FOREWORD: Previously on Dubem’s HIV story, click HERE to read.
‘One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be sure
I watched the 2015 Hollywood award shows before seeing the movie, Selma, and so, I got to watch John Legend and Common’s performance of the movie soundtrack, Glory, before grasping the power of the Black Civil Rights Movement depicted in the film.
But this piece isn’t about all that. It’s about the lesson derived from a sense of hope and a strength of will.
I am Dubem, and I have being living with an awareness of my HIV Positive Status for three years.
The beginning of the three years was fraught with a lot of ups and downs. A few job offers went south. A relationship ended. A wave of depression set in. But then, I secured the love and unwavering support of my family. A couple of friends became my backbone. And I found the perfect excuse to eschew myself from the familial pressure of marriage. ‘Hey, mom, dad, remember how I’m HIV Positive? Well, I’d like to carry that cross alone for the rest of my life.’ The day I said the words to my parents and didn’t get a fight from them was one of the best days of my life. The cup of ‘settling down’ officially passed me over.
But that was not all the Lord blessed me with. You see, with my knowledge of my status came a determination to live right, to change anything that would pose a risk to my well-being. And that wasn’t just about safe sex. Where once I could skip breakfast and sometimes burn through the day on fuel provided by a lunch snack and a quick gulp of fruit juice at the end of the day before bed, I began to eat, really eat, and to eat well. Fruits and foods that was rich with all the nutrients. I didn’t eat to stay trim; I ate to stay nourished, even if that meant I gained a few pounds along the way. I exercised to keep the balance. I don’t smoke, so I was good there. I stopped drinking. I battled my depression more aggressively, because my counselor once said that a happy mind and a positive outlook go a long way in keeping a HIV patient from deteriorating. So I fought to stay above the darkness. I found more reasons to laugh. I sought joy in the little things.
And my efforts did not go unrewarded. I remember the first few appointments I had at the hospital, when my lab tests revealed that my CD4 count was in the neighbourhood of 380 – 450. This was in the time when the mandate held that for a HIV patient to be liable for treatment, his CD4 count would have to have fallen below 300.
I remember the appointment I had, when my CD4 count moved upward to 450, the doctor had stared at my file and said, “I don’t know why your previous doctors have been making you come for your appointments every three months. With your rate of improvement, it should be six months.”
And so, the schedule of my visits to the hospital was reorganized.
On my appointment last year July, my doctor informed me of the change in the health mandate. The level of CD4 count that now determines suitability for medication had been increased from 300 to 500. “And you’re at 480 from your last test,” she said, flipping the pages on my patient file. “So, after today’s giving of blood samples, I’d like you to come in again in a week’s time for the lab result. If you’re still below 500, we’ll start you off immediately on your drugs. Hopefully though” – at this point, she permitted herself a small smile – “with your remarkable progress, you won’t need to be.”
I didn’t need to be. I returned in a week’s time to her amazement that in the last six months, my CD4 count had leaped from 480 to 670.
“What are you doing?” she asked me in slight wonder.
I shrugged, trying not to show how flush with relief and joy I was at the news. I have a friend who is on medication, and I’m intimately familiar with how nasty those drugs were being to him. And so, I was signed off to return in February this year. I did, and after another breezy session with the consultant and then the lab scientist, who had come to know me as the guy whose veins refuse to cooperate with her needles, I left with another July date on my appointment card.
So, it therefore came as a mild surprise two weeks ago, when a lady who identified herself as a staff of the Military Hospital in Yaba (my hospital) called me. After the initial verifications of both our identities, she went on to tell me about this new US-funded and organized research program called AFRICOS. It was a research that involved the participation of both HIV Positive and Negative individuals, and for the HIV Positive people, they were working their way down a selected list from their patient files, and I’d made the cut. She urged me to come in and speak to the doctor-in-charge about the study and my intended participation, and if I didn’t like it, I was free to decline.
I agreed and got scheduled for an appointment the following Monday. I forgot to take permission off work for that Monday, and when the lady called me, she was none too pleased to learn that I wouldn’t come in that day. (I think she believed I really wasn’t interested and was just messing with her. Lol)
Anyway, I was penned down for Wednesday. This time, I made it. I got to see the doctor who explained the research extensively to me. Basically, I’d still be on the same appointment regimen as I already was, except I’d be giving both my blood and sputum samples for testing. And they wouldn’t just be working the HIV angle on me anymore, but an entire array of ailments; and any discovery of the most exotic ones would get me instant medication. Plus, I’d be apprised of more of my medical details, more than just an awareness of my CD4 count. Oh, and of course, for all my troubles at every appointment, I’d be fed with brunch and handed a token allowance of N1, 500.
Now, how could I say no to all of that?
After going through some paperwork, I was whisked off to the lab, to meet my favorite lab scientist. The woman had swelled with her pregnancy. She took one look at me and groaned comically, “Not you again!” Lol. She had good reason to react the way she did. What with the disagreeability of my veins, when she brought out the test tube rack containing about eleven small bottles my blood was required to fill, I nearly collapsed. The battle between my skin and her needle soon commenced, and by the end of it, it wasn’t exactly clear who won. She’d discarded quite a number of needles, and I’d sustained quite a number of punctures on both my hands. I don’t know whose sigh of relief was more resounding when we were done.
After submitting my sputum sample and vitals, I was next headed for the counselor’s office. The man (who is my regular counselor) who was taking me to meet the woman I was going to have a sit-down with, told me in a low tone as we walked, “She’s going to get to a point where she’ll ask if you’re MSM… Just tell her no. It’s not like saying yes will result in any discrimination against you… It’s just better to not stand out for that…”
Yes. My regular counselor knows about my sexual orientation, and is quite open-minded about it. However I wasn’t sure I favoured his advice. I shrugged at him though, and kept my counsel for when I started my interaction with this woman.
I was shown into her office. She is a chief nurse. Cheerful woman, very sunny disposition. She made a wise crack every now and then to lighten up the atmosphere between us. Our session was a good one; in the beginning, I’d intended to be as reticent as I could manage, but I warmed up to her so much, I found myself even supplying background information to my answers.
And then, we got to the part about sex and my relationships.
“So,” she said, “how many sexual partners have you had in the last six months? I’m talking about steady girlfriends, not the women you’ve casually slept with.”
For a moment then, I didn’t comprehend was she was talking about. Girlfriends? Women I’ve slept with? What was this woman talking about? These thoughts raced through my mind with microsecond speed. I’d actually opened my mouth to tell her that I’ve never had girlfriends, that I’ve only had boyfriends, when I realized three things in rapid succession. I’m male. I’m Nigerian. And I don’t live in a country where that sort of answer is okay.
So my brain altered the response that was still in my head. And I found myself saying, “Well, just one girlfriend. We broke up in January.”
Admitting to a girlfriend… That felt like the oddest thing to say. And something inside me rebelled at the duplicity.
Our discourse on my sex life progressed up to the moment when she asked, “Through which of these processes have you had sex in the last six months – vaginal, oral or anal?”
“All three,” I quipped, and watched with relish as the shock value I was aiming for took effect.
She looked startled at first, sat up straighter and blinked at me through her spectacles. Then her eyes widened as comprehension began to sink in. Then she asked, “So you mean you’ve had sex with…”
“Both men and women, yes,” I finished for her.
“And with the men, where you penetrated or did you penetrate them?”
She cleared her throat, nodded and returned her focus to her manual of pre-typed questions. She only needed seconds to regain her aplomb, before we recommenced. I applauded her silently in my mind. She thenceforth readjusted the rhythm of her questioning to encompass my ‘bisexuality’.
But all through the session, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe always drops in situations like this. And it did, when we were done. She leaned toward me across her desk, her features shadowed with concern, and began advising me on the need to settle down, find a suitable wife, one who would love me, warts and all, and how I should forsake ‘all these other things I’m doing with my fellow men.’ “It will not fetch you anything,” she said. “It’s just a distraction for what you’re supposed to do with your life. You’re a bright, young man. And in spite of your HIV Positive status, I believe the future is promising for you. HIV won’t ruin it. It’s this other thing that will. Okay?” She added a smile at this point.
I smiled stiffly back. I liked her too much to open my mouth and say something, because that something would most likely ruin all the beautiful music me and her had made several minutes ago.
“I’ll be praying for you, you hear,” she said kindly.
But of course, you will, I thought, still smiling.
Our session ended, and I walked out of her office. It wasn’t long after that before I was done with my entire appointment for the day, and was fed, paid and booked for another one.
I started out of the hospital with my contentment still intact. I walked out doing what I’ve conditioned myself to do every time I come to the hospital. I began counting my blessings. Yes, I may have lost a relationship and that job that seemed so good for me. I may have given up living my life in that carefree manner that comes from having nothing to fear. But I still have life, and I have it in the way I’ve never had it before these past three years, enriched with all the things that matter to me. There are more things I want, more fulfillments I want to secure, more heights I want to attain.
But that is why there is hope… Hope for the day when those glories will come.
Written by Dubem