I’m currently in a serodiscordant couple – a relationship where one person is HIV-negative and the other is HIV-positive. We’re a completely ‘normal’ couple and you probably wouldn’t suspect either of us would be affected by HIV or even ‘ill’.
A situation that would have once been actively discouraged is now completely safe for both of us where we have access to all the resources we could possibly need.
The story of how my partner became infected or how we found out is irrelevant – the most important part of this that I need everyone to know is the aftermath and how it has enabled us to be a regular, dull couple like everyone else.
Immediately after the diagnoses, my boyfriend was given pills for the HIV, as well as antibiotics to prop up his immune system that had inevitably been weakened by being untreated for so long. He takes his anti-retroviral medication (ARVs) every day at the same time and has done for a while now so his CD4 count is slowly rising. The CD4 count of a person is how we can assess the strength of someone’s immune system. They are the white blood cells that fight infection and these are the cells that the HIV virus kills. A ‘normal’ person can have anything between 500 and 1500. My boyfriend’s CD4 count was 204, anything below 200 is AIDS so you can understand how ill he was at one point. Thankfully, the medication can help slowly build your CD4 count back up to that of a ‘regular’ person over time.
Taking his medication consistently over time means that his viral load is now undetectable. When copies of HIV cannot be detected by a standard viral load, an HIV-positive person is said to have an ‘undetectable viral load’ (the person has below 50 copies of the virus per millimetre of blood).
Having an undetectable viral load means that he can’t pass on the virus and for us, we can have condom-less sex and I’ll be protected from getting the virus from him. Obviously, I wouldn’t encourage ‘unprotected’ sex to others as it doesn’t protect from other STIs and unwanted pregnancies, but we’re in a long-term, monogamous relationship so we’ve both communicated that it’s what we’re comfortable with.
Whilst his viral load was detectable, we made sure to use condoms every time but we did have an incident where I had to go to the clinic to get treatment in the form of PEP, which is a month-long course of drugs to help prevent HIV infection that is taken 48-72 hours after a possible exposure to HIV. Again, I wasn’t overly concerned because I had educated myself on my options and knew to immediately go to the clinic. England is also taking part in the PrEP Impact Trial, which offers PrEP free to those who were ‘high risk’. PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, and it’s the use of anti-HIV medications to keep HIV negative people from becoming infected so I knew I had that option, too.
It’s a completely manageable illness and every day I think how lucky we are that he and I have easy access to free medication and information. We found out the news during a time of huge medical advancements in HIV treatment and I can honestly tell people “it’s not how it used to be” and I’ll be eternally grateful that I can say those words.
You might think it is strange for me to think “I’m so lucky my partner got HIV now” but I’m fully aware of people still here today that witnessed the horrors of all their friends dying and how awful it was. My partner and I are incredibly lucky. For him, he takes his pills, has the occasional check-up and has a flu jab once a year, but that’s it.
After the initial shock, we were left feeling a bit “what do we do now?”. This life-changing thing had happened but we were fine and life just carried on. Once we both understood that it was a manageable illness, our lives went back to normal and boring. I LOVE normal and boring! You expect it to be this big looming shadow over you for the rest of your lives, but the ordeal was a bit anti-climatic for us. Nothing is really different to before.
If you don’t know your status, make an appointment and go get tested – even if you’re in a long-term, monogamous relationship; even if you’re married.
Just like how I remembered a school talk from an HIV-positive woman, I want people to remember reading this if they’re ever faced in a similar situation to us and know it’s going to be fine.
Those three letters can create a lot of shame and the stigma is probably the hardest part of it all, but the more we open up the conversation and educate everyone, we’ll hopefully break that barrier down.