Janet A, 32, a student from London, was 19 when she learned she was HIV positive.
Visiting friends’ houses as a child, I used to wonder why their fridges weren’t overfowing with medicines like ours. But Mum was always so evasive whenever I asked her about them.
It wasn’t until I was 17 that I fnally discovered her secret – and even then she wasn’t able to tell me herself. Instead, she took me to a hospital and asked a doctor to explain. My mum, I was told, was HIV positive – she’d got it from my dad who’d died of AIDS when I was ten.
Until I was six, I’d lived in Uganda and I’d seen what AIDS did to people, but when my parents separated, Mum and I moved to England. Now I knew what the medicines were for. Devastated as I was for Mum, I was also terrifed for myself. Could I have it, too? She assured me I didn’t and explained she’d taken me to the same hospital when we first arrived in London, where she was told I couldn’t have been infected. In fact, the doctors were so certain, they didn’t even bother to test me. But now, as well as worrying incessantly about what would happen to Mum, I became obsessed with ensuring that I stayed HIV free.
Sex was a major anxiety and my first experience, with a boy I’d known all my life, left me sore and itchy. I thought I loved him, but to him it was a one-night stand. I went to a genitourinary medicine clinic for a series of STI tests. We’d used a condom, and I knew it hadn’t split, but I was so anxious about getting infected, I wanted to know for certain that I hadn’t caught anything. The results were due back two weeks later, but I heard nothing and assumed there wasn’t a problem. But just to be sure, I went back fve months later to check everything was OK. I was taken into a side room, and a doctor nervously tried to fnd the right words. ‘The good news,’ he said ‘is that you tested negative for almost everything… but the bad news is that you are HIV positive.’ This couldn’t be happening to me. I was in total shock and cried uncontrollably for hours as nurses tried to calm me down. In the end, the only way I could cope was to decide that my blood must have been mixed up and I’d got someone else’s result. I asked for a repeat test, and when that was positive, too, I still didn’t believe them and went to a different hospital. I was allowed into the lab to see my blood being tested and this time I had to accept the evidence. The pain was almost unbearable.
Despite what I’d been told, I had been infected since birth. I had contracted the virus from my mother. Suddenly, the fun-loving and outgoing girl I’d always been was lost for ever. I became withdrawn, secretive and most of all, ashamed of who I was – someone with HIV. I’d always told my friends everything, but this was one thing I couldn’t share with anyone. I couldn’t even tell my own mother because I knew she would only blame herself. In the end, the burden was too great and I told my aunt. Almost immediately, Mum called and from the way she said ‘Janet…’ I knew she knew. The minute she saw me, she fell to her knees sobbing, and I understood how terrible she’d been feeling all those years. All I could do was hug her and reassure her that it wasn’t her fault. But imagine living with the knowledge that you’ve passed the HIV virus on to your own child. I could understand how she felt, because I dreamed of becoming a mother myself one day and now it looked as if my chances were disappearing. Motherhood wasn’t even on my radar, though. Since that frst disastrous sexual experience, there had been nobody in my life. Largely because I felt honour-bound to disclose my terrible secret to any boy who took an interest in me – and the reactions were awful. One boy actually told me I was disgusting. It was like being a child back in Uganda…
I was 26 when I met Allan, a courier. I was so scared of losing him that I couldn’t look at him as I confessed my secret. I couldn’t bear to get the same rejection I’d experienced so many times before. Yet, when I fnally looked up, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. ‘I liked you before you told me,’ he said, ‘and that hasn’t changed one bit.’ I was so happy Allan didn’t reject me and thrilled that he too wanted children. I’d already had a lot of support from a charity called Body & Soul who helped me understand and cope with my condition. Now they were here to help us fulfl our ambition without compromising our safety: sex with a condom every time and baby-making with a syringe. It certainly wasn’t romantic, but it was extremely effective. We conceived both our children, Zion, now fve, and Ella-Rose, three, at the frst attempts. I’ll never be free of the virus – HIV is part of me now – but I’m no longer ashamed of it. Allan, Zion and Ella-Rose are all HIV-free and, thanks to antiretroviral therapy, which I will have to take for the rest of my life, I am also happy and healthy. I’m proud that, despite being HIV positive, I have a boyfriend who loves me, and two beautiful children I never expected to have. That’s all I have ever wanted.