June 27th is National HIV Testing Day here in the US. You didn’t know that? Neither did I. It really should be advertised a lot more, because it’s really important. In point of fact, every day should be National HIV Testing Day. I sort of stumbled onto it because a very dear friend volunteers as an HIV counselor, and I just happened to pick that day to go to the test site to meet him for lunch.
Off we went to a salad bar and we were chatting about various and sundry things. He touched upon the HIV testing aspect of his life in general terms. He takes confidentially extremely seriously, as all the counselors do. So mostly I had an interior conversation with myself on the topic.
“Should I get tested? I’d like to think I’m pretty low risk. I’m 48 and in a committed relationship, but can I say with one hundred percent certainty that my partner has always been faithful and safe? Can anyone, really? Twenty percent of the people who have HIV don’t even know they have it.”
So I asked my friend what he thought. I didn’t want to take resources away from someone who needed it more. The test is free, after all. But his opinion is that if you are even remotely at risk, having the test is a good thing to do. And when you think about it, you’re doing it not only for your own peace of mind, but also to be responsible and protect your partner. So when we got back from lunch I got tested.
Obviously my friend couldn’t counsel me because a lot of personal questions are asked, and he wanted me to be comfortable being forthright. So I had another counselor. The test itself is very easy. They don’t draw blood or cause pain or have to see any body parts or anything. It’s just a sort of a spongy swab on a stick that you hold against your inner cheek for 3 minutes. Simple.
While that’s going on, they ask you questions to determine your risk factors and the ways they can suggest that you reduce that risk. It’s in your best interest to be honest. And believe me, you’re not going to shock them. They’ve heard it all.
Naturally they urge the use of condoms, and can teach you their proper use if necessary. And incidentally, you can always get free condoms at these test sites. There’s no reason that you should ever use the cost of condoms as a deterrent in their use. Female condoms are also available. And here in Jacksonville, at least, you can be confidentially tested for free at any testing site as long as you are at least 13 years old. Any younger than that and you need a parent or guardian to be present.
They discuss a lot of other interesting things, such as the proper way to sanitize your sex toys. I never thought about their potential role in HIV transmission, but that’s a good reason in and of itself to get counseled. There’s always something more you can learn.
Another thing I learned is that HIV no longer has to be a death sentence. We’ve come a long way since 1985. The available medications are greatly improved, and there’s a possibility that you could die of old age or some other malady before HIV kills you off. Which is not to say it still isn’t something to be taken seriously. Every situation is different.
Getting tested is a mature, responsible and loving thing to do for yourself and those around you. I always look at people who have unplanned pregnancies and I think, “You’re lucky that pregnant was all that you got.” So if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the ones that you love.
The point of all of this is: Don’t be afraid. Get tested.
So I drove away still feeling that I would be HIV negative, and I knew I’d find out in 3 days. But I did get to imagine what it would be like to be HIV positive. That was sobering. It’s not necessarily terminal anymore, but it’s still life changing. And it also made me realize that there are situations I should probably take more seriously than I have in the past. If I learned nothing else from this experience, I learned that.
So I went back for the results the other day and I am, indeed, HIV negative. No big surprise, but I still heaved a sigh of relief. Even if the worst had happened, I wouldn’t regret having taken the test. Knowledge, after all, is power.
It bears repeating. Don’t be afraid. Get tested.
(Image credit: sidellemedical.com)