Some time in 2009, Alex Sparrowhawk hooked up with a guy and, in the throes of passion, the pair decided not to use a condom. A couple of weeks later he started feeling unwell and developed a cough that lasted a bit too long. While the first HIV test came back negative, the second one did not. Today, he is one of the 103,000 people estimated to be living with HIV in the UK.
A few years after his diagnosis Alex left his job in insurance to work for the Terrence Higgins Trust, in their My HIV online peer support forum. "It's nice to do something you know can make a difference rather than just pay the bills," he told me over the phone, when I called him to ask a few questions.
VICE: What's it like to live with HIV today?
Alex Sparrowhawk: It sounds weird to say, but its probably the best time to be diagnosed right now. The medication is improving all the time. I didn't let it stop me working and I've been really lucky to have a good support network.
What is still a problem is the stigma surrounding it. The comments below online articles about HIV, for instance, are horrendous. Or, like a year ago, when the Charlie Sheen story came out, hearing people talk about it in the pub I'd just think, 'You're clueless – you have no idea what having this virus means today.'
What was your first reaction when you found out?
When I got the message asking me to come back into the clinic a few days after the second test, I knew that something was wrong. They wouldn't ask you back if it was all clear. So I contacted an ex, who is HIV positive, and he came with me to the clinic. When they told me, I had so many questions, like: "Am I going to get ill?" "Am I going to have to quit work?" "Am I ever going to meet anyone again?" The doctor and my friend tried to reassure me, but I didn't take much of it in. Even though I went in there guessing what was going to happen, it was still quite a shock.
Are you currently in a relationship?
Three months after my diagnosis I met someone and we were together for six-and-a-half years. We just split up this summer – nothing to do with the virus, though. But it's crazy, because when I was first diagnosed, I thought I would never meet someone – then I met my ex quite quickly.
How do you first tell people you're dating that you're positive?
Because I met my ex, I didn't really have to deal with too many of those conversations about my status. Now I think: 'How do I bring it into conversation without it being weird?' It's not that I'm not happy to talk about it, it's just that it doesn't lend itself easily to small talk.
I've been avoiding dating apps since the break-up because it feels like a bit of a headache deciding how to go about it. Like, am I just going to attract ignorant people? Friends of mine who are also HIV positive have shown me some of the horrible stuff that they've been sent on Grindr, like, "You shouldn't be on here, you're spreading it!" So I'm not sure if I can be bothered with all that.
Do you ever get paranoid about passing it on, in the way people who are not HIV positive sometimes are?
I'm OK with it – I think I'm confident enough in the science and research behind it that I know that I'm not "infectious". I don't feel like I'm putting anyone at risk. Once you are on antiretroviral treatment, and the virus is at an undetectable level and has been for six months or more, the risk is negligible. It's amazing that we've reached the point, where you can stop transmission just by getting people on treatment.
Am I right to assume you are on a lot of medication? If so, what's that like?
I just take one tablet a day. I do have to take it every day, but it's become a part of my daily routine, just like brushing my teeth. Some people have told me they find it difficult because maybe for the rest of the day they can forget about being positive, but that moment is a daily reminder that they have HIV. I think it's important not to make it into a big deal, so I just neck mine with dinner and a glass of water every evening.
Have you ever been discriminated against at work for being HIV positive?
I think I've been really lucky. I never had issues in my last job, and obviously now that I work for an HIV charity, I don't. I came out on social media and in my workplace back in 2012 because I wanted to be more visible in activism, and I had nothing but support from people. I explained that I'd already had HIV for three years, and obviously during that time I hadn't changed at all as a person. And I think I'm confident enough now that even if there was an issue, I'd know how to challenge it and where to get the right advice so that it didn't happen to anyone else in the future.
Has your status affected your view of your future at all?
I guess you have to play the cards you've been dealt in life, and that's what I've done with HIV. I think I've become more confident and stronger and, these days, I am doing things that I don't think I would have pushed myself to do had I not been diagnosed. I guess it's challenged me to get more out of life because I don't want to waste it. Even though I knew I wasn't going to die and that I was going to be healthy, I wanted to make sure I was having fun.
Do you have much hope that scientists are going to develop a full cure?
I don't think I need curing. I take one pill a day, and that being enough to stop me transmitting it, I feel that's all the cure I need. Obviously it's different for everyone and, maybe, when I'm older I'll be more susceptible to different conditions and then I might feel differently. But I think you have to be realistic, and a cure is probably decades off.
What do you wish other people knew about HIV that they currently seem to be getting wrong?
I think everyone should know that people who take their medication can't transmit the virus to anyone else. We can have normal, healthy lives and do anything that anyone else can do. And I think you can only achieve that by being visible and talking about it – even if it's just within your own social circle.
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