Heterosexual women often presume HIV is a gay man’s problem; not true says one woman, who knows first-hand.
As told to Corrinne Barraclough.
“My first marriage didn’t work out so I found myself a 30-something single mum living in the city with my kids. I studied at university and was working. I’d been alone for some time, I was happy, but I missed being married and having someone to plan a future with.
I met my ex-husband through my social circle. He was younger than me and I was flattered when he pursued me. He didn’t drink or smoke; he was a quiet sort of man. I thought I could trust him.
On an early date he took me to a kids’ movie, which I thought was cute. I got swept along.
We got married quickly and didn’t have sex until our wedding night.
As soon as I signed the marriage papers he turned into a different man. He was domineering, controlling and not my Prince Charming at all.
Watch: The moment Mamamia staffers knew it was time to get a divorce. (Post continues after video.)
Our marriage didn’t last long; I threw him out after a violent episode. Then I discovered I was pregnant. I took him back, hoping we could make it work, but his behaviour got worse. I ended the relationship and focused on being a mum.
Eight years ticked by; then I started getting sick. For eight months I kept going back to the doctor and being sent home with antibiotics. I was misdiagnosed with whooping cough but my health deteriorated. I had fungal nail infection, my skin turned sallow, my hair was falling out and I was rapidly losing weight.
I went to the doctor and said, “Do you think I’ve got cancer?” I was told not to be so silly.
One week later, I had a seizure at work. I was wheeled around from test to test in hospital. A CT scan showed I had five lesions and swelling on my brain. The doctors told me I had second-degree brain cancer. MRI scans revealed I had toxoplasmosis. As I wasn’t pregnant, they said I must have a compromised immune system so I signed permission for an HIV test.
"I signed permission for an HIV test." (Image: iStock)
Two days later, two doctors came and closed the curtain around my bed. They told me my test had returned positive. I took a deep breath in, sighed out, and said, “At least I’m not going to die.” I knew HIV medication enabled people to live good lives.
I didn’t realise just how sick I was. I’d been living with HIV for nine years. If the CD4 count in your blood is below 250 you’re prone to opportunistic infections. Under 50, a cough can kill you. Mine was 40.
My first thought was for my son; I breastfed him. Thank God his test came back negative.
I tracked my ex down and phoned him. Furious, I said, “Do you realise what you’ve done? You played Russian Roulette; you put me at risk and our child. You fired two bullets, you got one hit.”
He hung up. I never heard from him again.
I could explore my legal options, but what’s the point? I’m a mother, that’s my focus.
I was in hospital for a couple of months. At my worst, I was taking 72 pills a day to treat infections the HIV had caused. I went blind in one eye where the infection had got in.
Nine months later, my health finally improved; lesions on my brain cleared and my sight returned. It was a hard slog. The biggest celebration at my nine month mark was being able to pick up a pile of washing!
Five years later, there’s a lot of damage to my health; my heart and bones especially. But, I’m alive – and I’ll see my grandchildren one day.
No one knows how long they’re going to live for. I live each day with purpose. I’m grateful for every day I’m well and with my children.
I threw myself into public speaking to raise awareness very quickly. We discussed it as a family; I wanted to make sure my children were happy for me to speak out.
Lots of HIV infections happen to Australians on overseas holidays; nearby areas have high rates of HIV. Do what you want on holiday, but be aware sex can come with consequences. Take care of your health.
When you go for a pap smear, get a sexual health check-up. Don’t think, 'I don’t trust my partner'; rather, 'I take responsibility for my health.'
Doctors may try to brush you off saying, “You’re married, you’re educated,” their usual checklist - but it’s your life and you only get one.
You’re better to know and get on medication quickly. I’ll never get my health back. The percentage of heterosexual HIV is rising in parts of Australia, UK and USA. Let’s not be complacent, let’s be proactive now.”
As told to Corrine Barraclough. For more from Corrine, follow her on Facebook here.