Life’s busy for Abby, 24. On a typical day she works as a legal secretary in Sydney before rushing out for a jog, cocktails with friends, dinner with her family… or to speak publicly about her experience of being HIV positive.
When she tells people she has the virus they’re always shocked: she’s never done drugs, isn’t a sex worker, comes from a “good family”, and is studying law. There are no physical signs and nothing in her demeanour to hint she might have one of the most taboo conditions in our society. “If you saw me on the street you wouldn’t expect me to have the disease. That’s part of my motivation to speak out – to make people aware it can happen to anyone,” she says.
Over the past year, she’s started campaigning for young women to take control of their sex lives and health to avoid ending up in her situation. And with new HIV infections in Australia at a 20-year high, particularly among young people, it’s a timely message. “People my age don’t talk about HIV and how it’s spread – I’m trying to change that,” she says.
One bad date
Abby caught HIV last year, from a man she dated briefly at uni. A few dates in, he started acting strangely and got aggressive in the bedroom. One time he pressured Abby into sex without a condom. She suspects he knew he had the virus and attempted to infect her on purpose. Two weeks afterwards, Abby got sick. She Googled her symptoms, horrified to discover they matched up exactly with the early stages of HIV.
“I thought back on some of the things he’d said, like when he told me I’d remember him forever when I tried to break up with him,” she says. “I felt sick to my stomach. Somehow I just knew I had it. I asked my GP to test me, but she told me the disease didn’t usually affect heterosexual people in Australia, and that it was too early to tell, but I pushed her to do it. Sure enough, a week later the test result came back positive.”
A diagnosis can’t be accurately confirmed until at least three months after infection, so Abby moved home to wait. That test was positive too. “I know people always say that you feel numb. It’s such a cliché – but I really did,” she says. “It felt like the worst thing in the world and I didn’t want to live with it. I was so scared about what was going to come next. It felt like my life was over.”
Despite Abby’s fears, the disease is no longer the death sentence it once was. With treatment she may never develop AIDS – an extreme degeneration of the immune system that can occur in HIV-positive patients – and won’t have to take medication for years.
As for the man who gave it to her? Soon after Abby was diagnosed the NSW health department contacted him. He was very hostile and ignored their suggestion to get tested, instead sending Abby a barrage of threatening texts. Infecting someone with HIV on purpose is illegal – but Abby had no proof this man knew he was positive before sleeping with her and she didn’t have the emotional strength to battle it out in court, so she let it go.
A turning point
When Abby went to her first support group, she met 10 other HIV-positive women. Hearing their stories shook her out of self-pity and into action. “I met women who were really sick, and I felt so lucky. I’m educated, I’ve got access to healthcare, and I’m surrounded by supportive friends and family,” she says. “I couldn’t feel sorry for myself anymore. I started looking at HIV as something that could help me make a positive difference to other people’s lives, rather than something to make me ashamed and resentful.”
Abby took a year off studying to work full-time and train to become an advocate, so that she could share her story at support groups, schools, research institutions and hospitals. Her message is clear: HIV can affect any one of us. “I know so many girlfriends who’ve had unprotected sex because they feel it’s awkward to bring up a condom in the heat of the moment, but at the end of the day it’s you who has to live with the consequences. If
I have managed to educate just one young woman about the importance of being assertive when it comes to safe sex, it’s worth it,” she says. Of course, there are days when Abby struggles to cope with what’s happened to her and she wishes she could go back in time and change the past. But for now Abby’s focused on the future. “I hate that I was infected with HIV, but it happened and now I’m passionate about doing my bit to end it.”