeping with someone else, and was possibly infected with HIV!
Being that him and I were so close, and I happen to be a very straightforward and open person, I confronted him about this issue. He denied that he was having a relationship with the other teacher. He said that it was all just rumors that had been created because other people were jealous. I continued to question him about it, and also ask others about it to try to figure out the truth. I wanted to believe him, but I also just couldn't ignore what everyone else was saying, especially with the whole HIV thing being mentioned!
Unfortunately, this all happened the week before I left for my trip to the capital city. I left my village upset and confused about our relationship. He was also extremely upset about it, and getting more and more angry each time I attempted to discuss it. Once in the capital city, most of my volunteer friends said it probably wasn't a good situation to get involved with. As soon as any question about HIV was brought up, the response was usually, "Oh girl, you don't want to mess with that."
I was struggling with this ordeal during my 2 weeks in the capital. I was still having stressed phone calls with him during breaks from our training sessions. I talked in length with my best volunteer friend about our "complicated" relationships with Zambians. It was so tough! Zambian men have such a reputation for being unfaithful and untruthful! We just couldn't figure out how to successfully enter into or be in a relationship with them.
We watched a video one day during those training sessions. It was about volunteers contracting HIV during their service. Out of the group of 27 of us, it was me and my friend who were crying at the end of the video. I was crying because I was scared. Because I liked a guy so much, but was so scared to get into a relationship with him, because there were rumors of him having HIV. Because I couldn't get a clear answer from him or anyone. Because it was so hard and different to have a relationship and communicate with someone with such a different culture and upbringing. My friend was crying because she was already in a relationship with a Zambian and was facing some of the same trust and communication issues. We both wished there was someone there in Peace Corps that could talk to us and help us more with these issues. There are contracted counselors available for mental health issues, however, it was rumored that it was very difficult to get to talk with them, and you had to go through Medical in order to ask for and be approved for an appointment. My friend and I discussed the possibility that maybe the HIV Educators themselves, although not counselors, might be able to meet with us.
After the video, I remember approaching our HIV Educator to ask if we could possibly set up appointments with her to discuss relationship issues more in depth. Although she said "Yes", she seemed kind of unsure, hesitant, and thrown off by my question. I never made an appointment with her. Maybe I should have...
It was during this stressed and confused and upset time that I met my guy in the capital. It probably added to my state of mind at the time and played a role in the poor choices I made 5 days later. It's kind of ironic. I was trying to avoid one situation where I "might" be exposed to HIV, and in turn put myself directly in a situation where I did get HIV. Wow. All I can do at this point is laugh.
Well, I didn't really intend to go into that whole story in this post, but I started typing, and that is what came out. Back to the original question though about dating someone with HIV... I would have said "No" before, but honestly it would have been based on a lot of fear and ignorance. Since contracting HIV, I have learned so much more about transmission and prevention, about risks and reality.
The reality is that, in most cases, it is very difficult to contract HIV. The reality is that with treatment, HIV+ people can reach an "Undetectable" viral load and decrease the risk of passing to a sexual partner by 96%. The reality is that up to 50% of HIV+ people are in sero-discordant relationships (where one person has the virus and one does not). The reality is that couples can have a safe and healthy sex life and at the same time remain sero-discordant for LIFE (meaning the virus is NEVER passed to the partner). The reality is that there are methods of safe conception even for sero-discordant couples. The reality is that people can safely live in and share a household together and never pass the virus. I know this now. I wish I had known more about it back then.
I hope that others can learn more about this and educate themselves. Learn the risks, and learn the reality. And then ask yourself, would you ever be willing to date someone with HIV?
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