I’ve no doubt that the main reason that I’m alive and well after 15 years of living with HIV is because combination therapy became available in 1996, just as my immune system was starting to become so weak that I was vulnerable to AIDS-defining illnesses.
Well, eight years on, my CD4 cell count is over 1000 and my viral load has been undetectable for years.
But as well as acknowledging how important HIV drugs have been, I also want to claim a bit of the credit for doing my bit to keep myself healthy and fit. It’s what I call my "Ikea approach" (after the low-cost Swedish home furnishing store that keeps prices down by asking customers to collect their purchases from the warehouse, and assemble them themselves). Well, I met the medicines half-way by making sure I looked after myself.
First of all I make sure I take my anti-HIV pills. Okay, I’ve missed the odd dose, and taken some a few hours late. But I seem to have got away with it and am still taking my first combination (except for one change due to side-effects).
Then there’s my diet. For the first few years after my HIV diagnosis I was obsessive about my diet, making sure that my diet, from my bowl of wholemeal porridge for breakfast, to my fruit salad desert after supper, was as healthy as possible. It may have been healthy, but it was also very worthy and, actually, boring. I’m now much more relaxed and more or less eat what I want, particularly as I once heard an HIV doctor say that being HIV-positive means "eating for two". Okay, I still make sure that I eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, and am easy on the lard, but now I allow myself food that I want to eat, not food that I feel I should eat.
I’ve always been pretty active and do a lot of exercise. Being honest, vanity was my main motivation to start off with – I found it was much easier to pull with a few muscles – but over the years, fitness and health has become more of a priority. I do a blend of weights and cardio and hope that’s helped control my blood fats even though I’m taking a protease inhibitor.
At times I’ve used complementary and alternative treatments. For a few years, in the early 90s, I was actually quite into them. There seemed to be so little else I could do to fight HIV. I tried a few things, including acupuncture, high-dose vitamins and Chinese herbs. Well, my T-cell count didn’t go down when I was using them, but they still didn’t prevent me getting a bad chest infection which meant a lengthy stay in hospital.
I do still use them though, but am realistic about what they can achieve. As far as I’m concerned, anti-HIV drugs are the reason I’m alive and well, the complementary stuff is just that – a desirable add-on, to help me feel more comfortable. Acupuncture helps me relax, and really did help to relieve the side-effects I experienced when I started my first combination. The odd massage makes me feel better, and I still take a multivitamin every morning. I figure it can’t do me any harm, and might actually do me some good.
Having got my life back, I want to enjoy it. That hasn’t always been easy. I’ve gone through some really bleak periods during the time I’ve had HIV and actually felt suicidal at times. Counselling helped at times, but at others talking about feeling bad and why I felt awful actually made things worse! Antidepressants helped a lot, though, as did some focused psychotherapy when I wasn’t actually depressed.
Since I was a student, I’ve enjoyed a drink, and still do. I’ve also had some great times on drugs of various descriptions. Projectile vomiting and convulsing in a club after taking a pill a few months after starting HIV medicines was a bit of a wake-up call and I haven’t touched anything since. I know a lot of people manage to mix medicines and recreationals, but that was just too frightening for me.
Just after my HIV diagnosis I bought a sofa from Ikea, thinking that as I wasn’t going to last too long, it didn’t matter if it didn’t either. Well, the sofa, like me, is still here.
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