Two years after her diagnosis with HIV, Phindile Sithole-Spong saw no point in hiding her status anymore. Since she came out about her HIV status at the age of 19, the University of Cape Town graduate finds herself doing it over and over again to different audiences, so as to help others.
In the beginning Phindile Sithole-Spong had never planned to reveal to her friends that she had HIV. A tactless doctor first forced her to disclose her status to a few friends.
“I got sick with pneumonia and I went into hospital and my friends came to visit me. The doctor walks in. She’s like: ‘Your CD 4 count is…’ And I’m like: ‘Oh, gosh, no. Please don’t say that’. Then my friends are like: ‘What CD 4 count?’ I’m like: ‘Uhm… yes, I’m HIV-positive’. And I had a fight with one of these friends. I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, what if she tells someone’?, says Phindile.
The fear of others finding out about her HIV totally unnerved her. But she finally got over it.
“You know what? It got irritating lying to people. I was at varsity in Cape Town with people I had never met before and, obviously, I didn’t want to tell people. I’d lie about my pills and I’d say: ‘Oh, no, this is for headaches or this is for… whatever.’ And it just got tiring at the end. I just decided that I don’t want to live like that. And it was pointless. If I was going to have this virus, I was going to have this virus for the rest of my life. So, I had to come to terms with it and, then, I just started speaking out about it”, she says.
After coming out to a few individuals about her status, word quickly got around on campus that Phindile had HIV. It wasn’t too long afterwards that she had to speak openly about it to a large audience.
“The SRC asked me to do a talk about my status. I agreed to it. I wasn’t quite sure why I agreed to it at the time, but I did. I thought: ‘You know what? If I’m going to come out I might as well do it at varsity and let everyone know’. And we were sort of gathering people to come into the hall, etc. I overheard some girl talking to her friend and she was like: ‘Oh, my gosh! Some girl’s got AIDS and she’s coming out about it on campus!’ And I was like: ‘Yes, actually, that girl’s me’! And she looked at me and her face went red. It was hilarious. I thought to myself: ‘Good gosh, people are so naïve’!”
That public address was the beginning of Phindile’s journey telling people about her HIV status. To this day, she says she does it to help others accept themselves and their loved ones with HIV.
“I survived a CD 4 count of 2. This must mean something. Let me share my status. I was just telling people about my experiences. A lot of people came to me afterwards. They were telling me about their stories… about parents or themselves who were infected, etc. And I think that’s where my path begun telling people and speaking about it more. I don’t lie about taking my ARVs. I’ll take my ARVs in public and someone will ask me: ‘What are those’? I’m like: ‘These are my ARVs’. They’re like: ‘You’re HIV-positive’? I’m like: ‘Yes’. So, I’m always coming out and it’s always quite interesting to watch people’s reactions”, she says.
Phindile adds that she has accepted that she has HIV and it is important for her to disclose her status to others and to a potential partner.
“I made a decision a long time ago that I was going to be open and honest. I give people an option and if someone can’t accept my status, then they can’t accept me. It’s part of me”.
She does acknowledge that she has been fortunate in how people around her have reacted to her HIV status, as others have not enjoyed the kind of support that she has.
“I had a very amazing support system. My mother was supportive. My best friends were very supportive. So, I had people to fall back on. I wasn’t looking to make new friends. I wasn’t looking to impress anybody”, she says.
Phindile, who is now 22, got infected with HIV at birth and she didn’t know it. Her mother died when she was eight years old. As much as she courageously tells people about her status, she had her own struggles with HIV when she was diagnosed at age 19.
“I had had it so long in my life and it had never been treated. There were no antibodies fighting anything. I actually had a CD 4 count of 2. And that’s when I had to be rushed into hospital. I slowly started to recover and now my CD 4 count is now in the 800s. I was in hospital for about two months. It was an interesting journey for me. At the time doctors and nurses… everyone was whispering: ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s got a CD 4 count of 2, she should be dead’. And I went into a depression at the time. Somehow, for some reason, I survived. Actually, within three months of being on treatment my CD 4 count was up to 400. So, I’ve been happy and healthy ever since”, she says.