Note: This post might be TMI for some. Stop here if you're squeamish about talk of sex, HIV, condoms--or me talking about them.
The e-mail came out of the blue. Gibbs, it said, I'm going home. I have a problem, please help.
The letter-sender was a friend working abroad who had been going through anxiety attacks the past few weeks. After a bout of fever and what he thought was some weight loss, it entered his mind that he might now be HIV-positive. He had reason to fear. My friend, a self-made person, is usually a model of iron self-control and self-discipline, but as he told me, last December he had a moment of weakness--an instance of unprotected sex that was now, six months later, haunting him, rendering him depressed, lethargic, panicky. Were there any major symptoms of illness? None, he said. He had, in fact, taken a RAPID test that declared him "Non-reactive," meaning he didn't have the virus. But his anxiety persisted. He wanted a second, definitive opinion, and he wanted it in Manila, with a friend.
This is it, I thought. I had long danced around the idea of taking the test, for one simple reason: I was terrified. Despite my conscientious efforts otherwise, I have had occasional lapses of my own when it came to risky bedroom behavior. All these years the specter of the virus had seemed quite remote, abstract to me. I comforted myself in the thought that I was not into the alcohol-soaked scene, I didn't do drugs or Ecstasy parties and so had never lost my faculties in the haze of intoxication, had never frequented the bathhouse, took relatively good care of my health, and, at 40, has never had a major illness or health breakdown requiring hospital care.
But who knew, really? Those occasional lapses were troubling enough, but just this year the subject became alarmingly starker, more personal when a number of friends, and friends of friends, revealed they had gotten the virus. Too, the anecdotal stories were piling up--about otherwise young, healthy gay men around the metro who were suddenly getting sick or dropping like flies from suspicious-sounding causes, pneumonia chief among them. One moment you saw them hale and hearty at the gym or our (wholesome, I must assert) Fabcasters parties, the next you saw their Facebook accounts peppered with goodbye messages. Chilling.
There's no way around the truth: It's here. McVie and his partner Dan were the first in our circle to have themselves tested at the Makati Social Hygiene Clinic (at the 7th floor of Makati City Hall--test is free) and to blog about the experience. Migs and CC followed. (Tony and AJ had theirs much earlier.) I was the lone holdout, but I told them I wanted to do it six months after February this year, just to be sure--February being the last time I had engaged in unprotected contact (reluctantly, but let's not go there now), and with six months as the window period.
Truth to tell, I had absolutely no idea how I would react if the test proved positive. At the back of my mind, I knew it was a possibility--one friend swore he engaged in risky sex only once in his life, and yet he got it--but I couldn't get that far ahead in terms of imagining how my life would have to change if push did come to shove. It wasn't myself I was too worried about; I knew I could, surely after some period of self-anger, blame and regret, get around eventually to a sort of rapprochement with the new reality. It's the thought of telling the people around me, of having to burden them with my condition--my mother and family, especially--that cut at me deeply.
But my friend's plea to accompany him to the testing center forced the issue. I wanted to help him find some comfort, but at the same time I thought I needed to finally assuage my own fears. Sige, let's do it, I said--whatever the outcome, bahala na. Better find out now than when it'd be too late, when medicine and intervention would already be of little use because I had tarried far too long. The date was set for Tuesday early afternoon, but when it dawned cold and stormy and the metro drowning in floods, I asked my friend if he'd like to move it to the next day. Nope, he shot back, I don't think kaya ko pa patagalin 'to. Okay--my delaying tactic ineffective, we headed to Makati City Hall in the rain.
It was 1 p.m. when we arrived. The clinic was quite deserted--the only visitors were a group of bar girls who, we learned later, were having their regular medical check-up--a requirement by the Makati city government for them to ply their jobs in the city. Yoyie, the amiable nurse who ushered us into a private room, asked if it was okay to have our blood taken first before the counseling. We agreed. She gave us a form to fill up, taking care to let us know we didn't have to use our real names, if we so preferred. All the while, my friend was speechless and as white as a sheet. I was trying to be nonchalant, but the lunch I just had was doing cartwheels inside my gut. I plied Yoyie with questions, just to break the ice--she ended up telling me I didn't seem to need counseling anymore.
Another person joined us--Tita Tess, we were told her name was--and she proved to be as warm and helpful. She asked intimate questions, but in a way that sounded non-judgmental and was meant only to help her flesh out the discussion better. It would take 45 minutes before the results came out, said Yoyie--45 minutes? Jeezes Christ, McVie said it was only 15 minutes in their case!--but in the meantime, the two women talked to us about the disease, the options available for those who would come out positive, their experiences with other, often equally distraught visitors (unnamed, of course) who had gone through the same crucible of embarrassment and fright.
I was impressed and gratified at how Yoyie and Tita Tess were making us feel relaxed and comfortable--safe--at a moment of great personal foreboding for us, when something that could literally spin our lives into uncharted terrain was being processed in a room merely a few steps from where we sat, white-knuckled and barely breathing. Pretty soon, my friend became more at ease, opening up about the torment he'd been going through. The two women were sympathetic, Tita Tess even offering her personal phone number in case my friend needed to talk some more when he's back at his foreign posting.
Then, the moment of reckoning: Tita Tess scooted out and came back with two folded pieces of paper in her hand. A good sign, I thought, that she seemed about to give the results directly to us. Those who came off as "reactive," Yoyie had told us earlier, would have to get the results from a separate hospital after one more confirmatory test. Tita Tess went behind me and, without a word, handed me the paper. My friend grabbed his and opened it, eyes two big pools of dread. I raced down my own results to find the magic words, written neatly and legibly: NONREACTIVE. Fuck. Fuckshetohmygodthankyoulordsorryforthemurayeheeeeyaward! My friend likewise whooped it up and let out a looong sigh of relief. It had been our agreement: If he tested negative once again, he'd stop browbeating himself and let go of his apprehensions for good. Now he could.
I reread my test results a couple more times, then folded it and tucked it carefully in my wallet. This small--but nothing less than a badge to a new lease on life. We thanked Yoyie and Tita Tess profusely, hugging them tightly before leaving. Bless public servants like them. The afternoon remained dark, wet and gloomy, but as we stepped out, you could've sworn there was sunlight on our faces. The light of boundless relief, but also of sobering insight. In brief, I had dodged a bullet. I might not be so lucky the next time, so lesson learned: from now on, no to risky, irresponsible sexual behavior ever again.
If you're like me who has had reason to doubt, please take the test. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to find out early, and from there take control of your health and future. The one at Makati City Hall's Social Hygiene Clinic is confidential, accommodating, fast. But if you prefer an even more discreet environment, the Love Yourself Project can help.