In 1987, I was living in Canberra, the Capital of Australia. The Australian government began running, what I thought, was a very progressive TV campaign about AIDS.
The TV campaign showed a grim reaper bowling, but instead of knocking down pins, it was knocking down people. The idea inform the general public AIDS could strike anyone. That campaign had a profound impact on people and contributed to the shift in the way people thought about AIDS and getting tested.
After seeing the ad a couple times, I decided to take down the number of the nearest clinic providing free testing. I though, "What the hell! Why not?"
The doctor told me I'd receive the results in 10 days. It was a three-day weekend for me, so I went to Sydney. When I got back, I received a call from Dr. Jackson at the STD clinic. My test had come back earlier than anticipated. But he couldn't give me my results over the phone, so I had to get them personally.
I drove to the clinic oblivious to the kind of news I was about to receive. For me, it was only a formality and I was slightly annoyed that I had to drive all the way to the clinic to get a result that, I was certain, would be negative.
The remote possibility that I had been at risk at any time escaped me completely.
At 22-year-old, I discovered my sexuality only four years earlier and enjoyed every moment of it. I was not completely irresponsible. I knew about STDs, in general, so I usually took precautions and used condoms. Penetration was not practiced at every sexual encounter. In a somewhat romantic sense, I felt penetration should be reserved for intimate lovemaking with that "special someone."
I knew something was wrong the moment I saw Dr. Jackson. When he saw me, he became slightly nervous. Almost imperceptibly, his voice showed more concern than it should have. We sat in his office and he opened my file.
For what seemed like an eternity, he mentally read the results of the ELISA test. Slowly, very slowly, as if he were fighting an incredible weight on his neck, he raised his head and looked at me.
"Your test came back positive."
Although I read a bunch of pamphlets the previous week and had a pretty good idea of the implications, my mind went blank. My body went numb.
"What does this mean," I said.
Dr. Jackson explained that he had to draw more blood to be absolutely sure and to determine the state of my immune system.
"How long before I die?" I asked.
"Well, this is a very new condition and we only have about four to five years of background on it," he said. "There's a 50 percent chance that people get sick within five to ten years from infection and so far the mortality rate is quite high."
He continued, "These odds increase as time goes by. Depending on the strength of your immune system, you might survive longer. We need to do more test to find out how advanced it is. When you think you got infect?"
We looked through my medical history. The repetitive throat infections I had in early 1984 was probably triggered by my body resisting the invasion of the virus. Something called primo-infection. Sometimes, it is fatal because the immune system does not recover from the onslaught of attacks. In my case, the primo-infection was contained and my immune system was still relatively strong.
We looked at my sexual history. That fateful September evening came rushing into my mind as if it had happened only yesterday. It was obvious and it coincided with my sudden bouts of sinus and tonsillitis infections a few months later.
"I caught it in September 1983. Then I have less than two years, doctor. Am I correct?"
"We should wait for the new tests before drawing any conclusions," he said. "But it seems that your medical and sexual history match for an infection date in late 1983. That means you have been infected for three and a half years already. Statistically, you are running a 50 percent chance of getting sick within a couple of years from now."
"I'm sorry. I wish I could tell you otherwise," he added.
He paused for a while, as if to measure the gravity of his next sentence, which he said without lifting his gaze from the file in front of him.
"Fabien, have you ever thought about suicide?"
I could not figure whether that was a genuine question or a disguised suggestion. So I replied that I loved life too much to think about ending it.
He said that the syndrome was so new that we had very little data to draw any kind of conclusion but one thing was certain, I should not exhaust my immune system. I had to take care of myself as much as I could.
I left the clinic with instructions to call back the following week for the results of the new tests. As I drove home, semi-conscious, I tried to process the information that my brain had no idea how to process.
At the clinic, crying was not an option.
Not because I didn't want the doctor to see me cry. I really couldn't care less about that! But because that was the time to get facts and explanations, and not let emotions cloud my judgment.
I died. A part of me died in that clinic. Suddenly. Unexpectedly, Inexorably. Inexplicably.
I drove back home. It was empty. I was alone. It was only when I locked the door behind me that the enormity of the situation slapped me in the face with incredible force. My legs gave in. I fell to the ground and started crying uncontrollably.
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