Becky Mitchell is a picture of health – she teaches gym classes four times a week, always eats her five fruit and veg a day, and loves to cycle.
In the summer of 2012, Becky had found a new lease of life after splitting with her husband. She eventually met someone new and, after a few months together, they started having unprotected sex.
But not long afterwards she received an email from her partner’s ex-girlfriend that changed her life forever.
We got together and were really careful to start with. After a few months, he said he didn’t have anything, and I figured, we’re in our 40s – who lies about these things? So, as the relationship got more serious, we stopped using condoms.
A few weeks later, I’d been feeling ill for a couple of weeks, and had noticed a rash on my chest, but didn’t think anything of it. Then I got an email from his ex-girlfriend, telling me he had HIV and doesn’t take his medicine properly.
I thought, oh my god, I’ve got to go and get tested. The doctor suggested I wait a month so I went back in on a Monday to get the test. On the Friday after work, I was back in the doctor’s about a completely different thing, when my doctor got a phone call while I was in the room. It was my results.
The doctor told me there and then that I had HIV. My first response was, I haven’t got time to be ill! I knew I couldn’t let this stop me running or cycling. I asked the doctor if I’d still be able to do all of that – he assured me I would, and he phoned after the weekend to check I was alright. As it sunk in I felt shocked and upset – I knew there was no cure.
But my passion for fitness helped me come to terms with my diagnosis – I carried on teaching spinning, kettlebells and leading running groups. I knew I wanted to get on with my life as normal.
Telling friends and family
I told a couple of friends straight away and left it a little while longer to tell my mum and brother.
It was particularly hard for my mum. What can your mum really say? She had a typical mother’s reaction – she just felt powerless, saying, ‘I can’t take this away from you, there’s nothing I could do to make it better.’
Friends would say to me, ‘How on earth could you have HIV? You’re so fit and sensible.’ But that’s the thing – it can happen to anyone. HIV doesn’t discriminate, it could happen in your first sexual relationship or in older age.
My friends understood that being HIV positive is not the same as ‘AIDS’; that I was not going to die. But they did have questions – they’d always say ‘sorry if that sounds stupid’, but I’d never blame them for not knowing the ins and outs of HIV. I wouldn’t have known myself if it hadn’t happened to me. I knew it came from a point of them wanting to be better informed and wanting to know I’m alright.
I’ve never felt like an ill person or a victim. Within two weeks of starting my treatment, it had suppressed the amount of HIV in my blood to ‘undetectable’ levels. And I’ve stayed undetectable ever since. I feel superhuman!
It definitely helps that I was diagnosed early and that I’m fit and healthy. Who knows what is further ahead as I grow older with HIV, but I’ve really not had any issues or side effects.
I knew I couldn’t deal with this on my own, I needed to speak to people living with HIV. I joined the Terrence Higgins Trust forum that evening and got a lot of my questions answered by people who really understood.
I’ve also had lots of support from Terrence Higgins Trust’s Bristol office who have been fantastic. You shouldn’t feel alone – there is community out there, ready to support you if or when you need it.
Dating and relationships
After my diagnosis, I was traumatised by my experience and glad to be on my own – I have always been comfortable by myself.
Every now and again something comes along and I’ve dated people, usually meeting them through friends. I’ve never had any negative feedback from dates about my HIV status, probably because most people already know about it as I’ve put it out there in the media. I find once it’s out there and I’m open about it, it doesn’t cause an issue. It’s the fear, silence and taboo around HIV that fuels stigma.
I decided to be really open about my HIV status as the more it’s out there, the more we can normalise it and improve public awareness.
I want people to know that HIV doesn’t define me as a person; I’m the same woman, just stronger and wiser.
Have you ever been tested?
Some people think taking a HIV test is scary, but honestly it shouldn’t be. The condition is entirely manageable. If you test positive, early detection, monitoring and effective treatment means that your life can largely carry on as before.
Incredible medical progress has been made in the last 20 years and HIV treatment is now very effective. If you are diagnosed with HIV before it has damaged your body and you are put on effective treatment, you can expect to live as long as anyone else.
HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be and people are able to live, healthy and happy lives like they did before. However, this is thanks to the amazing progress we have made in treating the condition and we can only begin to do that when we make the decision to get tested and keep on top of our health.
Late HIV diagnosis in Leicester is 13.8% higher than the average for England. It’s a scary prospect to some and no one takes that for granted, but by taking the chance to be tested, you could be buying yourself years of life.
For more information on HIV Testing, please visit our website where you can find information about testing with us or other places in Leicester/shire and around the UK. We also have information about testing for HIV at home.