HIV Then and Now
It was not that long ago that an HIV diagnosis was considered a death sentence. At the height of the epidemic, a person was dying of AIDS every day in British Columbia. People who received an HIV diagnosis were stigmatized and turned away from their communities out of fear.
Today, thanks to earlier diagnosis of HIV and incredible advances in treatment and care, HIV is a manageable disease. People aren’t just living with HIV; they’re living full and healthy lives.
I only take three pills a day and I am healthier than ever! If I can do it, anyone can.
My first child was born in 1994 and I have been a single dad since 2001, and had done well raising my two daughters on my own. That is, until an ex-girlfriend phoned to tell me that she was HIV-positive and that I needed to get tested. I found out I was HIV-positive too, and it was devastating.
I lost my job. My mom, who was always the one I talked to when I needed help, had a stroke and became really sick. She died shortly after. My eldest daughter moved away, and my youngest moved in with my brother. I got heavily into drugs, ending up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a world away from the small fishing village I grew up in, the kind of place where people hang out in one of three places: the church, the café, or the bar.
I would sit in the park sometimes for over a week smoking weed and crack. I knew nothing about HIV or treatment, and was sure the disease was a death sentence. I just gave up. In June 2009 I woke up one day and saw a picture of my mom beside the bed. It was like she was speaking to me. “Stop wasting your life. You have a lot to offer the world and it’s not your time to join me yet.” I listened.
I walked into my doctor’s office two hours later and started treatment for my HIV. I was literally on death’s door, but within six months my viral load went from being in the millions to being undetectable, which means that I have so few copies of the virus in my blood that today's monitoring tests are unable to detect the virus. My CD4 count went from 300 to 700 and now I’m at 830, so I have a healthy immune system. In fact, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been,
Today I own a small business and a home in Kamloops, B.C. I see my daughters almost every day. One daughter is working with me and I hope to pass the business on to her one day. I feel inspired and grateful for my life today.
Recently, I was the first recipient of the ASK Wellness, ‘Ask Inspiration Award’ for my stubborn determination and community spirit. I try to give back to others less fortunate than me everyday, whether it be to provide food to the homeless from my store, or just to talk about my journey with others who are struggling. It’s been an amazing transformation.
So many people are afraid of what HIV treatment means, but crazy side effects and choking down handfuls of pills aren’t an issue any more. I only take three pills a day! And if I can do it, anyone can.
HIV hasn’t stopped me from doing everything I ever wanted to do.
I grew up in Fisher River Cree Nation, two-and-a-half hours north of Winnipeg. As a young gay man, I didn’t feel I had many options on the reservation other than to drink a lot of alcohol and not be gay. Drinking allowed me to fit in. People tended to not acknowledge the fact that there was “something different” about me. Partying kept me safe.
After high school, I moved to Winnipeg to study Psychology. My education was paid for, so it was a golden ticket out. It was in Winnipeg where I was introduced to my first gay bar. And I liked it… a lot.
I began to go out almost every night. I’d found my people! And boy, did they like to party. I was surrounded by pretty people who had a lot of sex and did copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. I thought that was what it meant to be gay. I thought, “Ok, I can do this, it’s just like back home only everybody’s like me.” So I did a lot of drugs and had a lot of sex too, not always with condoms. I thought HIV happened to other people in other places like Toronto.
It’s funny, thinking back to junior high when we would tease each other and say, “I have to wait six seconds before I take a drink from your Coke can because I have to wait for the AIDS to die in the air.” Or the time I got hit in the face with a ball and my nose was bleeding and someone said, “Gross, your AIDS is leaking out!” Little did I know that in less than 20 years this misinformation, fear, and stigma associated with HIV would become a part of my reality.
I tested positive for HIV in 2007 in Montreal. I was stunned. I was in shock. I was traumatized. My years of drug abuse and not making the safest choices when it came to sex had caught up with me.
My ex told his roommate about my diagnosis. He, in turn, told all of our mutual friends back in Winnipeg. I felt isolated, trapped. The level of despair I felt was immeasurable. I retreated further into my drug and alcohol addiction. I just wanted to forget. I just wanted to be “normal.” I thought dating was hard before, now it would be impossible. Who would want me? I felt like damaged goods.
Fast forward to June 2010. After being homeless on the streets of Vancouver for a few months, I asked for help and went to rehab for the first time. I was willing to try anything to save myself. I got honest about my drug and alcohol use, and even admitted for the first time to the guys in my group that I was HIV-positive. It was scary to put myself out there, but not talking about my HIV status was killing me.
After rehab, I started volunteering for an AIDS service organization in Vancouver. I got educated on what it actually meant to be HIV-positive. I started antiretroviral therapy and began to be engaged in my health care. Soon, I began to work with other people who had tested positive for HIV. I sat with them, supported them, and educated them. It was (and still is) an honour to be able to give back.
Today, my life looks quite a bit different than it did when I first tested positive. I was scared that I would be constantly sick, either from HIV or from the medications I would have to take to suppress the virus. Thankfully, HIV treatment is much different than it used to be. I take one pill a day and I have no side effects. I see my doctor and pharmacist every three months for a check-up and to get a refill on my HIV medication.
HIV hasn’t impeded my life like I thought it would and HIV hasn’t stopped me from doing everything I ever wanted to do.
I always wanted to do a triathlon. So I did. I completed two seasons and it was an amazing experience. I always wanted to travel to Europe. So a couple of years ago I traveled to Antwerp, Belgium, and competed in a 10,000 meter race at the Gay Games. I visited Amsterdam and Brussels while I was there. It was so cool! I have done the Scotia Half Marathon three times and improved my time every year. I run on behalf of Positive Living; it’s another way I can give back to the people who helped me so much.
I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of being an actor. I got my agent last year and booked a couple of jobs. I’m really excited to see what happens next.
I am clean, sober, and healthy. Being HIV-positive has helped me to take a look at my health and change some things. I work out almost everyday and I eat pretty healthy. Don’t get me wrong, I still love poutine and pizza, I just don’t eat it all the time like I used to.
I always thought that being HIV-positive meant that no one would want to date me. All my boyfriends have been HIV-negative. HIV was a non-issue for them.
Getting educated on the facts about what it means to be HIV-positive empowered me. Connecting to other people living with HIV was invaluable. Their experience, strength, and hope inspired me so much. It helped me to think that if they can live amazing, successful lives, then maybe I could too.