Thursday, December 05, 2013

When You Don't Get Tested

Several years ago, I had an HIV scare. I was terrified, embarrassed and shamed by it but was determined to write down my experience with hopes that it might help someone else who is going through the same thing. Recently, I dug this article up and revamped it for your review:

I rarely get mail anymore. One Thursday night in February, I came home to a letter in a blank envelope that had been carelessly slid under my door. The paper in this envelope was lacking letterhead and looked like it had been typed on an old typewriter; there were markings, rust and scratches between words. The content of the letter was unclear as well, except it was strongly recommended that I go to the “Chelsea Health Center” at the location provided. 
Later that night, I went to visit a few friends and took the letter with me. Both agreed that the letter was so vague that perhaps this was some kind of money scheme or worse. We spoke of this with Law and Order SVU playing in the background—the episode where women got letters in the mail saying they won a computer, and when they went to retrieve their prize, they were murdered. This made us think even less of this possibly important letter I had received.
I went online to look up the name and address provided in this letter. “Chelsea Health Center” was listed as “CLOSED” according to Yelp, and the address was now a Department of Health clinic that provided free health services including STD testing. My thoughts were muddied with all these conflicting facts, but one friend convinced me to go the next morning with the promise she would come with me. 
Early Friday morning, I paced back and forth with five other strangers with blank faces, anxiously waiting for the doors of the Department of Health clinic to open. I had no cell phone service in this spot and was just realizing how important it was for my friend to be with me. 
I followed the strangers through the doors and into this little room without windows, where we each took a golf pencil and a pre-numbered questionnaire that we time-stamped. This room exposed each of our insecurities, exerted through the small jump we all made as the time-stamp punched our cards. Between answering the intrusive and shaming sexually explicit questions (i.e., Have you ever had anal sex? Have you ever used sex toys that aren’t yours?) I took a moment to rest my eyes and look around. The little room was plastered with sex education campaigns and disease awareness messages. 

I spent the last seven years of my life writing messages like these thinking they would help and educate others, but a poster that told me to think before I act was humiliating, when I was sitting in a room knowing that I committed one of these acts and forced to guess what I did while I waited. It was defeating to see all these scary diseases displayed on the wall. My eyes burned as they forced-filled with water, and I took a quick steep breath.
My number was called, and I was brought into a small office. The door shut quickly. The woman behind the old CD ROM asked me my name and why I came, and I mentioned the letter. She looked my name up and wrote down a code on my card without a hint of expression. Her laugh lines and forehead wrinkles showed proof that she was capable of exerting more emotion, and chose not to waste the risk of more visible aging on me. 
“So, what is this? Why am I here?” I asked. She kept her eyes on the computer when she answered.
“You’ll find out upstairs.”
“Do you know?”
“No, they don’t tell me anything. Trust me, if I knew, I would tell you. Have a seat, and they will call your number again.”
My friend was waiting when I came out. I gave her a shrug indicating I still knew nothing. One thing I had always admired about this friend is that she never changes her tone of voice for anything. She’s always loud, and never holds back her true emotions. Having this constant measure was a good marker for how dim this room was. A poster on the wall caught her attention.
“Hey, did you know that just because we live in NYC, we’re at higher risk for STDs? Scary, right? Whoa!”
Being respectful of the others in the room wasn’t important to me, now. I needed her to be her loud, innocuous self. It drowned out the “what-ifs” in my mind. 
My number was called again, and I was brought into yet another small office with a different woman who was also missing the ability to show empathy. She asked me the same questions, looked up my name. But this time she asked me to read and sign an agreement to take an HIV test. 
“Is it standard that everyone has to take this test?”
“Well, since you had contact with someone who is HIV positive, we recommend it,” she said with a bite of sarcasm. I couldn’t hear or see anymore. All of my senses had turned inward. I could just feel my heart getting faster. My voice now had one volume. 
“Wait! What? How do you know that?” I lost control of everything.
“Yeah, you see this code? That’s what it means. The woman in the other room didn’t tell you?”
“Oh my God. What do I do, now?” By this point, I was just focusing on breathing correctly, but I seemed to forget how long one takes to inhale and exhale.  
“Now, you take this clipboard upstairs to the other waiting room. It shouldn’t take long. Your case is serious, so you’ll get through fast.” Again with that caustic tone.
I nodded silently and took the backhanded comfort that she offered me. On the way upstairs, I shared the news with my friend with as little emotion as possible and added, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be okay. Look at me. I’m fine.” Anxiety was eating me alive inside, but the one thing that would have made it worse was transferring this oppressing emotion to my closest friend. 
“Trust me. I’m okay,” I lied again.
We retreated to the upstairs waiting room, where we texted our mutual friend who had calming words to share, but in a lasting effort to lighten the tone, her last words of advice were “…so stop fucking around.” Again, like the disease awareness posters, telling me not to do something I have already done left me feeling hopeless and unchangeable. 
After crafting the most awkward and ambiguous email to my coworkers, explaining that I was out sick on a beautiful summery Friday in February, I was called in by the physician. 
“You know why you’re here, right?” Now that the secret was out, I knew I would be reminded of it, constantly.
I stripped down to a hospital gown and was poked and prodded, like at any other standard OBGYN appointment, only it felt more intrusive. I stopped seeing the gloves she wore as sanitary precautions for my benefit, but rather protection for HER, in case I was infected. She asked me how many women I had slept with in the past year, and I stopped. 
“Uh what?” She continued to ask questions about my sex life, and something in me changed. These last two hours were about WHY this is happening to me, but when the doctor started to narrow down my sex partners, that’s when I started to ask WHO. Who sent me this letter? Who put ME in this position? Fear set in, and I stopped complying. I contributed however I could to get answers to only MY questions, and every word muttered by the doctor became a potential clue in the case.
“Why is November of last year so important?”  I yelled out as the doctor left the room.
I just got dressed when she came back into the room with a coy smile.
“I have good news for you. You’re not pregnant.” case you haven't figured it out, I'm gay, and this doctor was just plain being mean.
Back to the waiting room I went, joining a now bigger crowd of frightened kids, including my panicked friend. Then I was shuffled into another office, this time to meet with a health education counselor, Claudia. When I stepped into her office, I was put at ease by the photos of her kids on the wall—the only sign of hope that this entire building could offer. She apologized, because it was intended that I saw her before anyone else. Claudia was a licensed social worker and thus qualified to tell people bad news. Claudia explained to me that the "person" that I had "contact" with didn’t have to give my name, and I should feel thankful that he OR she came forward to give my name at all. Of course, I didn’t hear any of this. Within her well-composed spiel explaining the purpose of confidentiality was another clue, I thought.
“This happened a while ago, so there’s no reason to ask who," she explained
Now, I had a timeframe. My own health took a backseat. I had someone else to focus on.
After waiting in line in a hallway, I was brought in to get my blood taken for the HIV test. First, they took a few cylinders that they would send out to determine my status in from 2 weeks ago, and then they gave me an instant finger prick test, which determined my HIV status from 3 months ago.
The instant test was negative, but I still had this bout of uneasiness.  The dim clouds should have separated, lifting this weight off of me, and yet they didn’t. I should have been able to go back to the waiting room to retrieve my friend, but Claudia wouldn't let me. As she took me in arm, we passed the waiting room, and I had enough time to fake a smile to my friend and say, “I’m negative. There’s nothing to worry about. I just...have to go.”
Claudia brought me to a darker, dimmer office without any windows.
“It’s not over yet, you know. You’re only negative as of 3 months ago, so anyone that you had contact with since then could have infected you. When you get these results back in two weeks then you will know for sure.”
“But you said that my incident happened a while ago.”
“I said nothing like that, and I can’t say anything, because I must protect that person’s identity.”
Claudia then brought me into a room with this man at a desk with a single sheet of paper and a pen in front of him.
He jumped right in without introducing himself. “In the case that you are HIV positive, you have the option of writing down everyone that you have had sexual contact with since November [three months ago.]”
The panic came back, and the fact that so far, the tests said I was negative meant nothing, but the anger and inability to cooperate came back too.
“I’m negative, and I don’t have to give you anything.”
The man shrugged and took out a red pen to which he wrote, “REFUSED” on my file. I thought of this girl of my past and how she felt during this whole process—finding out she was HIV positive, having to sit in this room and write down the names of everyone she slept with. I was negative. Why was I feeling so guilty about refusing to list names?
I had one last meeting with Claudia before I was able to leave for good. She told me to call her in two weeks to confirm my negative status, and she suggested that I didn’t have sexual contact with anyone until then. 
After this grueling morning of red tape and miscommunication, my friend took me out to eat where I ordered and ate two full breakfasts. There’s something about a gamble with your life that makes you hungry as fuck. 
The following weekend, I surrounded myself with friends that I trusted with this news, but I held back the possibility that I could still be positive. They took every opportunity to make me laugh—even mentioning the sketchy lovers in my past.
“I have money on the girl from Flatbush, who snuck out of your apartment barefoot in the middle of the night.”
Smiles and laughter seemed to be the only thing I needed, but when I was alone Sunday night, the bubble I was in had burst, and I was alone in the dark crying myself to sleep. 
Late in the night, I called someone from my church that I trusted, afraid of what she’d think of my promiscuity. Judge-free, she led me through those next two weeks with her prayers and positive messages.
Eventually, the burden had lifted, and two weeks later, I found out I was negative. I thought about my actions in those last three months, and thought to myself, ‘for someone that wants a family and a monogamous relationship, I’m sure as hell not acting like it.’ 
I’m lucky. I got a warning, and someone I know, whoever she is, wasn’t as lucky. I just have to remember that how I’m living right now is my second chance.