One in a series of articles about Black people living with HIV/AIDS who are considering treatment, successfully adhering to their regimen and/or getting to undetectable.
Brandon Kennedy has never been one to allow what other people think of him -- or his lifestyle, for that matter -- to get in the way of how he feels about himself.
That's a big part of the reason the openly gay 24-year-old nursing student says he felt zero shame about going on medication a few months after he was diagnosed with HIV in 2010.
In fact, Kennedy says, he was eager to start taking ARV pills -- despite the potential complications -- because to do so meant he was taking the best possible care of himself.
"I'm totally against cowering in the corner just because I have HIV," says the Atlanta resident, who is currently a face of the "Let's Stop HIV Together" initiative, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Act Against AIDS campaign. "I even carry around a capsule I bought from a drugstore on my key chain so that whenever I need to take my meds and I'm not at home, or if I have a late night out or something, it's always with me. And if I'm at dinner with friends, I'll sip a little water and take my meds," he says matter-of-factly. "I don't have any shame around it."
Kennedy -- whose viral load is currently undetectable -- says the reason he didn't jump on the drug bandwagon immediately after testing positive is that 1) His doctor said he didn't have to, and 2) He needed a little time to research all the possible drug combinations.
"I found out I had HIV on June 7, 2010," he begins. "Back then my viral load was, like, 37,000, which is not too terribly high for someone who's newly infected. Also, my CD4 count was right at 800, so there wasn't any urgency for me to start medication. I chose to hold off on it until August or September so I could do some research and to make sure my body was ready for it," he explains. "I'm a preventive-care-type person, so I believe that if you train your body for changes, you'll have more of a positive experience."
Still, no amount of research could have prepared Kennedy for the severe physical reaction he would have to the first ARV he took when his CD4 count started creeping up.
"I started taking Atripla," he said. "I took it for two days, and on the second day I had to go to the ER because I had extreme versions of the side effects. It was so bad that I woke up in the middle of the night, holding up the walls in the house, trying to find my cellphone and call somebody," he says of his experience with the ARV, whose adverse effects can include dizziness and fatigue. "After that, my doctor put me on a regimen of Viramune and Truvada, and it worked out wonderfully. Within a 90-day time span, I was undetectable."
The moral of the story, Kennedy says, is that he was able to find out what worked best for him because he was open to the possibilities. When you are able to fully embrace and love yourself, you are then inspired to do everything within your own power to live your best life -- including adhering to your medication.
"For those that are struggling to accept their diagnosis and themselves, I would suggest looking to resources and materials that can aid you in the process," he says. "For instance, there are multiple cellphone applications that will alert you when you need to take your medication. There are also apps that will help you keep track of your CD4 count and other numbers -- you can store all of that information privately on your phone," he adds.
"Also, every single one of us could use a therapist, a counselor or another professional to talk to," says Kennedy. "It doesn't always have to be your best friend. We don't have to go through what it is we're going through alone when there are individuals out there who are willing to help us come through it together."
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Essence, POZ, Real Health and Ebony magazines, among others.