Finding a Way to Get Through This: My Story of Being Tested for HIV After Exposure

By jschneidewind on June 29, 2011 in Policy/Advocacy, Uncategorized

Jimmy Schneidewindby Jimmy Schneidewind, Public Policy Associate

The most difficult three months of my life were the three months I spent wondering if I was HIV positive. I suspect that similarly, they were also three of the most difficult months my family has ever endured. Though I had volunteered in numerous HIV testing clinics and had trained hundreds of HIV educators on the values of getting regularly tested for HIV, there was nothing that could have prepared me or my family for the stress, anxiety, and heartache that we felt when my own status was in doubt.  Nearly three years later, I can still recall with extraordinary vividness the thoughts and emotions that ran through me during those months, and the pain that I felt as I considered what the rest of my life would be like if I were to contract HIV at age 24.

I had been living in Mozambique, a Portuguese-speaking country found on the south-eastern most part of Africa, for 14 months when I was exposed to HIV. I lived in a small rural village called Nicoadala (pronounced: nick-wa-dah-la) where I worked as a consultant to a civil group of Mozambicans who were working in collaboration with an international non-governmental organization to build up the health infrastructure of the town. Overall, I was enjoying my experience, though I would often be consumed in my private time by feelings of isolation as the only American.

Although I was aware that I had been exposed to HIV, the notion that I might have contracted the virus was not one that immediately dawned on me, strangely enough. It started as a small seed of doubt and ultimately morphed into an overwhelming panic, the intensity of which was almost paralyzing. I think I was hoping to wake up one day and realize that it had not really happened or that I would eventually succeed in convincing myself that it wasn’t really as serious as other cases of HIV exposure. After a month, I was completely taken over by fear, and belatedly took the two kilometer walk from my house to the local hospital where I had encouraged hundreds of Mozambicans to get tested for HIV, but had never once been tested myself.

The only available HIV tests in Mozambique are rapid tests. This testing method returns results in about 20 minutes, however, there is usually a latency period of between six weeks to three months for the virus to become detectable in most peoples’ bodies. When the nurse took my blood (note that the vast majority of rapid tests in the United States use a mouth swab) and dripped it onto the rectangular testing area, I turned my head away, unable to watch as my results emerged. The irony was not lost on me that as a white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, college-educated, American male, from an overly-supportive two parent family, I was probably the least likely person on the planet, statistically, to become infected with HIV. And yet, there I was, half a world away from family and friends, waiting and wondering; scared.

Though my initial test results came out negative, I spent the next two months in a state of melancholy while I waited for the three month mark post-exposure when I could finally be sure of my status. I wondered if my family would accept me. I wondered which of my friends would still hug me. I wondered who would want to marry me, and how I would ever become a father. Who would love me if I had HIV? As I contemplated what life would be like if I had HIV, I remember feeling as stripped down to my fundamental core as I imagine a human can feel and thinking that these are the same fears that everyone has when they are uncertain about their health status.

The reasons why I was terrified to get my test results then are the same reasons why I choose to get tested now. The faces of people who I love and for whom I care deeply drift into my mind whenever I am waiting to get tested or awaiting my results: My parents, my brother, my aunts, uncles, cousins,  and my friends. I realize in those moments when I am most scared that my life is valuable primarily because of the love given to me by all those faces I see and my decision to get tested derives purpose from that realization.

When I called my parents to tell them that I knew for certain that I had been exposed to HIV, my mom spoke first, after a slight pause, and said, “Whatever the results are, we will find a way to get through this.” I will never forget that. In varying degrees, I am still afraid every time I go to get tested, but I think the fear is good because it is a reminder of why I now get tested regularly and what is truly important to me. I continue to get tested for HIV because I want to be proactive and responsible about my health; I find meaning in my testing because I recognize the love people have for me, and the love I have for myself.

Although this blog was written in recognition of National HIV Testing Day, June 27, it appears on our website and in our Weekly Update after the day as a reminder that it is important to get tested no matter what day it is. AIDS United encourages everyone to find out their HIV status by getting tested today and by making it a regular part of your health check-up routine. To learn more about National HIV Testing Day, please visit the National Association of People Living With AIDS (NAPWA) website. To find the testing site closest to you, please use this link.

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