I spent a lot of time in bed staring at my wall, then staring at my radiator, then petting my cat and staring at the wall some more. I couldn’t shake the nervous feeling. I wondered when I would stop feeling so frightened — if I would stop feeling frightened. While I knew worrying wouldn’t change anything, part of me believed that if I could mentally assume the role of an HIV-positive person, I would be more prepared for the news if I eventually found out that I had been infected all along. It was an absurd thought process, but I didn't recognize that at the time.
With the help of a close girlfriend, I worked up the courage to get tested again after about a week had passed. Hoping to find a doctor with a better bedside manner than the first one, I went to a clinic that specialized in STD testing. The doctor there assured me that if both the western blot and PCR tests were negative, I was definitely HIV negative.
He figured that the ELISA was probably positive due to human error during the lab testing, as only 0.2% of tests are positive if you subtract instances of botched test samples. Things that can cause false-positives include being pregnant, other autoimmune diseases, Hepatitis B, and rabies, but I didn’t have any other health issues and I wasn't pregnant. I told him to make sure not to give me the results until all the tests came back.
Since I had finally taken a step toward solving my medical mystery by getting tested again, my anxiety subsided a bit. I was safe. I was healthy. I was very, very unlucky to be among the less than 1% of people who receive false-positive tests, but not actually being HIV positive was worth celebrating. Life nearly returned back to normal for the few days following my second round of testing — that is until I got the call from the clinic asking me to return to the office. I yelled all sorts of things over the phone, demanding to be told what was going on. The receptionist put the doctor I had spoken with on the phone, and he told me that the ELISA had come back positive again, and they were still waiting on the western blot and PCR tests.
I was sure this was it. I had HIV. Two positive ELISA tests from two different testing facilities? No way were we chalking this up to human error. That's when I really lost it. Under the street scaffolding, outside of the subway, I lay facedown crying, oblivious to everything around me.
I called my dad to tell him, and instead of simply soothing me, he said, “Maybe you do have it, Zoe. I can’t act like it’s not a possibility anymore.” Hearing him break character as the strong, reassuring dad frightened me, but it also grounded me. I wasn't being irrational; there was a serious possibility something was wrong with me.
One of my closest guy friends stayed with me for the nights following the call, as I waited for the second round of blood work to come back. A diabetic with a dark sense of humor, he would often joke about how his health was fucked and then dramatically give himself insulin shots. He was the only person who could succeed in brightening my mood, even if only for a moment here or there. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without him.