Why I wiped HIV off my face

GA Voice - - Health Alert -

Some years ago, I told some­one that I was HIV pos­i­tive be­fore I agreed to his in­vi­ta­tion for a date. “Yeah, I know,” he ca­su­ally replied, and then he looked a lit­tle em­bar­rassed, as if he shouldn’t have said it. It was too late, of course; I knew ex­actly what he meant. He could tell my HIV sta­tus by my face.

I had The Look. The sunken, wasted cheeks of some­one liv­ing with HIV. It be­came a com­mon man­i­fes­ta­tion in the 1980s and per­sisted un­til the med­i­ca­tions that caused the con­di­tion, known as fa­cial lipoa­t­ro­phy, were changed or aban­doned for bet­ter treat­ments.

To­day, fa­cial lipoa­t­ro­phy is al­most ex­clu­sively lim­ited to long-term HIV sur­vivors who used med­i­ca­tions like d4T and DDI more than 20 years ago.

I’m one of those long-term sur­vivors. When my symp­toms be­gan to ap­pear, it meant that the choice whether to share my sta­tus, as an ac­tivist or on a per­sonal level, had been taken away. My HIV was writ­ten across my face for all to see.

I am proud of my history ad­vo­cat­ing for and liv­ing with HIV. But as un­com­fort­able as it may be to ad­mit, it’s a lot eas­ier to live openly as a per­son with HIV when you don’t look like it.

I felt ashamed of my ap­pear­ance, and then con­flicted. For some­one who has been fight­ing so hard to re­duce HIV stigma, what was there to be ashamed of, ex­actly? Many of the phys­i­cal signs of HIV—from weight loss to fat re­dis­tri­bu­tion to fa­cial wast­ing—are worn as bat­tle scars, if not badges of honor, by thou­sands of peo­ple liv­ing with HIV. My very sur­vival is mir­rored in my phys­i­cal­ity. What’s wrong with that?

Even­tu­ally, I re­al­ized that cor­rect­ing my fa­cial wast­ing was no dif­fer­ent from im­prov­ing my T cell counts. I wasn’t making a po­lit­i­cal state­ment; I was im­prov­ing my health and well-be­ing.

And so, I be­gan a jour­ney that would in­clude mul­ti­ple vis­its to a doc­tor and thou­sands of dol­lars of var­i­ous “fa­cial filler” prod­ucts in­jected into my face. It wasn’t easy trust­ing a physi­cian with this—my face may have been sag­ging, but it’s the only one I have—but with some care­ful re­search I found an ex­pe­ri­enced and em­pa­thetic spe­cial­ist.

I chron­i­cled my jour­ney through video blogs that span more than six years (log on to www. the­gavoice.com to view each video blog). They in­clude the treat­ments avail­able for fa­cial lipoa­t­ro­phy, in­for­ma­tion about pa­tient as­sis­tance pro­grams for tem­po­rary fillers, and the dra­matic re­sults of per­ma­nent fillers, with plenty of “be­fore and af­ter” footage along the way.

The sup­port­ive re­sponse to the videos has taught me, once again, that the things about which we may be the most ashamed are the very things that can help some­one else, if only we al­low our­selves the courage to speak up about them.

The an­swer to HIV stigma, of course, is not to wipe away any ev­i­dence that we may be liv­ing with the virus (beauty may be skin deep, but stigma runs far deeper). This has been an ex­er­cise in heal­ing for me, and not an ef­fort to es­cape the re­al­i­ties of my life and my health.

And al­though no one loves the ag­ing process, mine is tem­pered by the knowl­edge that I have sur­vived when many have not.

It is grat­i­tude, noth­ing more, that is writ­ten across my face.

Mark S. King writes the award-win­ning blog, MyFab­u­lousDisease.com. The for­mer At­lantan can’t bear to give up his 404 area code phone num­ber since mov­ing to Bal­ti­more last year.

Mark S. King, a long­time HIV sur­vivor, shows off the dra­matic change in his ap­pear­ance due to fa­cial fillers. (Cour­tesy pho­tos)

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