What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Hey, it's World AIDS Day!
It's not exactly the kind of holiday you "celebrate," but I knew I wanted to acknowledge it by getting an HIV test. I'd seen some press releases that said a lot of places would be doing free testing, but I couldn't find any special events going on locally, except for this dentist who sent out a self-serving press release about offering free HIV testing but whose front desk tried to bait and switch me into getting a cleaning when I called. Lies are harder to scrub clean than plaque, Dr. Catrise Austin!
But no bother, I headed down to my not-that-local STD clinic, which I half expected to be crammed full of date-conscious folks getting tested or at least have some kind of banner or parade alerting people to the occasion, but I'm not actually sure anyone there knew or cared that it's World AIDS Day.
The waiting room was sparsely populated with men and women, mostly of the young and sexy variety, sort of like an extra risky nightclub. Although, actually, a nightclub is probably more risky. We were all there looking after our sexual health, after all, although people could have been there for a variety of services including Plan B (hi, Cat!).
Here's the thing about taking an HIV test: It's scary, but not because of the process, which is easy. The experience differs slightly from place to place, but at the health center you just walk in, fill out short form and wait for your number to be called.
When I have been tested in the past, I've been asked a long list of invasive questions about how much sex and who with and in what configurations I've had during the past month, 3 months, 6 months. Maybe for research purposes? Honestly, it's not worse than what they ask you when you go to donate blood. The questioners are usually very careful not to react in any way, although I once had a guy chuckle and call me "his kind of girl," which wasn't really appropriate to the situation, especially since I was literally dizzy with fear.
They'll also often provide a little bit of counseling, asking you why you're there and how you would react and cope if a test came back positive. If you say that you would hurt yourself or someone else if given a positive diagnosis, they will tell you to come back another time. Some places will also ask you questions about your substance use and provide counseling in that area if you request it. I sort of look forward to it, because I love talking about myself, and also any excuse to brownnose doctors by telling them I'm sober.
The Dr. Leona Baumgartner Center, it must be said, was not that interested in my inner life. I was just disinterestedly taken into a room and given a quick prick by a woman who told me to "give her my middle finger." Heh.
A lot of places use the rapid oral test, which uses a cheek swab instead of blood. If you're not terrified, you will be dazzled by the science of it.
But you will probably be terrified. Even though I am in a monogamous relationship and have not engaged in any risky sexual behaviors, while I am waiting for the test to process (30-40 minutes), I am always completely sure it is coming back positive. It's like the feeling that comes over you when you get pulled over, even when you weren't doing anything wrong.
And, let's be real: No one can ever be sure that their partner is entirely monogamous, no matter how well you think you know them. I didn't take a test today for sheer novelty, although I was fairly certain it would come out negative.
And for the record, I have been tested many times before in which I was much less certain of the outcome, when I felt literally sick to my stomach in the waiting room. I have lain awake at night feeling like I deserved to be positive after all the times I'd put myself at risk. It has felt like a miracle every time I have not been diagnosed with HIV.
The thing is, and it is a very difficult mental shift to make to comprehend this, but HIV can happen to truly anyone, regardless of how many people you've slept with, what gender you are, what color you are, and what your sexuality is. All you have to do is sleep with one person with HIV.
The people that I know with HIV are not easily identifiable. The only reason I know they have HIV, in fact, is because we have been in recovery or therapy settings together, where sharing personal information that may be a secret everywhere else in your life is the norm. One woman, in particular, a tall, beautiful former model with a successful career who never wants for dates comes to mind. Read Regan Hoffman's memoir, "I Have Something To Tell You," or even this It Happened to Me for further examples of the fact that no matter what kind of person you are, HIV happens to people like you.People who are not intraveneous drug users, who have not been promiscuous, who are not gay men. Those populations matters too, but they're aware of the threat in a way that I sometimes feel women, in particular, are not.
(Also, thanks video playing in the waiting room for reminding us all what it means to be on the down low!)
I am not going to act like getting tested is an awesome thing to do, or that you wouldn't have a better time getting an ice cream cone. But knowing your status reinforces your commitment to sexual health. It's so much easier to make bad sexual choices when you're floating around in a murky nowhere state of denial and fear. Because I was tested, I know today that I am HIV negative, and I know what steps I need to take to keep it that way.
So, seriously, just get tested. Use a stupid excuse like I did, let this article be your excuse! Tell the lady at the clinic who doesn't care that Emily from xoJane told you you have to go get tested today, or tomorrow if it's too late today. Because while you may not think you want to know (dude, I FEEL that), you actually need to. Life goes on either way.