On December 29, 2000 I was diagnosed as HIV positive. For two weeks I was feeling under the weather, with a vicious headache that would not subside, and a simple blood test declared the news. I had no choice but to commence treatment even thoug.
It was a very different time back then. Treatment was expensive, there was no Facebook, no support groups that I knew of and everyone I knew who had contracted HIV had died. In those days treatment was unaffordable and cost approximately twice my monthly salary.
I however never felt angry at God: I chose to have unprotected sex – who was there to blame?
For the next eight years I lived in a place of what I like to call superficial acceptance or denial: never going for white blood cell check-ups because it made it real and I didn’t know how to face it. I didn’t want to see the results in black and white.
It made me feel better to pretend that the HIV simply wasn’t there. This decision almost cost me my life. I had no idea what Antiretroviral (ARV) treatment could do. I knew how one died, but had no idea how to survive.
A handful of friends were accepting of me, but they knew as little as I did. We never spoke about it and no one could show me the way forward as they didn’t know themselves; we all thought I would be dead in five or 10 years.
As a result, I became extremely ill. After I started with ARV treatment, I began to feel so much better, and I subsequently drew upon a new found strength that I never knew I possessed. The first set made me so ill that I ended up in hospital and thought I would die. However, after starting a different ARV regime, in a very short space of time, things turned around. It was then that I knew that I had to speak out, to help others. So many are still lost in the place where I was all those years ago.
With the newfound energy I discovered, I watched the Comrades Marathon on television in 2008 and suddenly had a burning desire to run. Not to run the Comrades, mind you, who does that? But, just to run.
I never ran before, and had no natural running ability, but I began to train. I started with slow 5km runs. Going from barely being able to walk 100m when I was ill, to running 5km, was a miracle to me.
I went from strength to strength and ultimately went on to successfully complete the Comrades Marathon in 2013. I ran as an openly HIV positive runner to show what can be done. I ran for 11 hours and 31 minutes. Running over the finish line of the comrades will remain one of the most incredible moments of my life.
I went on to run most of the major marathons and ultra-marathons across the country as an openly HIV positive runner to bring awareness and hope. To date, I have run the City to City (50km), Comrades (89km) and the Two Oceans Ultra (56km), to name a few. Each time at the finish line, I knew, blew the HIV stigma out the water.
I have watched people die because of HIV stigma and I have watched others shine in spite of it. Treating HIV is easy. Stigma, on the other hand, is not so easy to treat. It presents itself as ignorance, fear, denial, shame, rejection and abandonment, which results in non-disclosure, and non-compliance. The consequence of this is death.
There is still a terrible fear surrounding the virus, and it is literally costing people their lives. Many have no idea what ARVs can do, or how easy the virus is to manage. Left untreated HIV is vicious, dangerous and ultimately deadly, yet it is so easy to manage with just one pill a day.
We cannot change the virus but we most certainly can change a perception, and once we change our perceptions, burdens are lifted and lives are saved. I am no different from anyone else living with the virus, yet my reality differs substantially to many living with the virus today.
I have never changed a status – but I can change a perception by speaking out and offering myself as living proof of what is possible and what can be achieved.