Philip Baldwin was on his lunch break from his job as a London lawyer when his life changed forever. As a responsible, openly gay 24-year-old he had popped to a nearby sexually transmitted infection clinic for one of his regular health checks, never suspecting a problem.
But moments later, he was given the devastating news that he was HIV positive.
"It was a complete shock," says Baldwin. "I’d only left university the previous summer so I felt I’d thrown my life away. I was angry and ashamed and didn’t know how to process the emotions.
"I went back to my apartment rather than going back to the office and remember lying on my sofa in the foetal position. After an hour, I gathered the strength to return to work, but I couldn’t tell anyone.
"I sat at my desk, struggling with the news but projecting a façade that everything was alright."
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Today, 12 years on from that bleak day, Baldwin wishes he could tell that terrified young man that everything was going to be ok. Now 36, he leads a rich, rewarding life as a human rights activist, magazine columnist and radio host.
Despite being currently single, he has enjoyed loving relationships over the last decade and thanks to ground-breaking developments in treatment, he is expected to live a long and happy life.
Baldwin is one of an estimated 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK. Today, on World Aids Day, he wants to raise more awareness for a virus that still carries a stigma among some communities.
He admits that his happiness and confidence is a far cry from the immediate months following his diagnosis, particularly as he was dealt a second blow.
"A week after my initial diagnosis, I went to the HIV clinic and was told that I also had hepatitis C, another bloodborne virus," he says. "I have no idea who I could have contracted them from. I try not to think about it because there is no point apportioning blame.
"I don’t think of myself as a ‘victim’ but if I did, the person who gave it to me was also going through a similar process to me and I didn’t want to dwell on it.
"Coming to terms with it all was difficult. I contemplated taking my own life several times. Once, when I was unable to sleep, I went for a walk through London on clear moonlit night.
"I took myself to one of the bridges over the Thames and seriously considered jumping but I think fear stopped me. Fear of the water below, fear of it going wrong, fear of what it would do to my family and friends.
"I’d only told a handful of friends about my diagnosis and they were all so supportive but I was really struggling to deal with it as there was – and still is – a stigma to being HIV positive."
A turning point for Baldwin came when he was seconded to a job in New York in 2011.
"I hadn’t really dated since my diagnosis but met a really amazing American guy who had been diagnosed HIV positive five years earlier and the acceptance I received from him was crucial," says Philip.
"By the time I moved back to the UK six months later, I was ready to tell my parents, more friends and even my employer. It was hard. It was like ‘coming out’ again – which I’d done with most people in my late teens and early 20s.
"But while everyone was supportive, there wasn’t much understanding about HIV and what it meant. That’s why I am happy to talk about my experience – so that it helps inform and educate."
Baldwin is in good health and takes one tablet a day. The virus is now undetectable in his body, meaning that the risk of him passing on the virus to someone else is virtually impossible.
"HIV activists say ‘Undetectable = Untransmittable’ and that’s really given me a lot of confidence," he says. "One of my greatest concerns was that I might pass on HIV but knowing that I’m on effective treatment to prevent that is hugely empowering."
About half of those with HIV in this country are gay and bi men while 20% are straight men and 30% are women. But those diagnosed today, if detected early enough, can enjoy a long and healthy life thanks to the treatment.
"My message to anyone who finds themselves diagnosed with HIV today is: ‘You’re going to be okay’," says Baldwin. "I’m sure if I’d been told this in the first few weeks after diagnosis it would have saved a lot of pain.
"Follow the advice of your HIV clinician, start effective treatment and don’t be reticent to reach out for peer support. That really helps. You can have a happy, healthy, successful and normal life."
For more info visit The Terrence Higgins Trust
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