There’s a lot of information on the importance of becoming HIV undetectable. There are also many people who aren’t HIV undetectable. Many have heard the good news that “suppressing HIV means that it’s unlikely we’ll transmit HIV to anyone else. We can live a healthy life, have sex and not transmit HIV to our partner, and have kids who are HIV negative.” Yet, there’s still a lot of people living with HIV who aren’t in care, aren’t taking their medicine, and aren’t undetectable. I wonder–is it like smoking? We ALL know that smoking is bad for our health. It’s printed on the cigarette packs! Why are there people who still smoke? Why is it so hard to quit, and stay smoke free? Is it the same story with HIV? I decided to get curious.
I’ve been living with HIV for 12 years, and have been virally suppressed for 11 years and 8 months. Viral suppression has meant freedom. It’s given me hope, confidence, and helped me suppress other harmful things as well–like stigma, low self-esteem, shame, unhealthy choices in my diet, my life, and relationships. Becoming HIV suppressed allowed my authentic voice to flourish and helped heal my wounded spirit. Not only has suppression strengthened my immune system, it’s strengthened my emotional immune system by teaching me resilience, compassion for myself and others, and to never neglect myself again.
Yet, I struggle to communicate how crucial viral suppression is for those of us living with HIV. How do I get the point across in a way that really hits home? Then, I thought about hookup apps.
Think about it: When you’re using a dating/hookup app, one of the empowering features is choice. You have the power to swipe left, or swipe right. Swiping left? Nope. Hard pass. Swiping right? Call me…maybe. Plus, if there’s a person online who’s a nuisance, you can choose the “block” feature. You don’t see them, they don’t see you, and you can keep it moving.
Think of HIV suppression the same way. The medicine that suppresses the virus is giving your immune system a “block this douchebag” feature you didn’t have when you were first diagnosed. It keeps you from further attacks by the virus, and if the virus doesn’t have anything to attach to, it can’t make more copies of itself. Viral suppression from TasP (Treatment as Prevention) provides a boundary that keeps HIV from stalking you like the psychopath it is. It’s still there, but it doesn’t “see you” online as an option. It keeps HIV from attaching to you and draining your vital energy. HIV no longer becomes your problem, it becomes quiet–suppressed, and though it’s still there, it’s sulking in a dark corner, where it’s not getting the attention it craves, and where it has very, very few friends.
When I was diagnosed with HIV, I was also diagnosed with fear, anger, sadness, and shame. When we’re struck by trauma, we feel fear, and humans, like other mammals, tend to respond in one of three ways: Fight, flight, or freeze. How did you respond when you found out you were HIV positive? Are you still responding to HIV the same way?
My first response was to freeze. I got numb. I felt outside of my body. I remember very little after the Disease Intervention Specialist said, “Your test came back positive for HIV.” My body felt cold, and when the flight response kicked in, I slid, fully clothed, into the deep end of the pool at my apartment complex, and sat on the bottom. “At least it will be quiet,” I told myself, “At least I can come back up for air.” After that, I decided to fight. I found an HIV specialist and started medication that same month. But I also fought myself for being so reckless. I fought my fear, shaming myself into submission like an abusive parent. “Man up! Don’t cry, don’t show fear!” When I had to share my status with my sexual partners and fear got in the way, I told myself, “It’s the law! You brought this on yourself! Do as your told and not another word out of you!” When I feared side effects from taking the medicine, I forced myself to swallow it and said, “Whatever the side effects are, you deserve it! Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, loser.”
Let me tell you about fighting fear with shaming and blaming tactics: It doesn’t work. It’s not possible to shame and blame ourselves into positive change. Plus, there’s no way to destroy HIV yet. It’s an ongoing fight, and a lot of us grow weary from battling this persistent enemy and give in, becoming hopeless, resigned and cynical prisoners of war.
There’s a fourth response to fear, and it’s the response that continues to save my life, and the response that has kept HIV suppressed, quiet and asleep deep within me for more than a decade: Face it.
No more fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Look HIV right between the eyes and see it for what it is: It’s a virus. It’s not you, not your shame, your bad choices, your shortcomings, your failures, your death sentence, and it definitely isn’t the boss of you. It only has control over your life if you give it control, and it requires you to “swipe right” to continue to spread its toxic agenda. Swipe left, my friend. Hit the block button.
Easier said than done, you say? I understand. So I’ll offer some suggestions that have served me well. Practice any of these that speak to you, and disregard the rest. *Also, please add to this list and share practices that work for you, too.
Be sure to also read “Swiping Left: Thoughts on Viral Suppression” Part 2.
Kevin Varner is a Licensed Professional Counselor working in Raleigh, NC. He is a member of North Carolina AIDS Action Network, the author of the CDC funded “Safe Spaces: A Group Intervention and Curriculum for HIV positive persons who are newly diagnosed or returning to care”, and a writer, speaker, and advocate for people living with HIV and mental illness. Kevin was chosen as one of POZ Magazine’s 2016 HIV Advocates of the year, and has been thriving in spite of HIV since 2007.