Staying positive while HIV-positive
SENIOR REPORTER and COPY EDITOR
On Dec. 18, 2011, Josh Robbins had only had unprotected sex for a mere five minutes, when there was a knock on the door, interrupting the sexual encounter. It was a good friend of Robbins, who had stopped by and needed to talk.
In that five-minute encounter, Robbins contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
On Wednesday, as part of the Wellness Speaker Series, hosted by the Promoters of Wellness, Robbins reflected on his life before and after diagnosis.
On Jan. 24, 2012, nearly a month after having unprotected sex, Robbins was medically diagnosed with HIV. Earlier that month, Robbins felt flu-like symptoms, but he “wasn’t thinking about HIV at all.” It only hit him when, upon visiting a walk-in clinic, a doctor said, “We need to talk about your high-risk behavior.”
Robbins recorded a video of himself arriving at the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program. In the unlikely occurrence that he was HIV-negative, Robbins did not want to forget how he felt; suspended between a healthy life and what he thought was a death sentence.
He continued to record the video as the doctors told him he was HIV-positive, a moment which changed his life forever.
“At that time, I did not know one person that had ever told me that they were HIV-positive,” Robbins said. “I also knew that as soon as they said that I was HIV-positive, that I would forget anything else they said. And so I did it for that purpose — so that I could listen back to what they said; but also because I wanted to hear those words again.”
A couple of weeks after learning he was HIV-positive, Robbins continued to watch the video. He realized how powerful the video was from an outsider’s perspective, so he decided to upload it to YouTube.
Robbins said that when he walked to the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program to receive his test result, he knew in his gut that he had been infected with HIV. What surprised him was the viral load, or the measure of the number of HIV particles in a milliliter of blood. Robbins expected a viral load of 175,000.
His final result, which was read to him by doctors at the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program, said that Robbins’ viral load was at 5.5 million.
Within 24 hours of his medical diagnosis of HIV-positive, Robbins had a support group — his sister, stepmother and father. But the hardest call was still to come.
“On Nov. 30, I was confirmed negative by a blood test, I had unprotected sex on Dec. 18 and then I felt flu-like symptoms on Jan. 2,” Robbins said. “I knew timeline-wise exactly who the person was, and I knew that they did not know they were positive.”
“I immediately made the call because I had not infected anyone and I knew that he did not intentionally infect me,” Robbins said. “I wanted him to not put anyone else at risk because he was not aware of his own status.”
The man who exposed Robbins to HIV is now a friend. He wrote a blog entry about getting the call from Robbins that led to his own diagnosis on Robbins’ blog, “I’m Still Josh.”
Robbins created, “I’m Still Josh,” out of a desire to be in control of his story, to raise awareness and to try to tackle the stigma of HIV.
“I wanted to stand up and yell in town that I had HIV, that I am going to survive and that I am still Josh,” Robbins said.
The blog, which has been in operation since Robbins’ HIV-positive diagnosis in 2012, was recently nominated for a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Award.
Rebecca Glinn, a junior women and gender studies and public policy double major, said she only recently acknowledged HIV/AIDS stigma as another layer of oppression that LGBTQ individuals may face.
“When I acknowledged that, as a women and gender studies major, who tries to be aware of the issues LGBTQ individuals face, I did not consider HIV/AIDS stigma as an issue,” Glinn said, “then maybe the general student population could really benefit from education on HIV/AIDS.”
The most important takeaway, Robbins said, was that contracting HIV is not a death sentence; one’s life will change, but it does not mean one cannot live life to the fullest and have healthy sexual relationships.
“People do not understand HIV/AIDS, and oftentimes they are afraid, but I think seeing someone like Josh speak, can really dissolve those fears,” Samantha Schneider, a senior cognitive science major, said. “We are always afraid of the unknown, and education is the best way to combat the unknown.”
Robbins does not raise awareness and try to tackle the stigma of HIV exclusively through his blog. Robbins also created “Ask HIV.” The iPhone app, which is available for free in the App Store, allows users to ask questions about HIV/AIDS. Each question is answered individually; while the app does not diagnose or treat HIV/AIDS, the app offers quick, detailed answers to point users in the right direction.
“The motto behind my blog is: I’m still Josh, and you are still you,” Robbins said.
“As long as you guys are still going to be you, then I’m still going to be me. And we just have this disease now that I am just dealing with.”