I was told I was ‘very positive’. Doctors weren’t referring to my attitude

I'd had HIV for 10 years without knowing.

I was told I was ‘very positive’. Doctors weren’t referring to my attitude
Chris wearing a blazer, sweater, shirt, sitting in a restaurant - with grey spiky hair, stubble and lip piercing stud
I wish I had properly known about HIV before I was diagnosed (Picture: Chris MacFarlane Baxter)

‘You’re not just HIV positive,’ the doctor told me. ‘You’re very positive.’

It sounds cliché but, in that moment I felt completely lost. I was numb and in total denial that this had happened, was happening to me. 

In a very matter-of-fact way, she explained I probably had HIV for more than a decade, that it had already progressed to AIDS, which meant I had no immune system left and had out-lived the life expectancy of someone with untreated HIV.

I was only 36 at the time.

She also told me that they needed to start me on strong antibiotics and keep me in hospital. This is because if I even caught a cold, that could be it for me.

The strangest part about it was that I felt completely fine physically. I didn’t have so much as a headache, which the doctor couldn’t believe because my immune system was non-existent, and she said they hadn’t seen levels of the virus in someone’s blood this high since the 1980s.

As you would expect, it was a very sobering moment and I felt completely alone. This was made worse because my knowledge of HIV at the time was zero, meaning I assumed the worst.

Life before my diagnosis was worry-free. I graduated in my early 20s and bought a one-way ticket to Spain, staying there – and having a brilliant time – for more than 10 years.

Chris wearing a sweater, matching flatcap, with his grey spiky hair, stubble and lip piercing stud
The treatment is one pill every morning and that’s it (Picture: Chris MacFarlane Baxter)

I have an addictive personality and I was addicted to having fun. I worked very hard and partied even harder.

When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. I never gave sexually transmitted infections a second thought – and especially not HIV. I thought only gay men got that.

I didn’t practise safe sex other than some half-hearted attempts to ensure my partners didn’t get pregnant.

But then the fun stopped when a former partner told me I should get tested. As I say, I had absolutely no symptoms, despite how precarious my health was.

Immediately following my diagnosis, I was asked for a list of previous partners who might be at risk. Many of them were girls in Spain, so those names were passed to the Spanish health service.

Thankfully, as far as I know, no one else contracted HIV. But it really made me wish I’d known my status earlier. So I tried to plough on as if nothing had happened.

My doctor started me on medication immediately and within four months my viral load had reduced rapidly, meaning the virus was undetectable in my blood. But it took a lot longer for my immune system to recover.

More than that though, it took a long time for me to feel anything but shame when it came to the diagnosis.

A selfie of Chris wearing a suit and bowtie, with his grey spiky hair, stubble and lip piercing stud
Life before my diagnosis was worry-free (Picture: Chris MacFarlane Baxter)

I was back living in the UK and had my family around me to help, but partly because of my lack of knowledge about HIV and more because of my stubbornness, I was determined to deal with it alone. 

As a result, this moment in my life was very lonely and resulted in an absolute crash and burn.

I was drinking huge quantities of alcohol on a daily basis, passing out, then waking up and starting the cycle again. At one point, I signed myself off work and went on a nine-day binge.

On that final night, I got so drunk that I pissed my pants and was sick down myself. That’s when I phoned the social worker I had been given at the hospital on her out-of-hours phone.

She got an ambulance out to me. Got me cleaned up, sobered up and into therapy the next day.

By speaking to my counsellor, I began unpacking it myself and asked: ‘How do we solve this?’ I started working through issues one by one and a crucial part of that was learning the facts about HIV and how the treatment works.

Chris sitting in a bar, wearing a white shirt and smiling to camera - you can see bottles on shelves behind him. he has grey spiky hair, stubble and lip piercing stud
I got so drunk that I pissed my pants and was sick down myself (Picture: Chris MacFarlane Baxter)

I had been told that I would live a long life with HIV. That I would have a normal life expectancy. That the medication would keep me well and would mean I cannot pass on HIV to partners.

But, until I hit rock bottom, I wasn’t capable of hearing it.

I also wish I had properly known about HIV before I was diagnosed so that it wouldn’t have been so terrifying. That’s a key part of why I’m choosing to share my story publicly now.

It’s why I go into workplaces, schools and prisons to talk about my diagnosis – and the realities of HIV today – as part of Terrence Higgins Trust’s Positive Voices programme. 

I only got involved with the programme last year, mainly because I had never been in the right headspace until recently. Now, I’m open about being HIV positive, and anything I can do to help people, so that they don’t have to go through the difficult time I did, then I’ll do it.

The treatment is one pill every morning and that’s it. Medically, for me, it’s not an issue. But what we really need to tackle now is the stigma and all the myths still surrounding HIV.

For example, Scottish Government-funded research showed that just a third of people know that someone living with HIV and on effective treatment – like me – can’t pass it on. That needs to change if we’re to update the narrative around HIV from death and fear to one of hope.

Now, after a bumpy few years, my life is good. I’ve got a day job in international trade and I’m dating again.

Chris mid speech - he is wearing a checked black blazer, a brown and white checked shirt and a British flag pin - he has grey spiky hair, stubble and lip piercing stud
I assured him that he could still have children without passing on HIV (Picture: Chris MacFarlane Baxter)

I usually don’t share my status until after a couple of dates when I think it might be going somewhere serious. At that point it usually goes one of two ways.

Sometimes, I’ve even taken partners in to see my HIV doctor to explain the science and that I cannot pass on HIV

Being HIV positive is not an impediment for meeting someone and living a ‘normal’ life, it’s just another hurdle in the world of dating, and it’s certainly not the biggest one.

Mostly though, my voluntary work with Terrence Higgins Trust allows me to have really meaningful conversations about HIV, sexual health and, importantly, mental health.

I find visiting prisons to share my story particularly fulfilling. Everyone’s made mistakes – I certainly have – and everyone deserves a second chance. 

Just recently I spoke to a guy a little bit younger than me who was due for parole in September when he came to get tested for HIV.

He told me how, before prison, he had slept around a lot and I thought ‘that sounds like me’.

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We had a great conversation about HIV and I assured him that he could still have children without passing on HIV to a partner or a baby and he seemed very thoughtful and keen not to go back to his previous lifestyle.

I’m just glad I was there to have that frank conversation with him. It’s part of the reason I became determined to share my story, because straight men are terrible at looking after themselves. Looking after ourselves, should I say.

We’re very good at burying our heads in the sand whenever we have a problem. Never want to see a doctor.

So I would like to encourage straight men to look after their health generally and to especially get tested for HIV during National HIV Testing Week.

There are an estimated 5,000 people in the UK who have HIV and don’t know about it. We have to find these people.

For me, that’s what gets me up in the morning. Straight men, don’t be like me – take care of yourself.

National HIV Testing Week runs until Sunday 11 February. You can find out more about HIV testing and order a free test kit via the It Start With Me website. For help and support, call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221.

Facts about HIV

  • Thanks to progress around treatment, people living with HIV can live a happy life with a normal lifespan
  • HIV treatment works by stopping the virus from reproducing and reducing the amount of virus in the blood to what is called an ‘undetectable’ level.
  • This means that the virus is still there, but it is in such small amounts that it can’t be passed on to anyone else. Treatment also keeps people living with HIV healthy.
  • It usually takes between three to six months for someone to become undetectable when they start treatment.
  • People on effective HIV treatment can give birth to HIV negative children.
  • If someone living with HIV is on treatment and has an undetectable viral load, they cannot pass on HIV, even if no condoms are used. However, sex without a condom increases your chance of an STI or result in unplanned pregnancy. 

You can find out more information about HIV and sexual health through Terrence Higgins Trust

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