Many people living with HIV have been heavily stigmatized and discriminated against and the fear of going through this makes it difficult for them to reveal their status. But when it comes to relationships, does one have a duty to reveal this to their sexual partners? LUCY K MARONCHA speaks to a woman who says she infected her husband had no knowledge of her status prior to their marriage and explores what the law says about knowingly infecting another person
As I looked through the window of the plane, I smiled to myself; my trick had worked! My husband and I were on our way for a vacation across Europe. This trip, as he had said, was a way to show remorse for what “he had done to me”. I looked at him and smiled knowing that my secret was under lock and key and he would never find out that I was already positive for HIV when I married him.
I am a woman in my early 40s. I tested positive for HIV ten years ago, but my viral load was low enough so I was only put on septrin and good nutrition. That was long before the Government’s move to put all people who test positive for HIV on anti-retroviral treatment. My son, who luckily is negative for HIV, was only six years old when his father died and we were left only with each other for consolation.
In our days, disclosure was among the topics involved in the intensive counselling a person went through when they tested positive for HIV. Positive living with HIV was a whole month’s seminar which consisted of disclosure, treatment adherence, stigma, nutrition and how to avoid reinfection (a HIV-positive person acquiring a second strain of virus from someone else with HIV, according to www.aidsmap.com). Therefore, I was well conversant with disclosure when I got into my second marriage.
I had been a very faithful wife to my husband for the seven years I had lived with him. Although I wouldn’t describe my marriage as “happily ever after,” at least contrition and forgiveness reigned over our relationship. Twice, he had infected me with different sexually transmitted infections (STI) but my love for him dictated that I forgive him. On the two occasions, he cried and banged his head on the wall saying that he didn’t deserve my forgiveness yet he claimed that he’d die if I left him. Like the proverbial washer-man’s donkey, I always found myself feeling sorry for him and assuring him that I had forgiven him. This would be followed by a stretch of romance when he would shower me with gifts and candle-lit dinners.
This game would, however, reach an abrupt end when I started ailing and my body couldn’t resist even an ordinary flu. This was followed by a sequence of multiple minor illnesses and my body was always fatigued. My muscles ached and I completely lost appetite hence I lost a lot of weight. I became easily irritable and was defensive if any of my friends commented on my weight. A serious bout of TB threw me on a hospital bed for several weeks. The doctors didn’t ask for my consent to test for HIV but they later explained that testing without consent is allowed in what they called diagnostic testing. However, by the time I was through with the six-month anti-TB treatment, which would then not be administered together with anti-retroviral treatment, I was as good as new. My viral load was soon undetectable so I was put on septrin and was advised on good nutrition. Though my husband remained supportive, he refused to get tested and lived in total denial. He would later die of meningitis one year later.
After his death, I sold all that we owned and moved to a different location, where no one knew me, to start a new life. Stigma was rife those days so I swore never to disclose my HIV status to the new friends I would make. I bought myself a small apartment to settle in before I embarked on looking for some work to do even though I had a lot of money in my bank account. As luck would have it, I got a job in a college because I have a professional background in teaching.
The director was a ruthless man who had no respect for women. I made good my vow so I kept my HIV status to myself. The principal of the school who is a very kind and motherly woman liked me a lot and cautioned me to avoid getting into any trouble with the director because “he disregards women” and nobody knew about his family. I was also a bitter woman because of my husband’s betrayal and his subsequent prideful and cowardly death. In my own small way, I hated men.
I would soon get my share of the director’s wrath when he ordered all the instructors to be submitting a monthly report every last Friday of the month at 4 pm. The head instructor would collect them and take them to him. Today, I delayed in class by 10 minutes and I found that the reports had already been delivered. Obviously, I took my report to the director on my own because the lead instructor had already gone home. When I entered his office, he sized me up and before I could murmur “I am sorry,” he slapped me hard on the face! I left the office staggering and swearing that I would submit my resignation the following morning. Though my late husband was a cheat, at least he wasn’t violent, I kept saying as I drove home that evening.
The following morning, my anger had cooled down. I reconsidered my plan; I wouldn’t resign before I got another job. So when the director’s secretary called to say the boss wanted to see me, I was expecting a dismissal letter as was his habit when he was fed up with an instructor. I expected the letter would be thrown in my face and I would be ordered to get out of his sight but what I got was a total contrast. He showed me to a seat though no instructor had ever had the privilege to sit in his office. “Sorry about yesterday, it was irrational of me, I shouldn’t have done that,” the three short sentences rattled like rain drops in my ears. Sorry wasn’t a word in this man’s vocabulary. I was more shocked than relieved. I muttered something between “thank you sir” and “I understand” and walked out. He then started calling me for small chats in his office and sometimes I would even have tea there.
Everybody was wondering how I had tamed this monster to be suddenly polite to a woman. What they didn’t know is that I had gone through such intensive counselling that I had almost become a counsellor myself! I had realised that the director was nursing some emotional bruises and was letting it out on everyone hence his brutality. I consequently took it upon myself to help him heal and soon we became good friends. He confided in me how his wife had committed suicide leaving him with no children. He never gave details and neither did I when I told him about my husband’s death. One event led to another and soon love was brewing between us. This would mark the genesis of a strong love affair where he would send me flowers in the staff room without embarrassment. The man who had been too arrogant to come to the staff room started coming to pick me up for lunch and sometimes we’d go home together.
Sexual intimacy ensued and soon we were dating happily. For several months, we enjoyed protected sex until the night we forgot to buy condoms and we had unprotected sex. I don’t know if it’s for fear of losing him or it’s due to the bruises inflicted on me by my late husband’s betrayal that prevented me from disclosing my HIV status to him. Moreover, I feared that he’d stigmatise me and maybe quit the relationship which was now flourishing.
“This is what I got for being so faithful to my husband,” I kept saying to myself and murmuring that it wasn’t worth being the good one all the time. The anxiety that I had infected him could however not leave me. He later proposed and we soon got married in a lovely but private ceremony. The nightmare I hadn’t anticipated came when I got pregnant and it was inevitable to have a HIV test carried on me. Of course both of us turned positive! This was the time to face the reality which would mark my destiny in marriage. I had to think fast.
I didn’t know I could act in Hollywood until the day I confronted my husband with faked anger and bitterness which looked so real. “Is that why you were so much after me? Is that why you were always violent? Why didn’t you let me live my peaceful life with my son? How you could infect me with HIV?” I shouted.
I saw tears welling in his eyes and I exclaimed within myself: “Bravo girl, it has worked!” I cried the more accusing him of immorality and infidelity and I even threatened to leave him. He begged on his knees swearing that he had never tested for HIV so he really didn’t know his status. Later, however, guilt engulfed me but my husband mistook the reason for my sulking for the knowledge of our HIV positive status. When bad luck struck and I had a miscarriage, I felt that I was being punished for what I had done. My husband and I went for intensive counselling and surprisingly he took the weighty issue so positively.
We were immediately put on anti-retroviral treatment and my husband has since been so supportive. To distract me, he enrolled me for a Master’s programme and made me a co-director in the college. The unfortunate situation fueled our love and it’s like we started dating all over again. We have not disclosed our status to anyone including our son and my earnest prayer is that we keep resisting opportunistic infections lest our son suspects anything. Recently my husband suggested we take a vacation to Europe saying that we needed a break after all that had befallen us. “I know this holiday can never compensate me for my immoral behaviour but it’s the least I can do to express my remorse,” he whispered as we tightened the safety belts in a business class cabin on board a flight to London.
Don’t be in a hurry to point an accusing finger at me. I made a choice to save my marriage. I am well aware of the consequences of my actions but though I will live with this guilt, I fear that revealing the truth to my husband will completely break his trust on me. Yet the burden in my heart is very heavy and every time I see his mood changing or his phone goes unanswered, I get into panic thinking that he has probably found out the truth. The kind of panicky life I lead is worse than the punishment inflicted by the law. My advice to fellow people living with HIV is to disclose their status to their sexual partners; it is more to their benefit than to the benefit of the uninfected partner