Thanks to Channel 4 drama It's A Sin, AIDs is back in the headlines which gives us an important opportunity to remember the more than 35 million people worldwide who have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic in the early '80s. It's also a chance to look forward by raising awareness of HIV and AIDS and reducing the stigma that surrounds it.
As of 2015, it is estimated that there are 101,200 people living with HIV in the UK, of whom 31% are women – a group of HIV patients often forgotten about, partly because AIDS was initially demonised as a "gay plague".
Treatment has improved so much in recent years that a 2017 report suggested that young people on the latest HIV drugs now have near-normal life expectancy. Becky, a personal trainer from Devon, who has been living with HIV for six years, shares her story here.
I met Simon towards the end of 2011 at the gym. He was quite helpful when I was getting into weight training so we went for coffee and he seemed nice. Our relationship started soon afterwards but I could tell early on that he had some issues. He'd say things like, "If you ever leave me, I'm going to kill myself." He could be a lot to deal with.
I'm a sensible girl so at first we used protection. Then he started saying, "I don't really like condoms" and reassured me he didn't have anything. So I made a decision to have unprotected sex with him based on the facts I'd been given. After all, we were both in our late 30s and in a monogamous relationship. I had no idea at the time that he'd decided not to share one very important fact about himself. But you can't go around thinking people are lying all the time, can you?
About six months into the relationship, I got a Facebook message from one of Simon's exes telling me he'd been HIV positive for years.
About six months into the relationship, I got a Facebook message from one of Simon's exes telling me he'd been HIV positive for years and didn't take his medication properly. I'd fallen ill a few weeks prior to that, so in my heart I just knew. I went to the doctor and had the blood test, and sure enough, I tested HIV positive.
The relationship didn't end straightaway because at that point I think I was still in shock. He was quite manipulative and kept saying things like, "There must be something wrong with you, because I've never infected anyone else before." But eventually I managed to get away from him, and a couple of years later he went to prison for infecting me and another woman. He'd committed an act of violence, it was GBH [grievous bodily harm].
When I was first diagnosed, my instant thought was, I've got all these cycling and running events coming up, I don't want to be ill. The doctor told me I'd be fine, but said the mental and emotional side would be difficult to deal with. I was angry, confused, and didn't know how on earth I would tell my mum and my friends. I just couldn't believe he'd robbed me of my right to choose how to live my life.
I was angry, confused, and didn't know how on earth I would tell my mum and my friends.
When I told them, a lot of my friends were like, "How the fuck has this happened to you? You're so healthy and sensible." My mum was absolutely heartbroken when I told her. She said to me, "As a mother, I wish I could take this away from you, but there's nothing I can do." She didn't particularly like Simon and was so angry that he'd done this to me. But in time, I think she was ultimately quite proud of how I dealt with it.
I'm quite a stubborn person so I just got on with things. I knew I had to find a way to come to terms with it because what would the alternative be – shutting myself away? I enjoy life, so that was never going to happen. I think my passion for fitness helped me to come to terms with my diagnosis. I carried on teaching spinning and kettlebells and leading running groups. I knew I wanted to get on with everything as normal.
Six years later, I'm still doing everything I did before; I just have more things to consider: I take a pill every day now, and I'll be taking that pill forever. With new partners, I've always been open about being HIV positive. The last relationship I had was with someone I'd known for a long time anyway, so it was never an issue. He knew I was sensible and took my medication, so he wasn't worried at all. He just felt really sad that this had happened to me.
I do think there's still a lot of stigma around HIV. I hurt my leg cycling a few years ago, and the doctor at A&E saw 'HIV positive' on my notes and asked if I was an intravenous drug user – right in front of my mum. I was really shocked, because as a medical professional he should have known better than to make an assumption. If he'd read my notes properly, he'd have known how I became infected.
Some people still think you can catch AIDS, which is obviously completely false. AIDS isn't something you catch – HIV is. There's still this misconception of "Oh, you're HIV positive, you're going to die." You can see this look of pity in people's eyes. But I don't want your pity – I'm getting on with my life just fine, thanks. And because of the medication I'm taking, my life expectancy is exactly the same as yours.
I think a lot of women out there think HIV will never be a problem for them. Before I was diagnosed, I had no concept that HIV could ever touch my life. But you should never presume, and if you have any kind of doubt, go and get tested. Because I found out really quickly, I was able to get treatment before it made me ill. I was able to take control of the situation and keep on living my life the way I want to.
For information and support on dealing with HIV and AIDS, call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 or visit Terrence Higgins Trust