J (Twitter account @tastylongwiener) is a 22 year old young Singaporean living with HIV. He is currently serving his National Service as a soldier in the Singapore Armed Forces. J is one of the first friends I met who was HIV+, about two years ago, and we have been friends ever since, I’ve even met his parents for dinner, and they are the most warmest and accepting family I know. A well-spoken and very intelligent young man, I enjoy my company with him especially at dinner parties and the occasional club-hopping where we totally let our hair down and par-tay!
What motivated J to first take a HIV test was when his body started exhibiting HIV symptoms like rashes, fever, flu and oral candidiasis (thrush). He had taken the test a year earlier during World AIDS Day with a mouth-swab test kit and tested negative.
J adds, "my first HIV test (mouth-swab) actually emboldened me. I felt invincible, years of indiscriminate unprotected sex, and negative, not even a single STD had infected me. My daring attitude was put in it’s place after symptoms of HIV manifested. I felt small, belittled and anything but invincible."
Enviable to most other young Singaporeans who have to face the daunting task of going to get tested alone, J’s mother and his best friend were in cahoots, having planned for days to bring him to the DSC Clinic to get tested. His entire family now knows of his HIV status and they try to understand his situation, although there are many aspects they still don’t quite understand, or simply choose not to.
J has a fee words of advice to newly diagnosed HIV+ people with regards to disclosure to family, "Take it one day at a time. Come out when you are ready, if given the choice. Nothing that you don’t wan’t to change has to change (asides from your sexual habits) if you don’t want it to. Family can be the best support system or the worst critics, you know your own family best and their personal convictions - you should know best if and when to reveal your diagnosis to them.”
He also urges newly-diagnosed PLHIV to, "reach out and make connections with NGOs for support before you do your family. Seek counselling from peers before family. I would honestly put family among the last people to reveal your condition to, because the possible rejection from within your own home when you’re battling your own demons could just crush you."
On the issue of disclosing your HIV positive status to friends, J explains, "Many will be sad for you, shocked and in sympathy. That can be a good way to get you up for feet, but once you’re up, you have to remind them that you are not looking for pity. You’re still the person you were before your diagnosis, and they shouldn’t need to treat you any less."
J has a few BFFs who now know of his condition and understand and give their buddy whatever support he needs, if need be, but J also interjects, "That said, not everyone will be sympathetic. To this day, there are people who might hold the ‘you deserve it’ stance. Choose who you reveal your condition to carefully. I had a friend who was worried that I had passed it to her because we would always share drinks and food, but it’s understandable. They fear the unknown, as do most. Explain, educate, and make known what is unknown to eradicate this fear."
J is currently on HIV anti retroviral medication to keep the disease in check, namely First Line medications, Truvada and Efavirenz. Before enlisting for NS he used to get his medication from runners who purchase generic medication from Thailand/India at the fluctuating cost of around SGD $200-$220. He has also gone to Thailand to purchase medications himself at the cost of SGD $130-$150 (non-inclusive of airfare). He is not a recipient of the government assisted MediFund scheme.
Truvada is not approved in Singapore and is next to impossible to obtain. Pharmacy alternatives in this country are Lamivudine & Tenofovir.
CDC pharmacy prices for these medications are as such:
Efavirenz (SGD $200)
Lamivudine (SGD $200)
Tenofovir (SGD $550)
We now come to the issue of J serving his National Service with the Singapore Armed Forces. I have nothing but praise and admiration of the higheat degree because as HIV+ men are automatically exempt from NS duties; or when their status is found out during their tour of duty, they will be discharged and be given a PES F, like in my own case. He is an inspiration to me for that he exhibits the desire and patriotism for Singapore, to serve his nation EVEN when circumstance has already exempted him from such an important responsibility.
J now obtains non-generic HIV medications straight from the pharmacy, and is covered under SAF’s medical coverage, where they pay for a serviceman’s essential medication/check-ups, including the above-mentioned $950/month drug combo. He also adds, “I have nothing but praise for SAF policy to allow a pre-enlistee to serve despite knowing his diagnosis if he so wishes, despite knowing the costlier medical coverage such an enlistee would bear. I had not known this to be the case prior to enlisting, and upon being advised by medical officers, found out that the SAF would bear my ARV costs through my NS term has been the best news I’ve heard in a long while.”
There are a few online publications that J reads to help cope & make sense of his medical condition, namely http://www.thebody.com, http://www.positivelite.com and www.silencesg.org, a local youth STD awareness campaign he started which had its run in 2011.
J has a belief that writing is the best outlet for one’s emotions, and it keeps you sane and he has his own blog (www.tastylongwiener.wordpress.com), where he chronicles life as a HIV+ person. It is the one thing that simply listens without prejudice - that is until you open up for external readers to comment and interact with you - fortunately, most of whom, you’d find are rather supportive, and garner much needed support from.
Before I end this rather long epic saga-like story, J would like to end it with a few words of advice to newly diagnose PLHIV, especially those in limbo after a positive result, "Always remember, you’re not the first, so learn from your predecessors on how they are coping. Keep an open mind and empower yourself with knowledge, and in the future, use this to in turn, empower others who will come after you. We are a community, and if we don’t stand up and alongside one another, then no one will. At times you might feel forgotten, living with a disease that many are not willing to speak about. It is up to you to change that. Be the voice you never heard, and speak out. Your fear will only drive that of others, whom you will need to remind - there is nothing to fear but fear itself."
Thank you for taking the time reading J’s story and I hope you have gained more insight of the life of another HIV+ Singaporean with his own story to tell.