Telling My Bosses I Had HIV Gave Me Hope
I didn’t expect to tell my colleagues I had HIV. I’m glad I did.
It was a Friday morning, and I had an 11am appointment at my local hospital, to get the full results of the blood tests the doctors took to determine the extent of my newly-diagnosed HIV.
By that stage, I had passed just over a month of knowing I was HIV positive. I had gotten over the initial shock, told my boyfriend, spoke to a Positive friend in London, and began my mental journey of accepting that I was now going to live with this for the rest of my life. Despite that, I told my manager and a few selected colleagues that I needed to pop to the hospital for blood tests.
This alarmed them. I work with a very caring and close-knit team of people, which is lovely, but it also means that I can’t mention hospital without getting a text message saying: “Are you okay? We’re here if you need us”. Their concern for me, while appreciated, made me feel guilty and awkward. I wasn’t a great liar at the best of times, but trying to get my head around my recent diagnosis was already enough of a challenge, without having to come up with credible cover stories.
I came up with a convoluted excuse, and mentioned haemochromatosis, which is a condition where you’ve too much iron in your blood. The big medical term confused those I told just enough to fend off their curiosity and concern, and kept people at bay. So far, so good.
That Friday morning, however, it wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. The hospital was busier than I had previously experienced, and I was now running over an hour late. I knew my manager — a mild-mannered and generally sweet Englishman — wouldn’t pry at all, but I felt guilty thinking I’d waltz back into the office without even a doctor’s note.
Still, the reason why I was there was more important. The doctors had the results of my blood tests. I noticed the results on a page in front of my doctor: “Viral load: 2868623”. They told me not to be worried about that, because as someone who hadn’t started Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) yet, the amount of HIV in my system was bound to be high. The doctors were more interested in my CD4 (AKA T-Cell) count: 253. They told me that if I contracted HIV within 6–8 months — which is my suspicion — then there was a chance that my CD4 count could ‘bounce back up a little’. They wanted to do another test of my CD4 count to double-check, but I was told that I’d begin ART within the month.
I was glad to hear that. Ever since I had been diagnosed, and despite being relatively positive-minded about it all, I had ‘down’ moments where I literally felt toxic to others, especially my boyfriend. I felt like I was a danger to him, especially if we tried to have sex. Committing to wear condoms wasn’t enough; I lost any desire to be intimate, feeling like some sort of biological weapon. That Friday morning, the doctors asked me how soon I’d want to go on ART, and I told them that for my own mental health (whatever about the virus) I needed to become undetectable as soon as possible.
They understood. Before getting my second CD4 blood test done (by a middle-aged English doctor whose bedside manner left me lacking!) I was visited by a really sweet pharmacist, who explained what kind of medication I’d be likely to go onto. She told me that the particular strain of HIV that I had “had no resistance to ART drugs”, which meant that I was free to go onto whatever medication the doctors recommended. She told me that I’d be likely to go onto a single tablet, which would combine three drugs in one. There were two medications of that kind, and she told me that next week, the doctors would meet to discuss my health, and decide on a recommendation from there.
Either way, I didn’t have long to wait, and the pharmacist told me that I was likely to be undetectable within two to three months. I was told to expect some potential side effects while my body gets used to the medication, like light-headedness or nausea, but “every person reacts differently, so you could be completely fine — you just have to wait and see”.
With that, I was done with the hospital, the doctors, and blood tests for another few weeks. I needed to get back to the office. I was now out of the office for over three and a half hours; I hated letting down my manager, and knew I just couldn’t keep up the lie of being out because of something else. If I were honest, I thought, they’d be understanding, and let me take the time I needed to get through these next few months.
I decided to ask my manager for a private meeting, and was shaking by the time I met him in the meeting room. He was clearly confused over what was going on, but sat down and let me speak.
And I did. I told him that what I needed to say was extremely personal, but would impact my work temporarily. I told him that the haemochromatosis story was a white lie, told while I tried to get used to what was going on, and that last month I had tested positive for HIV.
“Jesus” was all that he said to that announcement, prompting me to quickly continue, explaining that I wasn’t dying; my life expectancy was not going to change, but that I’d simply be on a pill a day for the rest of my life. I started to explain about how far medication had come since the days of the AIDS epidemic, but he was honest and quick enough to ask: “Okay, but what does that actually mean?”.
I was happy that he was honest in his curiosity, so I broke down what I knew (so far) about how HIV works, and how the medication works to fight it. I explained about what ‘undetectable’ meant, and that I’d effectively reach a ‘new normal’ level of health once I got past the initial stages of treatment.
He was brilliant in how he listened, reacted, and reassured me that everything would be fine. He wanted me — if I was comfortable enough — to tell his four colleagues in our department; his line manager (the head of our department) and two others on his level. I accepted his request; all three colleagues he mentioned were women for whom I really respected and got on with. I knew they’d be supportive, and it would also be good for my manager to know that he’d have someone to talk to about this, on a professional level.
The following Monday, I did just that. My manager arranged the meeting for me to tell the three women, and they were incredible. They hugged me, told me that I’d be fine, and knew (somehow!) about how far HIV research and medicine had come. They told me not to worry about hospital appointments, to work from home on those days (so as not to worry about when to get back) and they reassured me that the matter wouldn’t go any further than themselves. They praised me for how mentally and emotionally strong I had been since being diagnosed, which was really lovely to hear. Most importantly, they told me that nothing would change for me, both at work and outside the office.
A few more hugs, and that was that. I walked out of the meeting room to go back to my work, and to my supportive team. Telling my managers meant that my living with HIV became that bit more real, but I felt so supported and — weird as it might sound for a professional situation — loved, that I knew things were going to be okay.
The only thing I needed to worry about was my workload. Sometimes, even the most unusual of Mondays are still a pain in the back!