By Saiful Saleem–
Very recently someone confided in me that he was HIV-positive. It was the first time I had personally knowingly interacted with someone who had HIV. When I first met him, I had no idea that he was HIV-positive because he was vibrant, dynamic and lively.
Him being HIV-positive was likely the furthest thing from my mind.
It took a lot of courage, I could see, for him to tell me that he had HIV. We were sitting at the edge of Singapore, looking out at Malaysia across the Straits of Johor. One second we were talking about mundane, everyday stuff and suddenly I felt the mood change as if someone had dimmed the lights and put everything into slow motion.
I knew that a life altering moment was on the cards the moment his voice went low and he said, "there's something I have to tell you and I hope you don't think badly of me."
I tilted my head towards him and beckoned him on with my eyes, knowing that something of importance was coming up. He began by telling me of certain mistakes he made in his life and as the words dropped from his mouth, I began to realize where this was heading.
"Are you saying what I think you are saying?" I asked slowly, silently praying that he would say no. Praying and hoping that he would say something completely the opposite of what I was thinking. But there was to be no such luck.
He stared straight ahead into the distance and said yes, immediately following up by telling me that he hoped that we could still be friends and that I did not think badly of him. I was silent for a very long time. Not because I was considering not being friends with him, nor because I thought badly of him but because I could not even begin to imagine how difficult it must be for him.
Finally, I turned to him and told him that being HIV-positive does not change how I see him as a person. In fact, I told him, you are still the same person you were before you found out.
I spent the next few hours sitting with him and just listening to him. The hours rolled down his face as the tears went on. But the hours dried up and the tears passed. At some point of time, our conversation went from HIV and coping with it, back to the mundane everday things we had been talking about a couple of hours earlier.
I could barely sleep that night. I thought a lot about how fragile life can be. One minute, you are filled with big dreams and goals and the next, a sentence from a doctor reading from a file with your name on it can send you into a world of pain. The tears burn and thoughts of suicide fill your mind.
In fact, doing some research last night led me to discover that there is a sizeable percentage of HIV-positive people whose cause of death is listed as suicide. The loneliness, ostracization and sense of hopelessness that comes from receiving the dreaded positive result can easily drive the strongest of people into a very dark place.
My friend mentioned that thoughts of suicide flittered in and out of his mind when he first got the results. But for the support of an older friend who had gone through the whole debacle years earlier, my friend might have succumbed to the depths of despair.
HIV is not the death sentence that it used to be in the 80's. Today, in developed countries, it can be very managable as far as one's health and longevity goes. But the stigma and prejudice has remained. It has remained so strong that my friend thought that I might change the way I think about him just because he had HIV.
The fact is there are a lot of people out there who would not bat an eye in discriminating someone with HIV or AIDS. That is truly a shame. It is a shame that somewhere along the way we have forgetten what is like to be human. A lot of it is due to misconceptions about how HIV is contracted.
There needs to be a lot more education about HIV in schools and institutions across this country. And real education, not the kind of half-baked conservative excuse for sex education that we currently have in Singapore. Education is the only way to combat the stigma that is associated with minority people in this country.
We might have done a decent job when it comes to achieving reasonable relative racial harmony but when it comes to sexual minorities and people who live with HIV/AIDS, the road is still long and the hill is steep.
And as I left him that night to head back home, he looked at me sincerely and thanked me. I wondered silently to myself what he was thanking me for and as if he read my mind he replied,"For listening."
If we all only listened more, we would be living in a better world.
I want to dedicate this post today as well as the following poem to everyone whose life has somehow been touched by HIV/AIDS. Whether you were born with it, contracted it unknowingly or had it forced upon you, I want you to know that I stand here in solidarity with you, loving you even though I do not know you. And I want you to know that there are many people who feel the way I feel.