Charles Jacobs used drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism after finding out his status. Charles admits he didn’t think he could ever get HIV because he had only been with one person.
Have you always known about HIV?
I have only heard about HIV and AIDS at the time, when you 21 years old, the last thing you are thinking about is HIV, being young and ignorant, you think that this is something that happens to other people.
Did you ever think you could get HIV?
It didn’t even cross my mind to be honest.
When and how did you find out about your status?
In 2002, it was a perfect storm of bad timing, my mother passed away in a tragic accident, my first long term gay relationship had come to an end. I went out one night with a friend, got drunk, jumped into bed. Not thinking that there would be any consequences. A few months went by and a friend wanted to get tested, she had unprotected sex with someone she barely knew and she asked if I would go with her. She was obviously very anxious about the test, so to show support, I decided to get tested with her. It was my first time testing for HIV, I was not concerned at all, I was in a monogamous relationship before the test and have only been with 1 other person sexually. My friend’s test came back negative and mine came back positive.
What was the first thing that went through your mind when you found out?
The first thing I wanted to do was run away, apply for a photographer position on the cruise ships and get the hell out of here. My application was successful until I had to do the medical and my application was denied due to my HIV positive status. It felt like my whole world was coming to an end. The doors of opportunities got slammed shut in my face with numerous other international work applications being rejected. This was only the start of experiencing HIV discrimination, I didn’t know at the time that I was going to have a long journey ahead of me filled with rejection, a journey of trying to deal with something that no one gave me the coping skills to deal with. For many years after, drugs and alcohol became my new best friend. The one friend you can rely on to make you forget, even if it is just for one evening or 2 or 3. So many years went by where I was completely in denial about my status. Long story short, 9 years ago at the age of 29 I got sick, and the kind of sick that you read about. I had full blown AIDS with a CD4 count of 29. I lost about 20kg in less than a few weeks. This is when a new chapter started. Am I going to make a choice to live? It was time, it was time to go onto ARV treatment. It’s 9 years later after taking my first ARV pill. It saved my life.
How much did you know about HIV at that time? Did you think it was a death sentence?
I knew very little about HIV, only that it was a death sentence and that this is something that happens to other people.
How has your attitude about HIV changed since then?
It took me many years to make peace with the idea that I am HIV Positive, many years of being in denial, which is of course a very dangerous place to be in when you are infected. I went through the cycle of grief a few times, back and forth, round and round, until I had full blown AIDS with a CD4 count of 29. I then had to make a decision to go onto ARV treatment, to live my life or too simply give up? I am still here, so the choice I made is obvious. I don’t let HIV define who I am anymore. As ironic as it might sound, being HIV positive, is probably the most positive thing that happened to me, it gave me new perspective about life, it gave me an opportunity to share my story with others, to help one person now and again to be safer and be wiser with the choices they make especially when it comes to having unprotected sex.
What is it that you know now that you wish you knew then about HIV?
That is can happen to anyone, in fact, the real truth is that it only takes one night with one HIV positive person to possibly get infected. The face of HIV & AIDS is white, its’ black, its rich & poor, gay straight, young and old, it educated and uneducated people. It has affected and infected every aspect of society.
What advice would you give someone who recently found out they’re HIV positive?
Go onto ARV treatment immediately. Back in the day we were not that fortunate to have ARV medication so easily and readily available. It saved my life. When you are ready, tell the important people in your life. We all need support and keeping a secret just makes you sick. Yes, and I have to be realistic about this, people are going to reject you, people are going to discriminate, people are not going to always accept it. This is unfortunately the ancient grip of stigma attached to this disease that still shows its ugly head every in the world. But there will so many supportive people, the rest are just not ready yet.
And don’t dare stop living your life!!!! Don’t let HIV define who you are, you are more than just HIV positive. If you can, go see a counsellor, work through your grief, work through your emotions.
Charles now runs Change the Stigma Project, if you’d like to get a hold of him and his work, please visit www.changethestigmaproject.com