I did a new search on Google, one Tuesday afternoon in June 2011 and got my answer. I found out about the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR). It was an HIV clinic in Lagos, sponsored by some international organizations, including the Havard Business School. I quickly got dressed and rushed down to the clinic.
I told the security guards at the gate why I was there, and was directed to the reception, from there I was directed to the lab. I found out that the NIMR carried out its own HIV confirmation test before admitting any new patients. The lab had closed for the day and I was asked to return very early the next day. I returned, but didn’t get the tests done. It had rained heavily overnight and the lab had flooded, the staff therefore did not have access to their offices. I was disappointed. I had to wait three more days to finally have the tests, as it had rained again the next day.
Friday came and I had my confirmation test, it was Positive. We had been counselled in small groups before taking the test. During the session, we were informed about how HIV spreads, safe sex practices and the options available to us if our results turned out be Positive. As my result was Positive, I signed a document that gave me patient status with the clinic, and a date for my first appointment was set.
Along with a few others, I was assigned a counsellor. She asked each one of us privately about our sexual activities, sexual preference and family background. She told me the clinic made provisions for gay patients. She could tell I was gay, I had lied initially about that. I opened up, after she told me that I had nothing to be ashamed about. I then went on to answer all of her questions truthfully. I signed a consent form giving the clinic permission to use my blood for HIV research. I also signed a form that made me promise that I was going to be faithful and committed to the programme. I didn’t have a choice, this was my only chance to reclaim my life. My name was replaced with a number code and I was officially classified a new patient.
In the weeks that followed, I was at the clinic almost daily; very early in the morning. Even though I would get to the clinic as early as 6am, I would normally be 1 was out of 100 people already waiting. It was always a long wait, as hundreds of patients came from different parts of Lagos and other Nigerian states. The clients were very diverse, everyone was there – men, women, children, old and young. Some were in physical worse condition than I was. One of the counsellors said I was in “good condition” because I had come to the clinic myself, apparently some patients had to be carried in. There were also some familiar faces, I even bumped into a teacher from my secondary school, he was also a new patient.
I had lots of tests done to identify the strain of the virus – CD4 count, viral load, hepatitis test, chest X-ray and spittle test for Tuberculosis. Because I was gay and passive, I was given 5 tubes for my blood. Others were given 2 or 3 tubes. I was told that in my case, the extra tests were necessary. I felt like a sinner, particularly as other patients at the lab had asked why I got more tubes for my blood test.
Some of the patients I met at the clinic had been Positive for between 10 – 20 years. ARV had not been free for them during most of that period and had cost a lot of money. Many had sold personal properties to stay alive. In some cases, families had cut ties with them and waited for their death. Whilst in the waiting room, we would share stories, with the older patients telling jokes about the bad days they had and the stigma of being Positive. They all looked so happy and it gave me (us) a sense of home. Some of the female patients had been abandoned by their husbands and had found love in the clinic. In some cases the women had stayed with their Positive husbands, and for years had stayed negative. In my interactions with the patients, I was learning that we all still had a chance to be loved.
I was prescribed some pills and syrup to help take away my skin problems. I had shingles at this stage and the skin on my hands and legs had peeled and I itched all over. The doctor also recommended immune boosters and selenium ace. The patients who had developed tuberculosis were separated from us, as our immune systems was weak. If we were to contract TB, it was going to make our condition worse. I understood that HIV was more deadly with TB; they were like ugly twin sisters who had their full personality when they were together and it made treatment harder. We were counselled on how deadly the combination was, and informed on ways to protect ourselves from contracting it.
The counselling went on for a month and 2 weeks. We were educated on the different HIV pills, their initial side effects (throwing up, rashes, red swollen eyes, weakness, hallucinations etc). Each pill had one or a combination of these side effects. The medication was time sensitive, so we had to take them at the exact time everyday – for the rest of our lives. For the best treatment results, we were told about foods/drinks that we should avoid – no cigarettes (I never smoked), no alcohol (I drank only a little), less fatty food, no pills/food supplements that contained iron, less sugar, no energy drinks with caffeine, no more self medication. We also had to drink lots of water to protect our liver and kidneys. We were told to report to the clinic immediately, if we ever felt sick. It was a lot to take in, but I soaked it all in.
The counselling was very important, because the clinic wanted us to do well on the pills that were been given to us free of charge – the 1st line pills. Every other line, the 2nd – 4th were not free and were expensive. One would only have to switch to them, if a patient failed to take the pills correctly.
I was put on a pill combination of Lamivudine (150mg), Zidovudine (300mg), Neviraprine( 200mg) and Septrine (960mg), along with other immune boosters I was already on. Just a few days of being on the pills and I felt like I was at death’s door. I was in more pain than I had ever been in. I couldn’t walk and I was throwing up. I called the counsellor who was monitoring my progress to complain, she said I had to endure it and that it was normal for me to feel the way I was feeling. She said the pills were very toxic, which meant that my body assumed I had been poisoned, so naturally it was trying to do what it is supposed to do – protect me. I didn’t have any strength, everything tasted funny. I would throw up several times a day, after eating. In fact, I lost my voice from all the forceful throwing up. My pills combination was changed. The Zidovudine had been responsible for my excessive throwing up. My new pills were Neviraprine and Tenofovir, the throwing up stopped the next day.
In early September, a few days before my 25th birthday, I felt that what I was going through was a lot to handle alone, I therefore decided to tell a very close family member. At this point I had decided no more lies; I needed her strength and this family member could be my treatment partner. I told her one evening. I just started crying after I did, and she gave me a big hug. I also told my online friends, it was then that one of them opened up to me that he had also been living with the virus for 7 years. He looked so “healthy” in pictures, that I would never have guessed; he also agreed to hold my hand during my journey.
I was able to take part in my 25th birthday party celebration. The 25th year of a person’s life in my culture is very important. That age symbolises adulthood, almost like the Mexican Quinceañera for girls. My parents threw me a lowkey party. Along with my siblings, they prayed for me to have a successful adult life. It was easy for me to hide what I was going through from my parents, as we didn’t live in the same city; I sounded fine everytime we spoke and they believed me.
I was now an adult, living with HIV and I felt that I had to fight to stay alive. I had to be strong, I had to stand up for myself. I wasn’t going to sink, I was going to save myself. God sent me friends to see me through the journey, friends who wanted to see me win. They were online friends, I didn’t see them and I had never met them, but I felt their presence. I had friends.
The online friendships reminded me of ‘PD’. I missed him so much. I sent him an email telling him about all that had happened in my life, since he’d been gone. I read every email he had sent me, from the time he first wrote, to when he passed away. It gave me comfort.
On Facebook, PD’s niece had opened a group page in his honour. I joined the group and posted my collection of pictures of him. She had never seen those pictures. They were not pictures of him as a celebrity, they were everyday home pictures of him and his dog. Pictures of him on his wedding day, pictures of his house in Paris, his garden – his favourite flower was the Lotus flower. I had saved every picture and email that he had sent me in the years that we were friends. PD’s niece had not seen him in more than 15 years, the pictures meant a lot to her. On the Facebook group page, there were links to old movies that PD had featured in. For the first time, I saw him act, it was amazing. I discovered that he was 73 when he passed away. I guess he didn’t want to scare me away and that was why he had never told me his real age. He was kind and funny, he needed a friend and I was his friend in the last years of his life.
My health gradually improved, my CD4 count at my 6th month of ARV was 691; I had started my journey at 324. The doctors were pleased with my progress. I was doing good, it encouraged me to keep pushing for life. I was “healthy”, only the sole of my feet still itched and I felt some weakness in my legs, “soon it’ll be gone”, the doctor assured me.
I continued to attend support group counselling at the clinic. I subscribed to ‘aidsmap.com’ for the latest news on all things HIV; new research and progress was being made in finding a cure. In one of the reports I read, I learnt that HIV patients who are sexually passive were at risk of developing anal cancer, if exposed to HPV. I learnt that there were no symptoms when one contracts HPV, and the report recommended a vaccination. I asked the doctor at my clinic about the information. He said that it was more of an immunization, than a vaccine and that it was normally done in 3 phases. The clinic didn’t have the treatment and it was expensive. He recommended the general hospital, they didn’t have it. I tried private hospitals, but without any luck.
I had not had sex since I discovered I was Positive. I felt the strong urge to do so, but felt I had to stay away; it took a lot of will to power.
Just like the wild rain, old sexual partners began to ask about me again. I had stayed away from them for so long. They wanted sex, all these months they had never asked about me. All of a sudden it felt like they had held a closed-door meeting and their aim was to put pressure on me till I stopped resisting; the married men especially. I didn’t want to return to my old ways, but I finally gave in – to just one, it was just going to be this last time. I thought of his safety every minute we spent together. I had to keep him safe, like I had been taught to do, in one of the MSM seminars at the clinic. It was good, I know I could have said ‘No’, but I didn’t. I felt selfish. My counselor and friends all said it was okay and that I didn’t have to punish myself.
Last month, I made a visit back home and my siblings used the opportunity to stage another ‘gay intervention’. My mum was away, but she phoned in to be a part of it. They wanted me to stop being gay. I had promised them that I was going to change and they had been patient with me; but I was still gay. On my return to Lagos, my dad bombarded me with talk about the number of diseases I was exposed to as a result of being gay. He had got his facts from the internet. He mentioned HIV. He didn’t know I was already positive. They all wanted me to change, because they loved me.
I was honest this time in my conversations with them. I didn’t make myself gay, so I couldn’t change. My parents subsequently put a lot of pressure on me. It was intense for weeks, they emailed stories of gay men who claimed to have changed; if they could change, I could change too. They reminded me of my background as a Christian. They had raised me to please God and they felt that saying I’m gay, doesn’t please God.
I stayed strong. All this was going to pass. I always pray that the rest of my life isn’t as turbulent. I know God listens. He doesn’t promise us an easy life, but he promised that his hand and heart in our lives will always see us through. I wouldn’t deny that he’s been on my side. Afterall, I have faced death and I’m still here.
Wazobia © (2012)