“I wasn’t expecting it to be me.”
Former Friends For Life counselor Eddie Wiley was supposed to take an HIV test with a friend, who feared he might be positive. It was supposed to be a simple home test.
His mind and heart racing, Wiley worried about the results of his friend’s test.
“I knew about the virus myself. I worked hard on telling people how to not contract it,” Wiley said.
But when the results came in, his friend was negative. Wiley was not.
“I fell off the radar.”
Heartbroken, angry and afraid, Wiley left town for a couple of weeks. He had no contact with anyone.
“I’ve dealt with depression before and finding out didn’t help,” Wiley said.
Wiley had been talking about HIV prevention for years. As a gay man, he knows the risks at stake.
According to the Shelby County Health Department, there were 6,481 Shelby Countians living with HIV/AIDS in 2016. Of that number, those living with HIV totaled 690. In Shelby County, the ratio of HIV cases relative to the combination of those living with HIV/AIDS is three times higher than the state ratio, and two times higher than the national figure.
Men totaled 4,484 among the 6,481 Shelby Countians living with HIV/AIDS in 2016. Forty-two percent of those were men who’d had sex with men (MSM). Most of those infected were African Americans – notably young black men.
“In the past, I could’ve been upset when people confuse HIV and AIDS,” Wiley said. “But now, it’s all about education.”
HIV – or human immunodeficiency virus – destroys T-cells (CD4) and uses them to create copies of itself. The virus continues the process until there are no T-cells remaining, leaving the body open to infections that a normally healthy immune system would be able to ward off.
A person is diagnosed as having AIDS when their T-cell count reaches below a certain level or an “opportunistic disease” presents itself – which can be life threatening.
With a prescribed medicine regimen, the virus can be put at bay for years – even a lifetime if treatment is properly adhered to. Although treatment is recommended to start immediately after diagnosis, it doesn’t always happen that way.
“Sometimes, people need more time. They may not be ready to go to the doctor,” Wiley said.
“The trauma of finding out they were – or even how they were infected can be overwhelming.”
Wiley said he’s been there to hold the hands of several people who’ve been tested at the Shelby County Health Department.
“I’ve heard (the health department) can be a little harsh” when giving the results, Wiley said.
Wiley knows the importance of having a strong support system.
“My friends have been a huge, huge factor in me being able to stay alive,” Wiley said, despite his initially not being upfront with them until nearly a year after his diagnosis.
“They were the strong forces behind everything I was doing.”
Disclosing that they’re living with HIV is never an easy conversation to have.
“Disclosure is one of the most uncomfortable discussions I’ve ever had to have when dealing with someone who you may not have a comfortable relationship with,” Wiley said. “It may just be casual, and it’s always awkward.”
But not disclosing your HIV status is against the law and in many states there are HIV-specific laws that require those with HIV to disclose their status to their sexual partners – even if the viral load is undetectable.
Not doing so can result in a person being charged with criminal exposure to HIV – a Class C felony in Tennessee punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Persons convicted of criminal HIV exposure also are required to register as violent sex offenders for the remainder of their lives.
The stigma of HIV/AIDS – from the 1980s until now – has dropped dramatically, but there are many people who still don’t want to associate with a person who is HIV-positive.
“That’s not a perception of me, that’s a perception of you,” Wiley said. ”That’s your perception of who I am as a person. Because you are upset about my HIV status doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”
Wiley continues to advocate and educate from all angles. As he was interviewing with The New Tri-State Defender, he was packing up his things, getting ready to head to his next venue to be an advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS.
“Continue to live,” he said. “Maintain your mental, physical and spiritual health. You can definitely thrive with the virus.”