In recognition of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day I decided to tell my personal story. Of course I could give statistics and data, which I will do a little of later, but I thought sharing my story would be most impactful.
Unfortunately, like many young African American gay males, I was not as educated about HIV as should I have been. This was due to not hearing much about it in school, being heavily involved in the church, and honestly, growing up Black. Being gay was and still is a taboo within the Black community and then to add HIV on top of that was definitely a recipe for disaster.
In the summer of 2009 I started to develop boils in various places of my body and didn’t know why. I decided to go to a local Urgent Care and get some antibiotics. After finishing the medication I got really sick. I started to develop rashes on my body, felt very weak, and could hardly eat. I went to the ER and the nurses and doctors ran multiple tests. Although the results said that I was allergic to the medication that I was taking for the boils, they felt something else was wrong. They asked me if I had ever had an HIV test and I told them that I had only once before, so they tested me.
I was finally released from the hospital but didn’t receive my HIV test results. I waited for a few days and eventually called the hospital and requested them. The nurse informed me over the phone that I was HIV negative. Of course I was excited! It wasn’t until I went to my follow-up appointment with my family physician during my lunch break at work, ON MY BIRTHDAY, that I found out that I was HIV+. Imagine me in his office happy and smiling, excited about my birthday weekend and my doctor coming into the room saying “You seem awfully happy to have heard the news.” I was wondering what he was talking about and then he told me that I wasn’t just diagnosed with HIV but also AIDS. My CD4 count was 2 and my viral load was in the six figures. To this day my doctors still don’t know how I was able to survive.
It turns out I had a strain they had never seen before. Throughout my journey I developed seizures, lost my sight and mobility, weighed 98 pounds, and spent months at a time hospitalized. The fear within my mother’s eyes was something that I had never seen before. I remember that exact moment I told her I was HIV+. We were standing in my grandmother’s yard and I broke down crying and muttered the words, “I have AIDS.” At that moment she grabbed me in her arms and whispered in my ear with tears coming down her face “WE will get through this.” From that point on my mother was at almost every hospital visit and became my rock. I remember laying in the hospital bed crying, not knowing what to do, while my Infectious Disease doctor and nurse were preparing to tell my mother that I was not going to make it. My mother held my hand and sternly said, “You are a fighter, you will not give up. God has a plan and a purpose for you.”
My “lightbulb” moment came the last time I was in the hospital in 2013 when I had my worst seizure to date. I was married at the time and couldn’t remember my husband’s name or even recognize him. I couldn’t speak and lost most of my memory as it relates to that time period. It was after I had finally woken up, after almost a month, that I finally realized that God had a greater purpose for me. All the trials and tribulations that I have been through had been for me to share. I went through what I went through so I can could become a guiding light for others. It was at that moment that I vowed to do what I could in order to decrease the number of new HIV/AIDS infections among young Black gay men, and to this day that vow still lives within me.
I joined a local empowerment group for young African American gay men doing outreach. Shortly after I began working at the Greater Columbus Mpowerment Center (GCMC) as the Outreach Services Specialist. While at GCMC, I became the chair person for both World AIDS Day and the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day committees for the city of Columbus. I soon began working for Columbus Public Health as a Disease Intervention Specialist focusing on young African American gay men. Currently I am the Program Manager at the Ohio AIDS Coalition, an organization that provides hope, healing, and empowerment to all Ohioans affected by HIV/AIDS.
While I believe that I have done great things for my community there is still more work to be done. In Ohio in 2014, African Americans accounted for 52% of all persons diagnosed as HIV+, making them nine times more likely to be diagnosed compared to whites. 44% of all people living with HIV in Ohio are Black/African American. Since African Americans make up about 13% of Ohio’s population, you can see how disproportionately this community is affected by HIV/AIDS.
It is imperative that we not only show support for this community but start and continue to mobilize. Testing is only one piece of the puzzle. Addressing issues around survival sex, homelessness, stigma, poverty, etc. is how were are truly going to be able to reduce new HIV infections among Blacks.
I decided to tell my story to show and prove that despite whatever negative experiences you have, you can and will get through them. February 7th is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and I implore you to get involved. Take the time to educate yourself about HIV/AIDS and what it is doing to our community. If we do not start equipping ourselves properly and becoming more knowledgeable, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” I challenge you to start living.
Yours in the fight,
Adrian Neil Jr.