Alden Boon

‘Follow the Science. A Person Living with HIV Who Stays Virally Suppressed Poses No Risk of Transmission.’: Calvin Tan



I remember vividly how the day of the testing went. It was a Wednesday evening. After getting my finger pricked for a blood sample, I had to sit in silent agony for about twenty minutes. There were others too, their heads hung low. The silence was interrupted ever and anon by counsellors calling out their clients’ names, and by the shuffling of footsteps coming and going. The tension of that longest wait was palpable. Then, a counsellor called my name, and ushered me to a room. After he closed the door, and sat me down and we were sequestered from the world, he revealed that my result was ‘reactive’, which meant that the rapid test kit was picking something up from my blood. While there is the probability of it being a false positive, in many cases, a reactive result meant that I was in fact infected with HIV.

After he uttered those words, time stopped. I broke down and cried for a good ten minutes and was inconsolable. Yes, I knew it was my own actions that sent me hurtling down the HIV rabbit hole. And yes, I brought this upon myself, and perhaps as what others have said, I might have even deserved it. So why now the anguish? It certainly wasn’t that I had thought I was invincible. But it’s that inexplicable shock between knowing the possibility of contracting a chronic disease and actually contracting it. It was that jolt of reality that HIV was no longer some medical term in a science textbook but was a very real thing that wielded the power to ruin my life completely. It was the coup de grâce in a triumvirate of blows. Being a gay person meant that I am being discriminated by society. As an oversized person with a tummy, I was at the receiving end of relentless body-shaming remarks. The HIV diagnosis was yet another thing that even my own community would excoriate me for. The cutting words of my mother, callously said to me when I was fifteen, came flying back to me in that moment: ‘Continue this lifestyle and you’re going to contract AIDS!’ I was reduced to a stereotype. There was a sudden collision of two worlds of thoughts: regrets arising from my past actions and inactions, and concerns about a hardship-riddled future. I regretted not bothering to get educated on HIV transmission, and what I should have done to avoid getting infected. I lamented not going to the root of my behaviour — why this unshakeable need for skin-to-skin contact — and seeking professional help for it. Right there and then, my emotions ran the gamut from sheer embarrassment to disappointment with myself.

After the consultation, I had to have one vial of blood taken for a subsequent confirmatory test, whose results would take two weeks to process. The timeline fitted just nicely as the commencement of my new semester was too a fortnight away. Every morning, upon waking I’d take a cold hard look at myself in the mirror and think: ‘What now?’ So many thoughts churned and moiled in my head. ‘Whom can I tell about my diagnosis?’ ‘Whom do I trust?’ ‘What would happen if I told my parents or friends?’ ‘Do I even want to make my condition known to others?’ ‘What about work? Would any employer want to hire me?’ ‘What do I tell my future partner?’ ‘How do I afford treatment?’ I knew I had to have a definitive plan before school started, if not I would not be able to cope with the stress and hecticness with such an unbearable burden on my shoulder.

What I did then was to contemplate my options. As with anyone who is suddenly dealt a bad hand of an unfathomable trauma, the thought of suicide springs to mind. Suicide was appealing, and had its merits: I could end all my worries at once. I would never have to deal with any shame or grief. Maybe no one would ever find out the cause of my actions. How I eventually chose between living and suicide, and all the subsequent options, was thinking if I would be happy or at peace with my decision. I knew I would berate myself for my hasty decision to die by suicide in the afterlife. So came the swift and easy ‘no’. Then, I moved up the decision tree, which bifurcated into two options: ‘Do I want to seek treatment right now, or delay it?’ Seeking treatment immediately seemed wise. With the arrival of each answer, a ray of hope entered my once-darkling world. Some questions, such as funding my treatments, I had not the answers yet. It was sufficient for me to go about this journey alone first — I’d reveal my diagnosis to my loved ones and friends only after I had come to terms with it, as they’d likely have a barrage of questions, and to answer them, I needed to be cognizant of it myself.

In the midst of this self-exploration, there came an epiphany: I had no frame of reference as to what living with HIV would be like until I was diagnosed and living with it. There is no lack of online resources on HIV, from photos of gory rashes to lists of symptoms. But there is a scarcity of the first-hand account of a person living with HIV. Rarely does anyone share just how suffocating this inner battle would be, not in Singapore. No one talks about the inner turmoil. I resolved to put a human face on HIV, to share with the public what the journey is like for people like me, from the point of diagnosis to my daily routines. I am a person living with HIV, and I would like to shed light on the everyday struggles. But this dream of mine would have to wait for now, until I had completed school.

After my confirmatory testing (which if you haven’t guessed by now yielded a positive result), I had to go for yet another screening to test for antibodies, allergens, Hepatitis A, B and other STDs. That day, the twelve empty vials laid before my eyes made me shudder. I confided in the nurse that I was very scared, and she responded kindly, and assured me that she would take just enough blood that she needed. She kept her promise, filling each vial to a third of its capacity. I had to be in the clinic at nine on a Tuesday morning; by one in the afternoon I was back in school, attending lectures as if everything was hunky dory. I was also prescribed medications, which I had — and still have — to take every twenty-four hours. When I first began my treatment, I separated my medications into a pill box lest some nosy friend of mine would come across the medication labels, then kept the box in a pouch, which would be concealed in another bag. I would steal away to some secluded area in the school, ensure no eyes were on me, before I would take them. I double boxed the rest of my stash and buried it deep inside my cabinet, so that if anyone (namely my mother) had snooped around, I’d immediately know.

As a result of the first bout of fever I suffered during the early stage of the HIV infection, I lost a tremendous amount of weight. I was for the first time in my life skinny and the proud owner of a sharp jawline. But the medications caused my appetite to grow and my weight swung right back. Other side effects of the medications included diarrhoea, fever dreams, nausea, dizziness and mood swings. To manage them, I switched to taking them at night, so I could sleep them off. Each tablet is rather large — for the first six months or so, I had to get used to swallowing them and hold back my fear of choking.

Read: The Epitome of Selflessness: Metta Cats Director Terry Lim on Saving Stray Animals, Eighteen-hour Days and Carrying on His Late Mother’s Legacy

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.