January 2005: Life is great! I'm twenty seven years old and have my life ahead of me. Have started a new job. Have my own home. I'm involved in lots of community projects.
March 2005: Have picked up a stubborn flu that has me off work for 2-3 weeks.
May 2005: Flu returns, but also vomiting and strange rash. Doctor thinks it's viral. She runs tests, all negative. The doctor wants to do an HIV test!
The doctor asked if I think I had ever been exposed to HIV? No. I'm in my second sexual relationship, we were using protection and when we decided to stop, I was STI free and he assured me he was too. The first test is "indeterminate" and we decide to re-run the test. A week later I ring the doctor and she tells me I should come in right away.
One life-changing sentence: "I don't know how to tell you this, but the test has come back positive." I go into shock. I can't think of anything but: "I am going to die". I don't believe the doctor when she tells me I am going to be OK. How could this have happened? The penny drops. I grab the phone, call and tell him what has happened. He is floored and doesn't know what to say. I break all contact. Too much distrust. I visit my family and between sobs tell them what has happened. They are upset and shocked, but hold me as I cry.
Two years on, and my life and attitude is very different. Yes, I had some bad times, struggling to get my head around HIV. I grieved for my old life and self. I felt guilt, anger, and that I had been cheated. What did the future hold for me? Who would want me now that I was HIV-positive?
While I am not yet on treatment, the thought that one day my immune system might become too damaged to fight the virus sometimes feels like a weight hanging over me. But I've found strength and, using the support offered me, regained my self confidence and self worth.
I now know I am not going to die and that I am, in fact, in pretty good health. I am stronger, more confident and have a new zest for life. I have changed jobs and now work in the HIV sector. This has helped me deal with being HIV-positive, and given me a way to give something back and to help others.
Most importantly, I have a new partner. He is a beautifully understanding man who accepts me for who I am, loves me unconditionally and supports all that I do. He is HIV-negative. I am lucky. My family and friends are very supportive. Many other HIV-positive people cannot say the same thing.
While there have been many improvements in the views about, and support for, HIV-positive people, I still get shocked by the lack of knowledge and awareness of HIV and STI's in some sections of the community. There is still so much work yet to do.
I want others to know my story so that they think about and make informed decisions about their sexual health. I want my story to help reduce the discrimination and stigma that HIV-positive people face. And I want other young positive women to know that they are not alone. Yes, HIV is life-changing and it does not discriminate. But it is also manageable, and, most importantly, avoidable.
Be informed about your sexual health and that of your partner, because protection really is everybody's business.