Getting diagnosed with HIV
According to the WHO, 36.7 million people around the world were living with HIV - human immunodeficiency virus - the agent that causes AIDS - at the end of 2015. And while rates of HIV are greatest in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is still a global problem. In fact, the UK has had one of the highest rates of new HIV diagnosis in western Europe, particularly in London, and rates of new diagnosis had been steadily rising… until last year. Preliminary data from several clinics across London show, on average, a 40% drop in new diagnoses over the last year. And HIV specialists think this could be down to a procedure called PrEP, short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis”. This is where uninfected individuals take anti-HIV medication - which many people are currently obtaining online - to reduce the chances of them becoming infected if they do come into contact with the virus. Greg Owen was diagnosed with HIV 18 months ago. He told Graihagh Jackson his story...
Greg - I was in a 7 year relationship and engaged to be married to my ex-fiance and came out of that relationship at the start of 2013, and I was flung into a scene that I wasn’t familiar with when I went into that relationship. There were no hookups, there were no chemsex parties, it was a very different set-up in London as to the world I find myself in.
Graihagh - Sorry, what’s chemsex?
Greg - Oh yeah. Chemsex is the use of party drugs closely associated with sexual behaviour where they pretty much go hand in hand. It’s three specific drugs, it would be mephedrone, crystal meth, and GHB and can be an extensive period of maybe one night into two or three days long of partying and sex.
Graihagh - Blimey. So you came out of a 7 year relationship into this. How was that?
Greg - It was not nice. My ex-fiance - our relationship actually disintegrated because he was diagnosed as HIV positive. For him it was pretty much the end of his life as he knew it and our relationship as it existed and he fell apart. So for me, I was experiencing quite a lot of emotional trauma and significant life changes because of that and a lot of distress. That, coupled with the fact that I was flung onto a scene that I was very, very unaware and unprepared to deal with. For the first year I was very much, because of me ex’s experience, I was very much adherent to condoms.
But then the second year I think what happened was I hit what I would call a double dip depression. So I kind of got clear of the initial trauma but then the reality of what my life was then and how drastically different it was and it was a complete upheaval. I didn’t just lose my fiance, I lost my flat, my cat, I couldn’t go to work, I wasn’t functioning properly and, as a result of that, my sexual risk taking and my behaviour changed. It started to come out of that dip of depression and started to assess where I was with my life and my sexual behaviour, and just kind of socially where I was, and what I was doing, and emotionally too.
I thought I’m probably not going to be able to address behaviours at the moment but what I can do is maybe think about PrEP. Then I go to Dean Street the next day to have a HIV test just to confirm that I’m definitely negative because I tested negative about 12 months before, so I could definitely start PrEP safely. And 20 minutes after arriving at the clinic I was in the consultation room, and I have a fingerprint test and two dots came up so it was a HIV positive diagnosis. So the irony of eventually managing to get a hold of PreP, and to start that having finally decided that this was the right option for me and I was going to start being proactive and responsible, to then have just missed the boat was a little bit mind blowing to be honest.
Graihagh - What went through your mind when you saw those two dots?
Greg - Since my ex’s diagnosis I’d been actively campaigning, as a HIV negative person, trying to dispel some of the myths and deconstruct some of the stigma around HIV. And I just sort of had a really bizarre, strange moment of pure clarity and I thought you know what, now is the time to put my money where my mouth is. Now I’m going to tell 8,000 people on social media that I got a HIV positive diagnosis.
Graihagh - What was the reception you got from people?
Greg - I think I had, within two or three hours, 350 likes and 175 comments, and then when I opened my messaging inbox I had about 50 disclosures from people in my immediate network, in my extended network, and people who I’d never met. And I couldn’t beleive. I know this sounds really weird but even someone like me who was HIV aware and had worked very loosely on the periphery of HIV awareness and campaigning I was like oh, I never would have thought that person was HIV positive. It just goes to show we have a very strange perception of who gets HIV and who doesn’t and, in actual fact, HIV does not discriminate. Anyone who has sex can become HIV positive. So, for me, it was a very big learning curve but also, I think, I felt incredibly supported. Not one stigmatising, judgemental, moralising comment… nothing. And from that moment on I think that was all that I needed to just pull me into getting on with things.
Graihagh - Such a contrast to your ex’s experience isn’t it?
Greg - In my diagnosis that is because I detailed every emotion and every feeling and he swung into my mind that that this point we would have been split up about two and a half years. And he was very much in my thoughts and in my feelings I think. I had a failed suicide attempt at the end of 2013 because of the distress and the trauma that I was under. I had an experience from my ex and I was so confused by that. I was thinking I’d been a good gay, I was committed to this relationship, and I was invested in our future and he was my priority and our relationship took precedent over everything else. I’d done all the things I’m supposed to do and I’m meant to do. Why is this horrible thing happening to me? I couldn’t make sense of it.
But I’m incredibly grateful that I got through that experience and this suicide attempt failed because, in actual fact, when it came round and landed firmly on my doorstep, I was able to take learnings from that. And I have to say, if you experience something as painful as that at some point in your future, if you’re able to take something positive and are learning from it, it really does soften the sting that that leaves behind. So I am grateful for that experience.