National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day 2016
By ETAF Ambassador Kelly Gluckman
April 8, 2016
In my early twenties, I knew three things about HIV for sure: What it was, how you get it, and that I was never going to. I thought that HIV and AIDS was something that happened to “them” over “there.” I didn’t know anyone who had it, or at least anyone who talked about it, so I lived in a bubble where HIV wasn’t my problem. You can imagine my shock at 23 years old when my and my boyfriend’s rapid HIV test came back reactive. All the sudden, something I thought was meant for (what the media considered) the bottom of society was in my own home.
The initial shock of diagnosis started to subside on the way home from the clinic, and my brain quickly started churning to make sense of things. I parked and sat up in my seat, turned towards my boyfriend in the passenger side and pulled from the depths of my psyche the only other thing I thought I knew about HIV. I said to him, “No way. We’re going to beat this. Look at Magic Johnson, he’s cured! Watch, in one year, we’ll be HIV negative.” Like most people my age, I knew that Magic Johnson is still alive and well, and I thought that he’d been cured because he has a ton of money (I saw it on South Park, so it must be true, right?). I didn’t know how we were going to do it, but I had the naive resolve that somehow I was going to get my hands on that cure. The first thing I did when I got into my apartment was type into Google, “is Magic Johnson cured of HIV?” My heart dropped when I learned that he absolutely is not. Magic Johnson is still HIV positive and he takes medication just like the rest of us. At that moment, it sunk in that I’m really going to have to deal with this.
For the next several months, I went through all the stages of grieving while scrambling to take control of my situation. My mom always taught me that knowledge is power, so I devoured as much information as I could. I found reputable sites online to get medically accurate information, I got a book with advice for what to do in the first year after diagnosis, I joined forums online to connect with others living with HIV, I even purchased a fluffy 10,000x stuffed HIV molecule and named him Hivvy. My coping mechanisms varied from humor to crying, and everything in between.
More than anything else though, I talked to others about what I was going through. I found compassion and support from my friends this way, but what I didn’t expect was for people to hear what I was experiencing and have light bulbs go off in their own mind. I contracted the virus while in a committed monogamous relationship, which struck a chord with everyone I spoke with. I would tell my story, and see the wheels turning in their head, assessing their own risks and realizing that they needed to get tested. Many times they did.
I learned that I’m not the only one who thought I was invincible when it came to HIV. In fact, most young people do. The majority of teens and twenty-something’s I talk to are just like I was, not knowing anyone affected by HIV, and thus thinking it’s something that won’t touch them. It wasn’t shocking to me when I learned that according to the CDC, in 2013, the highest number of HIV diagnoses of any age group was the youth ages 13-24. This staggering statistic and the CDC’s reasoning for it corroborates what I’ve seen in my own experience, which is that youth have a low perception of risk, low rates of testing, and low rates of condom use.
It’s important to note here that a major culprit for these trends is a decline in sexual health education and a lack of access to affordable, judgment free testing services, and treatment. I was lucky to have had comprehensive sexual health education and access to free testing clinics in my area. Much of the country doesn’t have this though, especially with the recent defunding of Planned Parenthood (which is where I received my sexual health services as a youth). With abstinence based education being the most widely used curriculum in schools in this country, it’s safe to say a good chunk of the youth doesn’t even realize they have put themselves at risk. If you’re not taught how and why you should protect yourself, why would you?
The CDC estimates that over 50% of youth who are HIV positive don’t know it. How scary! The most common symptom of an STI, and especially HIV, is no symptom at all. I, myself, had no symptom of the virus whatsoever. The reason I insisted my boyfriend and I go get tested was because he and I had made the decision to stop using condoms before going to get tested first, together. Having been educated, I knew that wasn’t a smart decision. Without proper sexual health education, it’s impossible to expect sexually active young adults to know that they need to get tested. Often times it takes a phone call from a previous sexual partner who’s been diagnosed, or someone like me telling my story. Worse yet, many don’t get tested until we land in the ER with irreparable damage from an STI.
In honor of National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I want to urge the young people out there to educate and protect yourselves! Here is a fun video on YouTube of how to properly use a condom. The internet should be our best friend. We live in a time where all the information in the world is at our fingertips. Seek information and be critical of the source that provides it. There are so many options on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, HIV, and other STI’s, and we need to arm ourselves with the tools to live a healthy life.
We are all human and we all make mistakes. Condoms break. Sometimes we get lost in the moment and we don’t use one. I can tell you first hand that having HIV is not the end of the world, although it’s definitely no cake walk and no one should have to go through it. Luckily, we live in a time where STI’s are all either curable or manageable. HIV is particularly manageable now with so many effective, relatively side-effect free treatments on the market, and government programs to help provide affordable access to them. If you get on medication early enough, you can render the virus undetectable within weeks. This makes the risk of transmission near zero, and living a full and healthy life very likely. I urge you to also get tested regularly, even when in a monogamous relationship. AIDS should end with us, and we have the tools to do it.