I’ll never forget the day of my HIV diagnosis. The moment I heard those words, “I’m sorry Jennifer, you’ve tested positive for HIV,” everything faded to darkness. The life I’d always known vanished in an instant.
The youngest of three, I was born and raised in beautiful sunny California by my single mother. I had a happy and normal childhood, graduated from college, and became a single mother of three myself.
But life changed after my HIV diagnosis. I suddenly felt so much ingrained shame, regret, and fear.
Changing years of stigma is like picking away at a mountain with a toothpick. Today, I try to help others see what HIV is and what it isn’t.
Reaching undetectable status put me in control of my life again. Being undetectable gives people living with HIV new meaning and hope that wasn’t possible in the past.
Here’s what it took for me to get there, and what being undetectable means to me.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was 45 years old, life was good, my kids were great, and I was in love. HIV had never entered my mind. To say my world flipped upside down instantaneously is the understatement of all understatements.
I grasped the words with almost immediate gut-wrenching acceptance because tests don’t lie. I needed answers because I had been sick for weeks. I presumed it was some sort of ocean parasite from surfing. I thought I knew my body so well.
Hearing that HIV was the reason for my night sweats, fevers, body aches, nausea, and thrush made the symptoms intensify with the shocking reality of it all. What did I do to get this?
All I could think was that everything that I stood for as a mother, teacher, girlfriend, and all that I hoped for wasn’t what I deserved because HIV is what defined me now.
About 5 days into my diagnosis, I learned that my CD4 count was at 84. A normal range is between 500 and 1,500. I also learned that I had pneumonia and AIDS. This was another sucker punch, and another hurdle to face.
Physically, I was at my weakest and somehow needed to muster the strength to manage the mental weight of what was being thrown at me.
One of the first words that came to my mind shortly after my AIDS diagnosis was absurdity. I metaphorically threw my hands up in the air and laughed at the insanity of what was happening to my life. This wasn’t my plan.
I wanted to provide for my kids and have a long, loving, and sexually fulfilling relationship with my boyfriend. My boyfriend tested negative, but it wasn’t clear to me if any of this was possible when living with HIV.
The future was unknown. All I could do was focus on what I could control, and that was getting better.
My HIV specialist offered these words of hope during my first appointment: “I promise this will all be a distant memory.” I held tight to those words during my recovery. With each new dose of medication, I slowly began to feel better and better.
Unexpected to me, as my body healed, my shame also began to lift. The person I always knew began to re-emerge from the shock and trauma of my diagnosis and illness.
I assumed that feeling sick would be part of the “punishment” for contracting HIV, whether it was from the virus itself or from the lifelong antiretroviral medication I now had to take. Either way, I never anticipated that normal would be an option again.
When diagnosed with HIV, you quickly learn that CD4 counts, viral loads, and undetectable results are new terms you’ll use for the rest of your life. We want our CD4s high and our viral loads low, and undetectable is the desired achievement. This means that the level of virus in our blood is so low it can’t be detected.
By taking my antiretroviral daily and obtaining an undetectable status, it now meant that I was in control and this virus wasn’t walking me by its leash.
An undetectable status is something to celebrate. It means your medication is working and your health is no longer compromised by HIV. You can have condomless sex if you choose to without the worry of transmitting the virus to your sexual partner.
Becoming undetectable meant I was me again — a new me.
I don’t feel like HIV is steering my ship. I feel in complete control. That’s incredibly liberating when you’re living with a virus that has taken over 32 million lives since the beginning of the epidemic.
For people living with HIV, being undetectable is the optimal health scenario. It also means you can no longer transmit the virus to a sexual partner. This is game-changing information that can reduce stigma that unfortunately still exists today.
At the end of the day, HIV is just a virus — a sneaky virus. With the medications available today, we can proudly proclaim that HIV is nothing more than a chronic manageable condition. But if we continue to allow it to make us feel shame, fear, or some form of punishment, HIV wins.
After 35 years of the world’s longest running pandemic, isn’t it time for the human race to finally beat this bully? Getting every person living with HIV to an undetectable status is our best strategy. I’m team undetectable until the very end!
Jennifer Vaughan is an HIV+ advocate and vlogger. For more on her HIV story and daily vlogs about her life with HIV, you can follow her on YouTube and Instagram, and support her advocacy here.