When Web MD told me that I had HIV (or worse), I ignored that my excessive symptom googling was an indication for something that I expected the least.
What if? What if?
I can almost hear the nagging question echoing. I do not usually bleed during sex. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I exclaim silently while chewing at the end of my pencil that I had intended to write the shopping list with.
I grab my phone and disappear into the depths of Cyberchondria for what feels like hours. The shopping remaining undone, but my search history growing larger and more desperate:
How many people in Germany are infected with HIV?
How many of them live in the same state as me?
How long can you live with HIV without developing any symptoms?
In between searches I try to reason with myself and wonder if I could be amongst the 10 to 15 per cent of Western Europeans that are immune to HIV due to a mutated CCR 5 gene.
It’s no use I think. I must talk to someone, who knows better than me. I gather all my courage and dial the number of a HIV helpline. I am ready to share my deepest, innermost fears with a stranger.
A blunt male voice answers my call with Hello and How can I help you?
Again, I take all my heart to tell the helpline operator all about my fear of contracting HIV. I talk for two minutes straight, not knowing, whether I am still connected or not.
“Hello?” I hold my breath for a second, “Are you still with me?”
“Yes…,” an irritated voice answers,
“Listen, love, you have come to the wrong place.”
I can feel a heatwave coming over me: “Wait, what do you mean?” I stammer, “Isn’t this supposed to be a helpline? Aren’t you supposed to help me?” I feel my voice break.
Unimpressed the operator continuous, “By what you are describing, your problem lies somewhere else. You should check in with a therapist. But HIV definitely isn’t your problem.”
How dare he talk to me like that! Has he been bleeding from his vagina during unprotected intercourse? Has he been suffering from a chronic urinary tract infection since last year?
Of course, I don’t say any of this, still shocked by his open hostility.
Before I get a chance to defend myself, he cuts me off, “Listen, I am going to hang up now. This conversation is not going anywhere. Please get professional help from a therapist,” and with that, he is gone.
Open-mouthed and shamed I sit on my cold tiled bathroom floor, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
What is wrong with people? I type into my phone, consulting with the one loyal friend I have.
I learn that HIV helpline operators are trained to deal with people like me — so-called “Aids hypochondriacs “ — in exactly the same manner as my questionable agony uncle just did: Cut them off.
That is so not true! I think, If anything, I am an ‘“Aids-worrier “.
According to the website, “worriers” are within the realm of “Aids hypochondria”, but unlike full-on hypochondriacs, they trust negative test results.
I decide to take my chances and find out, whether I am the first or the latter, or if I am just doomed.
I go to one of the local clinics that provide free HIV testing services. It is run by gay men only and on their website it says that no one is being judged for their sexual preferences or practices.
I ring the doorbell and a shaggy-haired guy in his mid-twenties opens.
“I am here for the free testing,” I say, and with a yawning expression, he lets me enter. I follow him until the front desk — an actual desk that is cluttered with brochures, letters and leaflets.
He fishes out a clipboard, a pen and a form, which he then clips onto the board. “You can take a seat over there,” he points at a row of fold-up chairs that I didn’t see at first because it is hidden behind a shelf harbouring heavy-looking cardboard boxes — probably full of brochures and leaflets.
“Mr Block will call you in when he’s ready,” the shaggy head says and hands me over the pen and clipboard.
I feel a strange sense of relief at the sight of this most informal setting. It is way different from my first-ever HIV testing experience a few years back. I still feel a shiver when I think of that nurse in our local health office — her lips a thin straight line, revealing no emotion. Totally unlike her judging eyes that made up for our lack of spoken communication, as if asking me, how I came to have unprotected sex in the first place — without being married — and not for reproductive reasons.
I am glad I came to this place, I think and tend to the questionnaire.
What do they mean by “risk contact”? I wonder. Someone that I know of has HIV, or just anyone, who I have had unprotected sex with?
I fill in the form as best as I can, when suddenly a 6-foot-3 tall, bearlike man walks in and introduces himself as “Block”. He starts chatting casually and I feel like I have just walked in on him talking to a friend on the phone. But surely he must be talking to me since we are walking together past the front desk and into a tiny L-shaped room. “See, we are in this building since 1995. And now I need to get this place renovated,” he explains more randomly than apologetic. He doesn’t expect me to say anything. Maybe it would even interrupt his train of thoughts.
The first thing in the room that catches my attention is a display cabinet, exhibiting a variety of HIV meds on one level, extra-strength condoms and a colourful selection of Vaseline on the next. Looking around the corner, I find a sofa — definitely IKEA — and the infamously cheap LACK side table with a box of tissues sitting on top of it. I hope we won’t have to proceed to this corner of the room anytime soon.
Instead, we sit down at a small square table, which just about fits two people — massive Block and me.
“You know the type of clients I love?” he smiles at me, again not expecting an answer. “Those worried husbands, who show up just after the weekend riddled with guilt,” he shakes his head with amusement.
“Do you know what I did?” he whispers mockingly, leaning over to me covering his mouth, “I had sex with a prostitute!” and bursts into laughter at his comic impersonation of a client.
Still wondering when the actual testing is going to take place, I am the last one to interrupt his soothing monologue.
Block catches his breath and takes a look at my clipboard. Then his expression changes from amused to serious.
“So, here it says that you have herpes?” he looks up at me.
“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.
“And also genital warts and chronic thrush, is that correct?” he lifts his eyebrows worriedly.
“Well, if you experience all of these symptoms,” he says, “I am afraid that you have a very real chance of having contracted HIV.”
I realise that I must have misinterpreted the questionnaire.
“Ah, no!” I exclaim, “I do not suffer from all of these symptoms RIGHT now. We are talking about the past fifteen years here.”
Block exhales with relief.
“At the moment, I only have a chronic urinary tract infection, which worries me.”
“Well, there is a number of reasons for UTIs, you know? To start with, women have a much shorter urethra than men,” he explains expertly.
Of course, I already knew. I had seen three different urologists over the past year and have also double and triple checked with the internet — which finally brought me here.
“The funniest thing happened last year,” Block is back to being his casual self while reaching over to a shelf for the HIV test kit.
“One week, two couples walk in here and are both tested positive for Hepatitis B. The very same strain of Hepatitis. And they had never even met before.”
He opens the pack and prepares for testing. “I kept thinking, how is that possible? They did not even know each other, you know what I mean?” he stares out the window absent-mindedly.
Any normal person would want to get this HIV testing situation over with as quickly as possible and urge Block to get on with business. But not me.
I don’t ever want him to stop talking, I think. Then, I’ll never find out. So, what? Maybe this wouldn’t be the worst thing. Stuck in a tiny room with a large HIV testing service provider for the rest of my life. Why not.
“You know what it was in the end?” he looks back at me and I shake my head. “Turns out that both couples had visited the same sex club and dipped into the same lube jar. Mystery solved.”
He now takes out a safety-lancet and inspects my fingers.
“How long does it take until the result shows?” I ask anxiously. “Two minutes,” he replies, back to being his professional self. I can feel my chest tightening.
He wipes my middle finger with a cotton pad that smells of alcohol, then pricks my finger with the lancet and then … nothing happens.
Isn’t there supposed to be blood? I wonder.
Then he says, “Aww, now haven’t you got the tiniest, most delicate hands?” and I can feel his giant paws pulling and squeezing my finger to produce blood.
The first drop of blood appears and is now carefully filled into the test tube. I can feel all of my body muscles tightening and my face flushing. I am sure if I try to stand up this moment, I will almost certainly faint.
After three minutes, clarity:
I. Am. Negative.
As if nothing had happened, Block continues to his tales and my body slowly adjusts to the news. I rustle my bag to signal that I am about to stand up and leave.
“You know that American businessmen always bring ‘Truvada’ on their trips to Thailand? It’s the only preventive HIV drug,” he says as I stand in the doorway empty-headedly.
“It’s ridiculously expensive,” he scoffs, “I hope they will introduce it to Europe at a more reasonable price.”
With that, I say “Thank you for your support,” and leave the small L-shaped room.
Thank god I didn’t have to sit down on that IKEA sofa!
A look on my watch reveals that I have spent almost two hours in here! The shaggy-haired guy at the front desk has now built a large pile of clutter next to the computer and scrolls through his Facebook timeline. The fold-up chairs are taken by two young men with the softest facial features I have ever seen.
Back at home, I wonder:
How reliable are those HIV self-tests anyway?