Health

PERSPECTIVE: HIV & Aging

By Robert, LINX Staff and Collaborator 

It’s interesting to be 42 years old and living with HIV. I have had HIV now for 12 years. In February 2007, when I first seroconverted, I thought it was the end-game. I was also a heavy crystal meth user at the time and having lots of unprotected sex. I would blame my seroconversion on the drug or my addiction. But, in reality, I only have myself to blame. I used drugs and alcohol for almost 3 more years before I finally got sober towards the end of 2009. I was 33 at the time.

I knew in 2009, that HIV was a much more manageable disease. I had resisted taking medications when I was using illicit drugs because taking the HIV medication would have been a confirmation that I was sick. And I just couldn’t do that. Being sober, I had to face the reality that I was in fact HIV+ and I needed to do something about it. I wasn’t getting sober just so I could die from something else. That was the whole thing. I wanted to live.

That meant doing exactly what my doctor told me to do. I had to put full faith in her. I started taking the HIV medications the same time I got sober. After six months of sobriety and following her direction, my viral load went from the millions to undetectable. My CD4 count went from about 200 to over 1,200. I was shocked. Just a little TLC and surrendering my ego to this disease was all it took to get well.

I have spent the last 33 years watching men and women living with HIV and AIDS and seeing how we are all aging now with this disease. It doesn’t define who we are. But it’s still a part of us, like an arm or a leg. It is not going away. And like the rest of my body, I have to take care of it so that I manage my proper health.

But I also worry about the long-term effects of the medications and what they mean to my liver, kidneys, bones, skin, etc. We are far removed from the days of wasting and lipodystrophy so long as we take our medications. But I often hear about osteoporosis or other bone density side effects as long-term effects from the medications. Then I hear about neuropathy that occurs from living with long-term HIV, with or without the medications. I think the neuropathy is worse without the HIV medications. But I don’t know.

I also see men and women who have been living with HIV for over 30 years, some of who went through the whole AZT crisis when that was all they had. AZT was a very bad drug. I watched all of the destruction. I saw a lot of that death. I heard the stories on the news, the TV shows. Death was all around us. We grew up living with the reality in the 80’s and 90’s that AIDS was a death sentence. And, yet, 30+ years later, to see these men and women still thriving and doing well through that bleak period of our lives gives me all the hope in the world.

All of this makes me think about aging. We don’t truly know the long-term effects of HIV and AIDS. But we do have a growing number of long-term survivors thanks to the medical advances that have made the medications safer for long-term consumption. We know living with HIV is much more manageable than it was 10-20-30 years ago. We know those of us who maintain a healthy adherence to their HIV medication and medical treatment are living well and managing the disease well. But I think we also must have faith in ourselves that we can and will overcome this disease. And that we can thrive and prosper no matter what. Millions of men and women died hoping for a solution. And we have one now.

Making the decision that I wanted to live was the first step. So, I got sober and took my HIV meds. The next steps are just to keep following that course. Maybe new advances will come out where I don’t have to worry about bone density or anything else. Hopefully, I won’t have any worries that don’t have to do with HIV. As for aging, I can’t fight it. So, I will be as healthy as I can and live life to the fullest. This ride is a one-way ticket, so I’m going to ride the hell out of it!

How did you feel when you seroconverted and what did you think about your future?

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