September 24, 2010
Occasionally, we here at TheBody.com are lucky enough to hear from readers who volunteer to craft their own articles sharing their stories and thoughts. This is one of those articles.
Typing "HIV" into Google for the first time was a terrifying experience. The Internet can be a scary place -- especially for a hypochondriac like myself.
The swarm of anxiety comes thanks to the excess of information out there that is mostly misleading, confusing or downright scary. I'd read, be consumed with my deepest fears, then quickly delete my history and hope no one was looking over my shoulder.
That was the game for me.
Soon I realized I wasn't alone. Google's top answers often led to high-traffic message boards that are breeding grounds for misinformation. Responses vary from ignorant to downright cruel and no one is an expert.
The Google search would continue: Analyzing symptoms that are similar to the common cold, attempting to determine my risk factors and viewing statistics that are mostly irrelevant to that "drowning in fear" feeling.
For me, it became a routine. I wanted all the information that I could find to tell me that I didn't have HIV. I learned I wasn't "high risk." I am a sexually active heterosexual male with fewer than 10 partners -- all of whom I knew and/or was in a relationship with. (This isn't a technical term or statistical category, but one I created in my mind.)
I practice safe sex ... most of the time. But there were instances, more than a few, when I had not used a condom. In those instances, I'd immediately go through what became a "freak-out ritual." This ritual always began with the feeling of a hot blanket of panic engulfing my body, followed by the Google ritual and a process of trying to talk my mind out of the mere idea that I had contracted the virus.
I played another game: "The rule it out game." This included going one by one through every partner on my list and ruling out whether or not she had put me at risk. "Hmmmm ... I used a condom with her every time. No. 2 on my list was only with one other guy before me (at least that's what she said). No. 3 is a friend of mine and I would know. No. 4 ..." You get it. Sometimes this included awkward conversations with these former flames to try and gauge their own risk level (never a good idea).
It wasn't until later that I figured out that my rituals were all geared toward one thing: Not getting tested. The idea of getting tested terrified me. The image of someone in a white coat delivering bad news, such as telling me I had HIV, was more than terrifying. I'd rather not know. I'd rather play my ritual game and be the judge myself. I'd rather sit scared every night playing the "rule it out game" or relying on Google to answer questions in the way I wanted them answered.
The whole process was stressful. I couldn't focus. My ignorance of HIV -- similar to that of other people -- was built on fear and the stigma around the virus in our society. I was more nervous about how I would tell my family. Would I quit my job? What would happen to me?
One site that seemed to give the most up-to-date, educated information was TheBody.com. While the information was scary, it was reliable and reasonable information -- without the scare tactics. I learned about the different testing windows and different types of testing. What I gleaned from that important information was that an accurate test result would mean being tested after three months of the last potential risky exposure.
I knew being tested was inevitable. I had met someone who I loved more than anyone or anything. We were in a monogamous relationship and it was becoming more and more serious. Naturally, we were having sex. I always used a condom -- still convinced that I was unsure of my status. The feeling of giving her the virus was worse than any of my previous fears. I dwelled on it. What happens when we are married? When we want to start having kids? Gut-wrenching fears. This was supposed to be a wonderful time in my life, not one founded with worry.
After being together for some time, my girlfriend wanted to start having sex without a condom. She was on birth control, she said. "What is the problem?" Eventually, I told her my fears. I revealed a dark side of my thoughts. She asked the obvious question: "Why don't you just get tested so you will feel better?" Wow, I thought, that's impossible. I couldn't handle it. She made it sound so easy. But she didn't know.
In the 24 hours following that conversation, I couldn't think about anything but HIV. I was terrified. I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep. It was one of my darkest days that I can remember. But I was lucky; my girlfriend couldn't be gentler about the situation. "It doesn't matter; no matter what, I will always love you and stay with you." Suddenly, I wasn't in this thing alone.
I decided that I would go to a local testing facility the next morning. That night, my mind was a mess. I called every moment after 6 a.m., waiting for someone to pick up to schedule an appointment. I must have called 25 times that morning until someone picked up. They told me they accepted walk-ins. It took about 20 seconds before I was out the door. My girlfriend came with me.
I decided I would do the full sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing, including being tested for HIV. I was moved into a room and met with a young guy (late 20s perhaps) who would walk me through the process. I remained horrified, but knew I was glad I came in.
I opened up to the stranger, telling him all my fears. It's a story I'm sure I wasn't the first to tell. That's when I realized I wasn't alone at all, and that millions have sat in that same seat, and millions have moved on with peace of mind. The HIV portion of the test was "rapid." This meant that the results would be back within 20 minutes. He took a small sample of blood and walked it into another room.
I won't lie. This was the peak moment of all my fears. I said more prayers in that time than ever before. Sitting there, leg shaking, he talked to me about risk factors and statistics. It was better hearing it from him than it was the computer screen. He said I was low risk, but stressed the importance of those who are sexually active getting routinely tested.
My leg was still shaking; he left the room to get the results. He returned moments later.
Negative. I did not have HIV.
Now, the feeling I had at that moment, it was as if I had taken all of those fears that I had carried on my shoulders for years and simply released them. I wanted to hug him, high-five him or do a dance. Should I tip him? He was my new best friend.
Leaving that office, holding my girlfriend's hand, was one of the greatest feelings in my life. Life was renewed. I could start thinking about my future. It was incredible.
My first thought was: "Why did I wait so long?" If I had done this years ago, I would have never felt the incredible stresses and worries that I endured. There were absolutely no benefits in waiting to get tested.
I told myself at that moment that I would share my story with TheBody.com. I know there are thousands, if not millions, who live with the same fears that I had. My hopes are that those who are currently in my former situation will go get tested and put an end to the worries. I also want to urge the professionals with knowledge of HIV to treat every question with delicacy and with the understanding of the vast fears behind those questions.
Don't play the Google game. Don't live in fear asking "What if?" It's not easy -- as I can attest -- but your answer is out there. No matter what, the result is a benefit to you.