Alex Delaney wondered if anybody would ever love him again.
For decades, Delaney had been told that HIV was a disgusting disease — and that, by extension, people with HIV ought to be treated as less than human.
Then, in 2010, he became one of them.
“As soon as they hear and see those three letters,” he said, “they just run away.”
Delaney is one of nearly 35,000 people living with HIV in North Carolina, with roughly 1,400 new cases per year, according to a state report from 2016. Three decades ago, an HIV diagnosis was akin to a death sentence. Now, it’s a manageable chronic disease.
David Currin, a nurse clinician in UNC’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said treatment has come a long way since the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980s. Now, one pill per day helps most patients reach undetectable viral levels, meaning they don’t show signs of the disease and can’t transmit it with consistent treatment.
Yet fears and naivete about the disease persist. Because better treatment has quieted the conversation around HIV, fewer people take precautions and fewer yet understand life after diagnosis. It’s created a stigma around the disease, Delaney says, because people are afraid to be educated about it.
“Talking to me about HIV doesn’t give you HIV,” he said. “You’re not going to get it from me just from having a conversation.”
Delaney, now a post-baccalaureate student in the UNC nursing school, has embraced his status nearly eight years after diagnosis. But it wasn’t easy. He’d always been one to care for others, to shield the pain from those who couldn’t handle it.
But this pain was his alone to endure, and he couldn’t hide it – even from himself.
A new reality
When the doctors delivered his diagnosis, Delaney broke down.
It was March 15, 2010, just two years after his graduation from UNC. It felt like his life was just beginning. Then came his new reality, and he wondered if his life could ever be the same.
He had been seeing somebody in the years after college, and he “ventured out” during an off-period before rekindling with his partner, who suggested the two get tested. So Delaney went to the Student Health Action Coalition (SHAC) in Carrboro and took a rapid antibody test, a preliminary measure for HIV testing.
It came back positive, as did an RNA test a few days later. He couldn’t hide any longer. He started bawling.
“I never really thought it would be me being the one getting it,” Delaney said. “You never think anything’s ever going to be you.”
Still, it took a year for Delaney to seek treatment. Doing so meant facing a reality he hadn’t yet embraced, not to mention the cost of a prescription. It was easier to stay numb to it all.
But the feelings kept catching up with him. His off-and-on partner was gone, chased off by his diagnosis. Delaney was alone.
At work, he suffered sudden breakdowns and avoided other people. He worried passersby knew his status — would they judge him?
More than a year after his diagnosis, he sought treatment — both to protect himself and those he cared about. He enrolled in a research study at UNC and received free medication: one pill per day with no side effects. He’s been on it ever since.
On Oct. 26, 2011, nearly 600 days after his diagnosis, Delaney’s viral load was undetectable. He had accomplished a milestone, one that signaled mastery of his diagnosis.
It was time to share the news.
Eventually, he made a weekend trip home and sat with his parents and four siblings, one by one, and told them about his status. They cried, just as he had when the doctor first told him. But he was still human, and they loved him all the same.
After two milestones, Delaney started to settle into his new reality. And through the diagnosis, he discovered a new purpose.
Delaney joined UNC as a research assistant in 2013, inspired by his own study. But simply recruiting other participants wasn’t enough. Delaney wanted to be able to offer the same attentiveness and care that his nurses provided him when he sought treatment. He left the research team in January, enrolling in UNC’s nursing program on an accelerated track.
In 15 months, he’ll be back in the medical field in some capacity. It might be nursing education; it might be working in an STD clinic; it might be in HIV research once again.
But after years experiencing his new normal, Delaney is at peace with his status. Now, it’s about helping others feel the same.
’What’s your status?
When Delaney meets someone new, he often starts the conversation in a peculiar way.
“I’m HIV-positive,” he says. “What’s your status?”
It sounds odd at first, almost too casual, but that’s the point. He’s not ashamed anymore. He’s stronger now, with a confidence once foreign to the natural introvert.
“Now I know that I am a strong person of high value,” Delaney said, “that I’m just a normal person like everyone else and we all make mistakes.”
Delaney acknowledges how fortunate he is. He hopes his status means nothing more than one pill per day and six-month checkups with his health care provider. It’s a far cry from how living with HIV used to be, but it’s a chronic disease nonetheless.
And it’s all a part of the conversation that can combat the stigma, Delaney says. It’s a conversation that, eight years after diagnosis, he’s more than willing to have.
“I try not to make it a big deal,” Delaney says, “because, really, it shouldn’t be.”
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