Taking Control & Starting Treatment

Taking Control
Starting treatment gave me peace
by George M. Johnson

I was always scared to go on treatment. Partly because I lacked the education to understand what I was going to be dealing with for the rest of my life. Partly because I was in denial that the virus that I had assumed I would never have to deal with was now going to be a constant part of my life moving forward. Almost eight years into my initial diagnosis, I think about the important peace that I received by going on treatment, and my urge to ensure that others can get to this place as well.

I had just turned twenty-five when I was first diagnosed with HIV. The day it occurred I remember crying for nearly twenty-five minutes straight, with the only thought in my mind being that I was going to die. I was naïve and uneducated at the time of how many advancements had been made with suppressing the virus, so I wasn’t fully prepared to accept this being my fate. I just knew my days were numbered. That same day I had a full blood draw done and then went home to wait a week to get the full results.

Once I got the results that confirmed I was indeed positive, I went to the doctor for my first appointment. It was in that appointment that I was told my viral load and reassured that I would survive but needed to get on treatment. I wasn’t ready. I simply had not built up my own confidence nor had the circle of friends and support needed to be able to make that type of decision. So, I waited and hoped that nothing bad would happen to me in the interim while not going on medication. This was 2010.

It wouldn’t be until I moved to D.C. in 2013 that I built up enough confidence to finally take steps to begin treatment. I am not going to lie to you—the first month I had pretty rough side effects. Stomach issues and lightheadedness were some of the early on symptoms I faced. I remember thinking to myself if these side effects were something I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life, then I would just deal with it. I just wanted to live at that point.

I remember getting my first set of labs back after being on treatment for three months and it stating that I was undetectable. This was the happiest day in my life at that point. I remember this ease that came over me knowing that I was going to be okay. That I was empowering myself to take care of myself. The side effects eventually subsided and the fear I built up for three years seemingly went away as I became more confident in myself, my sexual health, and the conversations I would have around disclosure.

Years later, we are now living in a time where being undetectable means that you can no longer transmit the virus. It is powerful knowing that, in taking treatment, I am not only protecting myself, but the people who I am having sex with. There is a calming peace that comes with knowing I am doing my part to help stop the transmission of the virus. I also know that this is not enough and is why I continue to fight for others to have this ability.

This means telling my story to inspire others to also get on treatment. Although it is not a requirement, HIV going untreated is still very dangerous. The body having to constantly fight the virus daily without the help of medication takes its toll. Going on treatment allows you the opportunity to take control of your health, increasing the quality of life significantly over time.

This also means fighting for access and resources in our communities that are still unable to receive treatment while dealing with stigma and shaming from those people who remain uneducated about the advancements in HIV care over the past forty years. Even when we have access, we must take it a step further to ensure that our communities are supported and empowered to utilize the services being made available. We must also challenge providers to do a better job of treating clients like humans, and not numbers.

Being in care isn’t just about being on treatment and making your doctor’s appointments quarterly. However once in care, you can focus on the other areas of life in which you need support. It is about totality of care, with getting on treatment being the start to a better you. Take control of the virus. Take back control over your life.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. He writes the Our Story, Our Time column for A&U. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.