One rainy evening on Oxford Street in Sydney, I sat in an a[TEST] clinic stunned and frozen from shock. It was not from the cold. I had just heard: “I’m sorry, but your bloods came back with HIV cells present. It shows that you’re positive.”
Up until that moment, I had been in Sydney for three weeks after travelling for nearly five months around numerous capitals in America. From working in New York with children to riding horses, cowboy style, in Monument Valley, Utah.
Now being told I was HIV positive, suddenly my light backpack became very heavy with thoughts of stigma, death and denial. I wondered if my dream of travelling would have to end abruptly.
Looking back, I am sure that it was while I was in New Orleans, USA, when I contracted HIV. Like most backpackers who get absolutely wasted on alcohol and can only remember small details from the night before, I did recall the guy having deliciously blonde hair and stunning blue eyes. However we had sex without a condom and I never saw him again. I didn’t even catch his name.
It wasn’t long before I noticed little changes in my body. I developed diarrhoea and the rate at which I was going to the toilet had escalated. I was so tired and I began developing symptoms of HAND (HIV-Associated-Neurocognitive Disorder) like losing my concentration really easily.
When I got to Australia, I attended a Surf Camp at Seven Mile Beach in NSW. It was here that the process of seroconversion really hit. As I lay on my bed nursing a high temperature and the beginning of a chest infection, my friend thought it was a good idea to get laid in the bed opposite me. At least someone was having a good time.
Now as I sat there in the a[TEST] clinic in Sydney, paralysed with fear from my diagnosis, I was unable to move. I needed support and luckily a counsellor from ACON managed to lure me out of the room with a hug and a cup of tea (I am English after all).
The last thing I was going to do was give up on my dream of travelling. So slowly, I began putting things into place. I decided that I had to tell a friend. To my relief, that friend was understanding and appreciative of my predicament, which allowed them to disclose a few issues about their medical condition. I saw two counsellors on a Monday and I booked in for regular check-ups with my doctor over the following six months.
Meanwhile, my HIV symptoms were getting worse. I noticed my memory wasn’t so hot, my viral load was far too high and my white cell count had literally hit the floor, it was so low. My doctor suggested that I start medications immediately as he didn’t want my brain and memory issues to escalate further. Luckily I applied for Medicare as I was eligible for reciprocal healthcare with Australia through the UK National Health System.
Starting medications was a massive step for me as it put me on a path to acceptance of HIV. I only need to take a tablet a day for the rest of my life to stay healthy and on top of things. This little pill would become my best friend.
As a backpacker still travelling, attending appointments every two months to collect my prescription was annoying, especially when it came to doing farm work for my second year Working Holiday Visa.
My main problem in rural NSW was the nearest town was at least 60 kilometres away. I needed the farmer’s help to drive me there and I knew he would have to be informed of my status in case anything happened to me on the farm. This raised my fear of stigma and being discriminated against. The farmer was a solid guy who didn’t really show emotions and I was nervous talking to him. To my surprise, when I revealed my situation, he began to ask me questions, and showed concern for my well-being and gave me a big bear hug. The following morning, he had organised a truck to pick me up and drive me to the town so that I could collect my meds. It was a beautiful moment.
My journey has been a learning experience. Over the past 17 months since my diagnosis, living with HIV has made my journey as a backpacker more insightful, and allowed me to face new challenges, both mentally and physically.
From dealing with immigration issues to dating guys who were surprisingly accepting of my status. From parachuting out of planes over the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, to cycling throughout South Australia on a $99 K-Mart bike, I want to show people that I am healthy and I still able to make my own choices in how I live my life. My white cell count has risen and my viral load is now undetectable. And as for the weight of that backpack on my shoulder? It now feels light again and I am still travelling!
Published for Talkabout Online #187 – June 2017