A dose of honesty – and a mother’s story

Published 01, Apr, 2012

New writer J: “When a call was made for writers for PositiveLite.com, I immediately wrote in. While I’m a country and continent away, HIV knows no borders, does not discriminate, and I think us activists should tread along the same path.”

Bio: I’m J, 22, residing in Singapore. I’m an aspiring… something. I’ll let you what that is when I figure it out. Until then, I’ve allowed my government to decide what I need to be for the next two years – a soldier. Drafted into the local army by compulsory service, I am hoping that it treats me as well as the pornographic fantasies filmed in army barracks. That, or I will forever live with the regret of opting to not take up the exemption extended to HIV+ individuals. But hey, I told myself my virus will not be a deterrent to living my dreams (and fantasies), even if it’s never again bareback.

I’m creator of SilenceSg.org, a local campaign for youth that tackles STDs I also sometimes write on my personal blog, where I hope to serve as a warning sign to others who are taking the road I did, to proceed with care - not with the reckless abandon I once had.

“Hi, I’m J and I’ve been living with HIV for almost two years. I was diagnosed with HIV even before I legally entered adulthood…”  It’s an introduction that’s unfortunately becoming surprisingly unsurprising, even common. What would have sounded shocking years ago would today garner but a few raised eyebrows.

Truth is, people have become oblivious to the virus, and resultantly, from those of us suffering from it. T The modern-day politically-correct term would be people living with HIV, but I think this does disservice to the people who have valiantly campaigned before us. You do not just ‘live’ with cancer or any other disease, it is a tough walk - and while most of us manage, it is can be tortuous. There is no other way around this truth. The desensitization from years of campaigning by those before me, who bore messages of hope and called for urgency, is in full effect. At the very verge of my teen-hood, I contemplated how I would lend my voice to the resounding echoes of those who stood before me, as an adult.

I realize we’ve got most bases covered. We have the activists who continually spread hope covered. We have the drug companies encouraging people by extending a lifeline so long as we can afford it. We have lawmakers fighting to undo discriminatory policies against HIV+ individuals. What I think we lack is honesty.

Honesty reminds people not to forget that today, over 30 years on and 25 million dead, the virus is still as prevalent in our society as ever, way past the deadline for the oft-promised but elusive cure, that is, if the drug companies who drive HIV research are still focused on looking for one.

It’s like when a relative or friend who knows about your condition asks how you’re doing, and you smile and take the easy route of saying “I’m good,” instead of offering  “I’m struggling, with a myriad of things like the increasing cost of maintaining my health, my mental well-being, and emotional turmoil when I look back in regret, but otherwise, I manage, as most people do with their problems.”

You ask, wouldn’t it be easier to smile, because smile and the world smiles with you,  right? Smiles we put on everyday hide problems like veneer masks a chipped tooth. It may be cracked, but people will never know until you tell them. They’ll never see that you’ve been broken underneath. This mentality that we are all ‘just fine’ really has, I think, undone the urgency to find a cure, and bred a new wave of activists who talk of rainbows and butterflies with the miracle of medication. 

When a call was made out for writers for PositiveLite.com, and I got the wind of it, I immediately wrote in about getting a feature spot. While I’m a country and continent away, HIV knows no borders, does not discriminate, and I think us activists should tread along the same path. Truth was, I just wanted to spread honesty. You see, there is no point in arguing a smoker does not deserve lung cancer if he’s already got it, it is nothing but meaningless sympathy. I however find great purpose in warning smokers who haven’t to try and quit, to minimise their exposure to the risk. To, at the very least, let them know where they are bound for  if they don’t get off. Hopefully while I’m at it, I’ll stop people from getting on board as well.

Now, if I’ve still got your attention, I’m Jan, 22, and while I struggle with the virus, I get by, just like everyone else.

A mother’s love is her biggest downfall  

My personal journey began clichéd enough - writing in a secret leather diary I intended to keep away from prying eyes, chronicling my life and emotions. Whenever I put pen to paper, I escaped the cycle of depression that seemed to rinse, lather and repeat on me.

What unfolded after, I did not quite expect.  My mother found my diary. As any curious mother would, she read it, probably expecting whimsical stories about schoolboy crushes, maybe even the resultant romps with them and the little babies we would have (adopted). Sure, it did have that, at least at first, but progressively, it got gloomier. My diary served as self-therapy after all, and one does not exactly go to a therapist to recite all that’s good in life. I had been writing pretty dark things.

Keeping yourself recluse can do that to you, and let me tell you, writing when you’re contemplating suicide doesn’t come out nice on paper. I imagine she was wincing, but my mother read on, perhaps stoked that life’s intervening allowed her into the sanctum that is the mind of a scared, misunderstood teen.

You see, weeks before she found my diary, I had been fearing that I could be HIV-positive. About a year before, I took a free HIV test during World AIDS Day that came out negative, as it did the year prior. Two successive years of being HIV-free tend to make you feel invincible. A feeling that was shattered when my best friend who was every bit of as promiscuous sexually active told me he had herpes… and gonorrhoea and syphilis.

Long story short, I had followed him to the clinic for his follow-up appointment for moral support, and had picked up brochures about HIV for casual reading to hide my face in, hoping I didn’t get seen by anyone I knew while in the clinic, or in disgusting ignorance, thinking I could lose my perceived STD virginity by catching it from sitting in the waiting room. I realised, wait a minute, I’ve got a few of these symptoms for HIV. I had shrugged it off (or more likely, entered a state of denial) to the seasonal flu. I did that until came the thrush, and nightly chills.

All this was penned in my sacred diary, defiled by my mother’s eyes. As a reprisal for her desecration, my words put her in a state of unrest - not unlike the frame of mind I myself was in. She got into cahoots with my best friend for an intervention. An intervention that would bring me to the very clinic I was afraid to be seen in, but this time less afraid of catching a disease as being diagnosed with one. My best friend came with me, my mother in tow. All of us were on edge as we waited over half an hour before the results came through.

I guess you’d have guessed by now that the test came up positive;  if not I won’t be here writing and would perhaps, more than ever be up in a place of self-righteous ignorance telling myself ‘it can never happen to me, it only happens in stories.’  I’ll save the sappy parts for another time, but for the matter, most of it came from my mother. I got my diagnosis and just sat stunned in disbe-grief. My mother did most of the crying, like she was crying for two, and my best friend ended up consoling her more than me.

A successive blow came when I had to put my family in financial strain with my month-long hospitalisation after my CD4 count came in with AIDS-level numbers.  I racked up hospital bills over $25,000 for treatments for TB, operations and regular scans.

It was during this time that my mother did her very best, forced not only to come to terms with my sexuality, my sexual activity but also my HIV and at the time, what looked to her like my impending death. She certainly put it that way whenever she spoke to me while I lied helpless in bed, with IV shackles. It’s like I skipped all the basic lessons and little journeys you need for parenting and just dunked her in straight in the deep end of the pool. Of course, with anyone who’s been thrown in to drown, she was furious when she got over the initial shock.

Not long after, our relationship took an even deeper swim than when I had first thrown her in, to the point we did not speak for weeks. Things got so bad, I moved out of the house for almost 2 months after a huge argument. Jobless undergraduate at 20 - not very common with us traditional Asians!  I relied on the compassion and support of friends, all the while thinking, is this the fate I’m resigned to?

The first step to fixing my life came from the most unlikeliest place. Grindr. This is where I would find the nicest 30-something-year-old-man who in the short time of knowing me, offered his house keys and trust after he figured out I was technically homeless. He even got me a job waiting tables. You’d be surprised to know he was an ex-convict,  fresh out of prison, living in a rental flat, who did not force himself on me or expect sexual favours in return. We really only went as far as talking, sometimes cuddling in the morning and me doing my part in cleaning the apartment (mostly my own mess though). It was during this time, when I had much time to think, that a revelation struck me.

All of the bad things had to happen, like my diagnosis, my subsequent hospitalisation and me moving out of the house (my friends would joke and insist on calling a spade a spade – I ran away, like a desperate overgrown teen). If these things had not happened, I doubt either me or my mother could have found it in us to allow reconciliation to happen. It could only transpire after we found ourselves from being lost and caught up in our own situation, hers with disappointment and myself with admitted guilt and self-pity. Amidst all this, we had no time to find the love that bonded us as mother and son. Our relationship had years of strain, and consequently needed time to rid itself of pain.

A year on, and I can’t say we’re perfect. We still have our spats and misunderstandings every now and then, but every family has those. What matters is the worst is behind us, and we discovered through it all how strong our love for each other is. If we could get through that, and find it in ourselves to forgive each other, and ourselves, to move on… we could get through anything.  We after all share the same blood - even if one has HIV coursing through it.