Real Life

Banish The Stigma

HIV doesn't stop you living a normal life
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Emma McAnallay, 34, bravely shares her story with Natasha Todd from Take 5.

The doctor’s lips were moving but I had no idea what he was saying.

I’d zoned out at the word “positive” – I was HIV positive.

A man I’d slept with had phoned and told me he had it.

I went straight to the doctors to get tested, but even though I’d been feeling unwell with flu-like symptoms for a month, I never believed I had it too.

All I knew of HIV was it carried a death sentence.

I’m going to die, I thought with dread.

Suddenly, I snapped back to reality.

“Sorry, what was that?” I asked the doctor in a daze.

“I said, you can live a normal life with HIV,” he repeated.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s not like it used to be. You just need to take a pill every day and you’ll be fine.”

It was music to my ears.

But despite my relief, the thought of having to tell people still filled me with dread.

I knew not everybody would be understanding.

Emma was nervous about how people would react

At first, I kept it to myself, not even telling family or friends.

It was a lonely place to be and I lived with constant anxiety.

Fortunately, my healthcare supporters were amazing, lending a non-judgemental ear whenever I needed to talk.

I started taking my medication and gradually my viral load became undetectable, meaning I could no longer pass the virus on to someone else.

But the stigma associated with HIV meant not everyone would believe that.

I was training to be a nurse and even people working in healthcare could be ignorant.

“Imagine being told you’re HIV positive,” I overheard a nurse say one day. “It’s like hearing, ‘sorry, I’ve ruined your life'”.

I was hurt and angry.

When I finally did build up the courage to tell the people close to me, most were supportive, but there were a few who took some steps backwards.

“Can you catch it from close contact,” one friend asked me.

“No,” I replied, icily.

Becoming a mum helped Emma love herself again

There was a time I even considered suicide, but then in 2018 my life changed.

Looking down at the positive pregnancy test in my hand, I gasped.

I’d always wanted to be a mum but feared HIV would prevent it.

Thankfully, as long as I was taking my medication, there was next to no risk I’d pass HIV to the baby.

The pregnancy was perfectly safe.

When I gave birth to my perfectly healthy son, Finley, he gave me something to live for. I didn’t feel like I needed anyone else.

As long as I had him, that’s all that mattered.

Being a mum helped me start to love myself again.

With the help of medicine there was next to risk Emma would pass HIV to Finley

Then in 2022, I started following a guy called Paul, 35, on Instagram.

He ran group hikes and cold-water therapy, and I thought it looked like fun.

I wanted to go along but didn’t have childcare, so I messaged Paul asking if Finley could come along.

Of course, he replied.

So, Finley and I went on the next trip and had a great time.

Paul and I hit it off immediately.

Over the next few months, we became close friends but then one day, while Finley was at nursery, Paul took me paddle boarding, just the two of us.

With no one else around, we started flirting and it became clear we both wanted to be more than friends.

But with my feelings came the burden of having to tell Paul I had HIV.

Although I couldn’t pass it to him, I didn’t want to keep it from him.

So, two weeks after we started dating, I confessed I had something to tell him.

Strangely, I wasn’t as worried about it as I thought I would be.

Paul wasn’t a judgemental person and I had a good feeling he’d be fine.

Even if he wasn’t, I was accepting enough in myself to walk away with my head held high.

Still, as we sat down, I felt extremely nervous.

Finley gave Emma something to live for

As soon as I opened my mouth, it all came spilling out of me.

When I finally came up for breath, I waited for Paul to say something but he didn’t.

“Don’t you have any questions?” I asked, unnerved by his silence.

He took my hand.

“It doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “I want to be with you either way.”

My heart swelled with so much love, it could burst from my chest.

“You’re amazing,” I said.

I felt like the luckiest girl in the world to have found someone like him.

Emma and Paul are happier than ever, with Finley and a baby on the way

Then just nine months after dating, we got a surprise.

Taking the pregnancy test from my hand, Paul’s eyes welled with tears.

“You’ve just made me the happiest man in the world,” he said.

He was already an amazing dad to Finley and now our little family was about to expand.

Our new bundle of joy is due in June, and just like when I had Finley, there’s extremely little risk of me passing on HIV while I’m taking my medication.

Paul doesn’t have HIV either and we’re perfectly able to have sex without risk.

I hope by sharing my story it shows that people can now live a normal life with HIV.

It’s not the death sentence it was 30 years ago.

If detected early, advances in treatment mean you can have the same life expectancy as anyone else, which is why it’s so important to get tested.

For support, call Lifeline for free 24/7 on 13 11 14 (Aus) or 0800 543 354 (NZ).

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