It's a matter of being positive

Living with HIV is by no means easy, but as long as there is life there is hope for the future says Nigel Wrench
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF I look back at my BBC diary from 1993 it looks fairly typical. At the end of April it says: "Went to see The Importance of Being Earnest starring Maggie Smith." I was doing interviews for the Today programme. An interview with Lord Parkinson is pencilled in. Lord Jenkins is booked in for the following day.

Then we get to 6 May 1993. Three engagements are listed. One was at 9.30am - the Royal Free Hospital, Ian Charleson Centre. At 11.30 I was to see the MP Peter Luff. Then there was another interview later in the day at 6.15.

As you might guess the appointment at 9.30 was for an HIV test at the Royal Free. I went back and before I had even had the chance to sit down the nurse said, "I think you may know this by now but you are positive." Well, I didn't know. I hadn't guessed. But I still managed to do the sensible thing. I phoned the office and said: Could someone else do the interviews? That was the beginning of my journey with HIV.

Five years on, there aren't many good things one can say about being HIV positive but, in a way, I can say that it's useful knowing when, and from whom, I caught my particular terminal illness. At least I can identify an occasion and say, "At that moment I could have not done that and I wouldn't have HIV." But I did it and I have.

It's different if you've got lung cancer and your doctor thinks it's the result of five years spent smoking. That's five years of mistakes. I made one mistake. I had unsafe sex. That's not a huge mistake. As one of my friends, Ray, said: "You were just enjoying yourself. Having a bit of fun." And look what it's done.

The danger with HIV is that it gets blamed for a multitude of things like mood swings that are frankly not its fault. It's just doing its job - destroying my immune system. But the uncertainty makes me impatient. I think "You've got another 40 years. I haven't. So let's just do it my way."

I think the most difficult thing is this - HIV is associated with sex. That is where you get it from. So that makes it hard to tell people. Do you tell everyone you meet? Do you tell everyone you might want to have sex with? Imagine you're having a drink with someone and suddenly you're explaining that you're dying.

It sounds brutal but now I only tell the people I sleep with more than once. It sounds as though I'm promiscuous but I don't think I am any more than any other gay man. I remember one boyfriend. We had a second date and I was leaving him in Soho Square and said: "I want to see you again but there's something you must think about - I have HIV." His smile vanished. He hugged me and said, "I have lost so many friends." It's as though you've pulled a rain cloud over your relationship.

Of course you still have to tell people as - however small the risk - you could give it to them. Even if they don't think about it, I certainly do. After all, who wants to kill anybody?

Taking my daily drugs is a reminder too. I was gravely ill with PCP pneumonia not long after diagnosis, but now the virus is kept at bay with drug treatments. I can't imagine a day when I don't knock back the capsules, even though they are huge and you feel very odd afterwards. They are my lifeline, they are what makes me feel secure. It's like having your own personal lucky charms that have to be consumed.

World Aids Day is coming up next Tuesday. When I was first diagnosed the red ribbon meant a lot to me. Not any longer. I used to think it was a badge of solidarity, but now I think it's a badge of fashion. I don't feel that it includes me - someone living with Aids.

Last World Aids Day I went out dancing all night and it seemed a good thing to do because at least it was an affirmation of life rather than going to some worthy gathering. Now that people with the virus are surviving for a long time it's hard for the Aids organisations to know what to do with us. Apart from being an educational tool - in which case the money would be far better spent in schools - World Aids Day has no relevance to people with HIV and Aids anymore.

These days, you see, I do look ahead with optimism. When I get my 1999 diary I will fill in everyone's birthdays. There is a window of calm. It may only be a window but at least it is calm. Suddenly the future might be a desirable place to be. Perhaps there will be another 10 years. Who knows?

`Aids and Me with Nigel Wrench' is broadcast today on Radio 4 at 11am by Nigel Wrench, reporter and presenter of Radio 4's `PM' programme