On World Aids Day in 2014 Charlie Tredway made the courageous decision to publicly disclose his HIV positive status. Being HIV positive has presented some challenges and struggles for Charlie yet ultimately his story is an optimistic one. At the age of 31 he has now started on treatment, he’s working to achieve an undetectable viral load and he’s feeling more in control of his HIV than ever before.
Jack Freestone, Health Promotion Officer at ACON asked Charlie to share his story with us.
Charlie: I was born in South Africa and raised both in New Zealand and in America. I spent most of my early schooling in Austin Texas. I moved back to NZ where I completed High School and as a young adult I moved to Sydney, where I got swept up in the scene.
I was diagnosed HIV positive a few days after my 22nd birthday. I was living in Sydney at the time and I contracted HIV from a regular play buddy who gave me the impression he was negative when the reality was he hadn’t been tested in a year. In retrospect I kick myself for being naïve. I took it on face value. I thought that people always truly knew their status. This said I have always taken responsibility for my role in becoming HIV positive.
No one forced or pressured me to have unsafe sex or engage in other risky behaviour, so I knew I had to deal with the consequences of my actions and move on with my life instead of getting stuck on the blame game and bitterness.
On World Aids Day last year I decided to be public about my status. I had finally started taking stock of my HIV and had joined an amazing online community for HIV+ people called The Institute of Many. It was a real eye opener for me having access to support and information from other people dealing with the same things as I was.
One of the biggest barriers we face is this stigma and misinformation that surrounds HIV and I thought the only way to work against that was to challenge stigma and ignorance publicly. So with the support of the people closest to me and some wonderful HIV activists, I decided after almost 9 years of being positive that I was finally in the right head space to be open about my HIV.
In my own paranoia and nervousness I expected a backlash of some kind but that just didn’t happen. I have had nothing but support and respect from people for having the guts to finally live my life with transparency. The response, both from people I know and people I have never met, has been beyond my wildest expectations!
Since I decided to be open on social media I have been asked to share my story with SameSame, Rise Up to HIV, GayNZ, and the NZAF which was so unexpected and a little daunting at first. When I first released that post on Facebook, I never thought I would become an activist, but I figured if I was going to go for it I might as well go all the way and do whatever I could to challenge the general public to think differently about HIV. I’m lucky enough to have a wealth of amazing role models and mentors that have encouraged and supported me.
Because I let myself get so sick before starting treatment, my journey towards an undetectable viral load has become a more difficult battle than what it would have been had I started on treatment earlier. My viral load was around 2 million when I started treatment. Now my viral load is around 18,000 which is a huge improvement that I am incredibly proud of. To lower my viral load I have had to be 100% treatment compliant for 2 years. There is more work to be done and I was foolish for waiting so long before starting on treatment.
REACHING AN UNDETECTABLE VIRAL LOAD
I am yet to achieve an undetectable viral load. I was very blasé with my health for the first 7 years of being HIV positive and it wasn’t until it all went to hell on me in a big way that I finally started antiretroviral therapy. Now that I have started treatment, I am firmly on the right path to achieving an undetectable viral load. Every month the amount of live virus in my body gets exponentially lower.
To me, having an undetectable viral load means that I have successfully turned my health around; it also means that the amount of the virus is so miniscule that the likelihood of me transmitting the virus to anyone else is very small.
NEGOTIATING SAFER SEX
Being on treatment hasn’t really changed how I view safe sex, being HIV+ is what did that. I refuse to put others at risk via non-disclosure and unsafe sex as it reminds me of how I contracted it. I have chosen to be completely open about it on my profiles and with any prospective sexual partner because that to me was always the first step in being responsible and respectful of other people’s health. When I finally reach undetectable, I will gladly be able to adjust my approach to disclosure because being undetectable does factor into what is safe and what isn’t.
A BIT OF ADVICE…
I think HIV negative guys need to be informed as to what does and doesn’t constitute safe sex. Knowledge is power, that’s the bottom line for me, and that includes being tested regularly in proportion to the amount of sex you are having and being informed about HIV. When someone has an undetectable viral load the amount of virus in their body is so miniscule and that affects any chances of passing on HIV.
To other positive guys my advice is pretty simple, monitor your viral load and CD4 count regularly with an HIV specialist and start meds sooner rather than later. For me there was this fear that starting treatment made it real and that my quality of life would be affected by the medications and that sort of thinking was a complete fallacy. Once your body settles in to the new treatment everything improves, from energy levels to your general health. Treatment shouldn’t be thought of as a last resort to be started when you are already sick like I was. I wish I had been proactive about my health.