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‘Every night I go to sleep and pray God will take me away peacefully’: HIV sufferer – Yahoo Singapore News

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‘Every night I go to sleep and pray God will take me away peacefully’: HIV sufferer – Yahoo Singapore News

In the first 10 months of this year, 378 Singapore residents were reported to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

This figure, according to the Ministry of Health, is likely to be consistent with the number reported from 2012 — 469 cases. This was the highest of a steady but gradual growth in the number of people reported to be diagnosed with HIV between 2007 and last  year, with a fall in 2010.

In response to these figures, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor has said that a key challenge continues to be in the early detection of HIV, encouraging at-risk individuals to go for regular HIV testing. Action for Aids has recently made it easier by bringing anonymous, mobile testing to certain nightspots in Singapore.

She also stressed in a blog post on World AIDS day that Singapore must actively destigmatise HIV in the public space, debunk myths and misconceptions about it, and reduce discrimination against people living with HIV — something HIV-positive persons themselves hope for, but still feel Singapore may not be prepared for yet.

Yahoo Singapore sat down with Rick (not his real name), an HIV-positive man who opened up about his own personal story and experience.

**

About two years ago, just as he was turning 50, Rick woke up one morning with what he called “an allergic skin problem”.

At first, he thought the itch on his hands was due to his previous job in industrial laundry, where the chemicals used were very toxic and he admitted he “never really followed” safety instructions when handling it.

The searing itch worsened, though, and surfaced on his legs as well, and Rick scratched until they bled but it refused to subside, despite visits to countless doctors.

He was finally referred to the Communicable Disease Centre to take a series of blood tests. About $ 400 later, he was told he had contracted HIV.

“I was dazed at the news… I was shocked,” he said. “I don’t know how long I sat down there. I was in a blur, but the thing I didn’t understand most was how such things can still happen.”

The news hit him at a bad time — Rick had just returned from nearly two decades abroad, where he worked in various companies, and sank money into various failed business ventures. He had sold the flat he bought with his elderly mother soon after he came home to pay off his debt, and both of them were staying at his younger brother’s house while he started driving a taxi.

If that wasn’t enough, Rick had also recently told his second wife, a lady from China, to divorce him so he would not drag her down, and she left him before he returned to Singapore.

He then slipped into depression, confining himself at his brother’s house for more than a year and gradually losing contact with most of his friends.

“I didn’t want to see anyone,” he said. “My skin was all bloody — my hands and legs; my fingernails were eaten by fungus attacks… I couldn’t even bring myself out to the hawker centre to eat because I just felt so ashamed.”

Rick had fallen prey to a rare disease known as systemic sclerosis, where his immune system reacted to the presence of HIV in his tissues, resulting in the hardening and itching of his skin.

He opted not to take medication to relieve the symptoms, either, saying he did not know if there were any that helped (there are), and neither did he really bother.

Describing the news of him having HIV as a “death sentence”, he said, “Every night I go to sleep and just pray that God will take me away peacefully; don’t let me wake up. People like us, I think it’s better that we die.”

Retreating from the world

Rick believes his nightmare started while he was working abroad some years ago — he was at one point asked to assist in bringing a friend’s Vietnamese sister-in-law, who was swindled into working as a prostitute at a Malaysian nightspot, back to her home country.

Their initial plan of arranging to bring her back didn’t work out, however, and Rick had to pay for her on the spot, so he did — and that night she was deposited into his hotel room.

“She was on drugs or something. She just came and disturbed me and I just let it be,” he said, admitting to sexual relations with her.

He told a friend about what happened after returning to Singapore but got laughed at, and felt so insulted that he never spoke to anyone else about it.

Pain inside worse than pain outside
The entrance to the CARE shelter where “Rick” stays is concealed by foliage and a tall fence. (Yahoo photo)
Right after his diagnosis, Rick felt so ashamed that his first instinct was to retreat from the world, and gradually delete himself from his friends’ lives.

He admits that most of his friends have no idea that he is ill, although he came clean to his two ex-wives about it.

Not wanting to burden his siblings and mother, he sought help from a social worker, and was referred to a shelter run by the Catholic Aids Response Effort (CARE), an organisation dedicated to supporting people with HIV and AIDS. He stays there with about 30 other male residents.

Physically, he says he feels weaker than he was before, and so cannot do heavy lifting or be on his feet for too long without getting aches and pain. He shared how he tried working with a camera operator once, but after three days he had to stop.

Psychologically, however, he fights a much bigger battle. Every day, he is reminded of how he cannot live like a normal person: companionship, having children, going on holidays, sharing a life with someone; things he deems to be the basic privileges that every human enjoys.

“There are times you really feel so exhausted, like you’ve used up all your strength and things just aren’t coming round your way, and you don’t even see the little beam at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s so discouraging… and I don’t think I can make it out (of that state of mind). It’s just a matter of time until I call it a day.”

Solace in candle-making
Some of the candles made by “Rick”, an HIV-positive resident at the CARE shelter. (Yahoo photo)
All that said, though, in the course of his search for a job, Rick discovered an unexpectedly calming activity — candle making. Using this skill, which he unexpectedly picked up during his first week at the shelter from visiting university students, he makes beautiful, intricate pieces.
 
His ability to spend hours working on candles surprises his roommates too — Rick said he can spend up to 10 hours making them, and has stayed up till as late as 4am moulding, forming and mixing wax.
 
“It’s very simple, but also requires a lot of patience, and some creativity,” he said. “It keeps my mind alive… I enjoy doing it.”
 
Candle-making, he said, keeps him occupied and gives him confidence in his ability to contribute in his own way — his candles are sold to raise funds for the upkeep of the shelter.
 
Ultimately, though, Rick still hopes that people might find the time to build deep and sustained friendships with him and his fellow residents at the shelter — not all of them open up as easily as he does, he says, and every one of them harbours deep hurt in the stories of their lives.

“You see people with all kinds of funny characters (here at the shelter),” he said. “I don’t despise them, because they have come to the stage where they’ve lost respect for themselves. They need help, and help is not coming… fortunately for me I still have very good family support [his family visits him regularly], but I believe a lot of people feel so lousy, so rejected.”
 
“If I can make a few more people understand (how we feel) and get more support, mental support or understanding, why not?” he asked. “I don’t feel ashamed or look down on myself, except for my own failure. This sickness, anybody could get it.”


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