The Side Effects

Don't accept what can be changed

by George M. Johnson

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It’s been about four years since I started taking HIV medications and I absolutely hated it. I remember when I first started taking the meds and how terrible it made me feel, but I was tough so I figured that I would just deal with it. I just always assumed that it was going to have to be a part of my life as almost a punishment for contracting the virus so I learned to live with the side effects. However, four years later, I’ve come to find out that sometimes the side effects are more of a choice than something that you actually have to succumb to, in HIV and in life.

So, the first medication that I had the pleasure of dealing with worked wonders for me, bringing my viral load down to an undetectable status in less than thirty days and I am forever grateful for that. However, the side effects of the drug were horrible. For more than three years I had to deal with night sweats, vivid dreams, and the stomach problems that would leave me unable to leave the house some days. Again, I hated it. I learned how to live life with having to deal with these problems, always making sure I was somewhere I could get to a bathroom if necessary or get home when it got to be too much to deal with. Then one day about two months ago, I finally told my doctor about all I had been dealing with for three years and she looked at me puzzled. She first fussed me out for not speaking sooner. Then she said, “let’s change your meds,” to which I agreed and began the process.

Over the next few weeks I would be tested to see if I could take the new drug, and, as I could, I then started my new medication. In days, my entire life changed. The problems with the bathroom, the night sweats, the vivid dreams all went away. I was for the first time in almost four years able to live my life how it once was, something I never imagined. The bigger thing I learned from this was that sometimes, we make choices to live in misery when we could be just fine if we took an investment in ourselves and stopped living with the side effects.

This transferred over into how I now choose to live in all other aspects of my life. I learned from this that most of what I wasn’t achieving was due to me and not some outside force that was stopping me from being great. I decided that I would try to take on some new opportunities because of it. I had been doing journalism for a while, but kept most of the stories I wanted to tell in my head, not sure if they were worthy of reading. Rather than letting fear be a “side effect,” I challenged myself and began to write everything. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and accept opportunities I would have never dreamed of doing. This new-found strength allowed me to work media for the Tony Awards, a dream I never thought I would see this soon in my life.

The side effects can also be bad friendships and relationships as well. Sometimes the fear of being alone makes us keep people and things around that we should have let go of a long time ago. So, I started to purge in that area as well, letting go of all the “situationships” I had involved myself in and taking time to really just work on me and the things that I could actually control. We assume a lot of times that the “side effects” come with the package, when realistically there may be other options that we have just been too afraid to venture into. Toxic friendships and relationships I learned were just as toxic as my medicine. I also learned that just as I was able to change my medication that I could change the people in my life who were no good for me and my existence moving forward. They had become “side effects” of bad decision making and loneliness, and there was truly no need for me to keep them around past their expiration date.

The fear of change let me accept the “side effects” as something that was normal. I began to assume that I was supposed to live a life in shame and be unhappy because of choices I had made prior. Something I assumed was my own karma, was actually the realization of how stubborn I could be and how taking a full investment in my own life and happiness could be life changing. Most importantly I learned that the “side effects” are just that, and should never take a main seat in your life.


George M. Johnson is a black queer journalist and activist. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, JET, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Black Youth Project, and several HIV publications. Follow him on Twitter @iamgmjohnson.