There’s a lot about HIV that can be frightening, but as I approach my 17th year on the journey as a person living with this virus, nothing was more alarming than receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV.
Prior to 2004, I had gone through the HIV testing routine regularly for at least 7 years (dating back to 1998 when I first got tested for HIV). I can clearly recall an overwhelming feeling of relief coming over me each time I’d get negative test results. But in November 2004, everything changed forever in what now feels like the blink of an eye.
It’s important to note that prior to testing positive, I had close friends, associates, and former partners who had been living with HIV, and all of whom are still thriving and are in great health. I was also pretty well educated by then about HIV prevention, transmission, treatment, and all the rest. Still, when it all “fell into my lap,” everything I knew went right out the window.
So Many Questions
On Tuesday, Nov. 30, I received a phone call from the DC health department informing me that I had recently tested positive for an STD and that I needed to arrange a time to go get treated. Since I was about to begin a new job later that week, I had the day off and fortunately was home when they called. After a short time on the phone with someone to schedule an appointment later that afternoon, I asked, “What about the results of the HIV test?” I was informed that they couldn’t disclose that information by phone but I would definitely be able to obtain those results when I went in to get treated for the STD.
So off I went that afternoon, all the while having no idea that my life was about to change forever. After the initial intake with a nurse practitioner, someone came in and administered the treatment I’d been called in for. Once that was done, my original line of questioning with the woman on the phone earlier that morning continued, “Can someone let me know what the results of my most recent HIV test are?”
I waited for a long time before a doctor came in to speak with me and review everything I had already been told about the STD infection, treatment, etc. Once she was finished and asked if I had any questions, I asked again about the HIV results. After checking her charts and records on the computer, she informed me that she didn’t have that information but that she could find out for me. After waiting for nearly another hour, she returned, telling me that she had placed some calls and was waiting for the information to be sent over to her, and that it would only take a little longer.
As I waited, something in my spirit just kept telling me that unlike all the other times I found myself in the hot seat of waiting to get results, this time was different. I remember sitting in that doctor’s office with white walls trying to shut out every nagging thought running through my head. After what felt like a lifetime, she returned. The first words out of her mouth as she walked back into the room were (and I remember it vividly), “OK Mr. Wolfe, I have your results, but I don’t have good news.”
The First Step
At that moment, the white walls in the office all went black and everything she said for a brief time was a blur. It felt like my worst nightmare coming true as I sat there trying to make sense of everything that was rapidly unfolding.
After about 10 minutes of her going over a lot of information about what would come next in terms of additional appointments (to determine my CD4 count and viral load), she asked me a host of other questions. There was so much information coming at me and it was all happening so fast -- all I could do was answer her questions to the best of my ability.
She asked if there was anyone she needed me to call, if I lived alone or if there was someone I could spend the rest of the day with. As alarmed and concerned as I was at that moment, I was mentally sound enough to reassure her that I was stable and would not attempt to harm myself after receiving the news.
Given that this all took place nearly 17 years ago, there’s a lot I don’t remember about that day -- especially after leaving the doctor’s office. But I can distinctly recall reaching out to one of my other close friends at the time who had been living with HIV and sharing the news with him. Speaking to him in detail and having the space to fall apart on the phone was what I needed most in that moment. I had support, I just had to reach out. Still, even with access to support, my mind was all over the place while attempting to manage my thoughts and fears while also mentally beating myself up. Somehow, I made my way home and got through the rest of that day.
Being diagnosed with HIV can be a jarring and downright alarming experience. How each person handles it all will be understandably varied. That being said, making sure to ask and answer questions (to the best of your ability) can help a lot in moving through the process. In a nutshell, an HIV diagnosis is very much trial and error. As overwhelming as that can feel, it’s a necessary first step that can help determine how you move through all of the subsequent parts of your HIV journey.
Photo Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision via Getty Images