Zoe Black's battle with HIV was not an easy fight. Facing body-numbing side effects from medication and mental health issues, the 27-year-old trans woman never thought she'd see the day she would reach undetectable status, but she did—and it took a village to get her there.
There is currently no cure for HIV, a virus that attacks the body's immune system—once a person gets it, they have it for life. But advances have been made in recent years. In March 2022, a woman was reported to have been cured of the disease through stem cell transplantation.
It sucks that stigma and discrimination force us to closets when we should be out there flaunting our strength.
Not just a statistic
It was in March 2018 when Zoe found out about her status. LoveYourself Inc.—an organization providing free HIV testing, counseling, treatment, and life coaching—had a caravan at her school pride and she decided to get tested. "My life changed forever," she said.
"Before ako magpa-test kasi, parang meron ako noong intuition or instinct na I already have [HIV], parang deep down I know I have it kasi alam ko naman yung activities ko, I know that I’ve been careless and reckless, that I should’ve known better," she told PhilSTAR L!fe.
Zoe was adamant about telling people about her status even before she knew the results because she wanted others to see more than the statistics. As of February 2022, 96,266 Filipinos have been diagnosed with HIV since January 1984.
"All we see are statistics. Parang walang human connection dun sa numbers, walang face, kumbaga. So I wanted to not be that face naman, pero I wanted to be vocal about it para magkaroon ng human connection," Zoe said.
She first told her friends about her diagnosis and eventually became open about it on social media. To her surprise, strangers and some of her friends came to her to talk about their experiences of being positive.
It took a while for Zoe to tell her family about it, but the time came when she was hospitalized for tuberculosis and pneumonia in 2019. She told her doctor about being HIV positive and was advised to go back on medications even though they caused harsh side effects on the 27-year-old.
"When I was having a conversation with my doctor, my brother overheard it and messaged me na, 'Bakit 'di mo sa'kin sinabi, you don't have to fight it alone,'" Zoe recalled.
"That single message gave me the courage and the strength to tell my whole family, kasi yung reservations ko lang naman in not telling them is baka mag-walk away sila at baka talikuran nila ako at mag-iba tingin nila sa'kin."
But knowing that one family member would be there for her emboldened Zoe to tell the rest of her family, who also turned out to be supportive.
The medication side of the battle
Coming to terms with her status put Zoe in a dark place—she also had depression at the time—and it caused her to not seek treatment for two months. She came across LoveYourself again, took a confirmatory test, and received prophylaxis medication. The side effects of these medicines, however, took a toll on her body.
"Sobrang harsh ng side effects sa katawan ko. Sumusuka ako lagi, nahihilo ako every time talaga," she said, sharing that her first round of medications was a pill she had to take once a day before she slept.
The side effects were so severe, Zoe couldn't even go to work because it felt like a "hangover that wouldn't subside."
While HIV medicines help diagnosed individuals live longer and reduce the risk of transmission, they also cause side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and trouble sleeping for a few days or weeks.
She chose to discontinue the medications, even though she knew this could cause the drugs to lose their effect on her body. In 2020, Zoe found out she had oral candidiasis—a "yeast infection of the mouth," according to Healthline—and resumed taking medication after being transferred to a second line as the first no longer worked on her.
Every day, she had to take six pills, which was also a difficult experience. "Tiniis ko talaga yun... Sobrang mag-give up na sana ako noon, I was begging my for my life to be taken away."
She was then transferred to the third line of medication, which "saved her life." The new meds didn't cause harsh side effects so she went home to her province to recuperate and recover.
Becoming undetectable and how it 'took a village'
After a year of taking medications, Zoe took a viral load test and reached an undetectable status. People with undetectable viral loads can't pass HIV to others through sex and it also prevents the disease from progressing, so those living with it can have long and healthy lives. Undetectable = Untransmittable.
"Grabe yung feeling, it's indescribable," she said, with a big sense of relief and joy in her voice. "Andaming tao that helped me reach this point. Lagi kong sinasabi sa kanila na I couldn’t have done this alone."
"It took a village to get me here. Andaming nag-pupush sa'kin na magpagaling, ang daming nagpaparealize na maraming nagmamahal sa'kin."
"The medications and yourself are just half of it. The other part’s the people who’ll be there for you through thick and thin and I’m glad that sa lahat ng pinagsabihan ko, walang nag-walk away."
Zoe doesn't see living with HIV as a flaw and says the most important part of treatment is to know that you are not alone.
"PLHIV is incredibly strong and that strength is something we should never try to hide...Yung drive mo lang to get up in the morning, that's bravery and resiliency... It sucks that stigma and discrimination force us to closets when we should be out there flaunting our strength," she said.
"Our status is not a flaw. We are not defined by our status and we are more than being PLHIV. You are not alone. You are not alone in this fight," she added.