Paida Mutopo, from London, was 11 when she found out she was born with a life-threatening virus. Now 18, she wants others to know it’s not a death sentence…
[Story via Reveal (2015) http://www.reveal.co.uk/real-life-stories/news/a625535/i-was-born-with-hiv.html]
“I’ll never forget the moment my mum told me I had HIV. I was only 11 years old and barely able to comprehend what it was, let alone that my mum had unwittingly passed the virus onto me.
Back then, what I knew of HIV from the TV and the news was related to death and I became convinced I was going to die. My mum, Mavis, had known for a year but had been too scared to tell me. She’d found out when we were tested for the virus after I started showing symptoms. Suddenly, everything fell into place.
Throughout primary school, I was weak and tired all the time. I’d even fall asleep in lessons. Then, when I was 10, I broke out in painful red rashes and my weight plummeted. I spent months going in and out of hospital as doctors tried to determine my ‘mystery’ illness.
Eventually, I was prescribed medication, which Mum made me take every day, stressing how important it was. I knew something was wrong, but I’d had no idea how serious it was.
At just 11, being told the truth was hard. It was something drug addicts and prostitutes got, not schoolgirls. Mum explained that my dad, who’s from Zimbabwe, had passed it on without her knowing. They’d split before I was born and apart from a few Christmas cards, we’d never had a relationship.
Mum and I moved to Manchester in 2003 after she got a job as a social worker. Incredibly, she’d never been ill, so there’d been no clue what we were living with.
When I spoke to my dad about it, he admitted he’d been aware for years. I was distraught. How could he not have told us? Desperate for answers, I asked him why he hadn’t shared this incredibly important information. But he never replied. That was when I cut him out of my life for good.
By contrast, Mum was drowning in guilt. Even today, she blames herself. But I don’t hold her responsible. She had no idea. Still, that didn’t stop fear overwhelming me. Each time I went to bed, I was terrified I wouldn’t wake up. I worried I’d lose friends, that people would shun me. Would I be able to have a boyfriend or children?
Mum told me it wasn’t the death sentence it used to be. But I’d seen people ravaged by it and knew the stigma. I told no one. I missed lots of school because I had to spend up to six weeks in hospital at a time. I felt isolated and depressed. What was the point in trying hard in lessons when I might not make it past high school?
At 14, I confided in one friend. Quickly, rumours rampaged round the school. It felt like my life was over. Bullies said I was going to die. Others wouldn’t touch me. People would come into the restaurant where I worked part-time and shout that I shouldn’t be allowed to work with food. My email inbox was full of nasty comments.
But slowly, as I read up on HIV, I realised Mum was right. Times had changed and people were living with the virus. So, at 16, I decided to ‘come out’. ‘The rumours are true,’ I wrote on Facebook. ‘I’m HIV positive.’ It turned out to be the best thing I ever did. I received so many supportive and positive reactions.
That year, I got my first boyfriend. We already knew each other so I didn’t have to tell him about my condition. We were so young, we didn’t have a sexual relationship.
But a year later, when I got together with my second boyfriend, he panicked that he could catch it from kissing. We went to the hospital, where a nurse explained how it was passed on and he calmed down. (Read: Way’s you can’t get HIV)
We were told as long as I kept taking the drugs and we used condoms, we’d be fine. Finally, I felt I wasn’t that different. I could live a normal life.
I take three different tablets daily to keep the risk of spreading the virus as low as possible. For now, they’re keeping it at bay and the virus is barely visible in me. I may even be able to have children.
Now I’m studying health and social care and spend most of my time trying to encourage people with HIV to speak out and educate others.
It’s not ‘dirty’ and we need to change how people think about it.”
A mother’s pride
PAIDA’S MUM MAVIS, 48, SAYS:
“When doctors diagnosed Paida with HIV and it turned out I’d passed it on to her, I was utterly shocked. I felt so guilty, both as a woman and a mother. Your instinct is to look after your baby but I’d given mine a potentially deadly virus.
“Thankfully, Paida doesn’t let her diagnosis get her down and watching her grow up into the young woman she is now has been so rewarding. I’m amazed by her strength every day.