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Nineteen-year-old Jason is the typical teenager. He dreams of one day owning a car, he likes hanging out with his friends and he has visions of getting married and fathering children.
There is however one exception that makes his life different from that of the average teenager. For the past two years Jason has had to live with the knowledge that he is HIV positive.
Today Jason is upbeat about life, a far cry from what it was two years ago when he decided to jump from a cliff to his death a day after he heard the words “you are HIV positive”.
An unassuming young man, Jason is all smiles as he welcomes JIS News at his place of employment at the Jamaica AIDS Support office. He does not appear uncomfortable, as he has had to tell his story time and time again at the various workshops he now attends. However under the relaxed exterior is a frightened youth who just wants to be a regular teenager again. This becomes somewhat evident as his voice cracks and the emotional pain becomes noticeable on his face at times.
For one more time Jason tells his tale of having gone to the Comprehensive Health Centre on Slipe Road for a regular check up after he noticed some rash coming up on his skin. For him it was just a regular visit to the doctor’s office and so even when he was asked to do a blood test he did not give it much thought.
After all he was only used to having sexual intercourse with overweight women, a practice he developed from as early as age 12. In his ignorance like so many others, Jason believed if the woman was overweight then she could not possibly be carrying the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). He found out this was not true through a very hard lesson.
Having grown up in Maxfield Park, Jason said his life was somewhat of a roller coaster, which he described as having a lot of ups and downs. As a result he took to a life of clubbing, hanging out with his friends and womanizing.
All that continued until he reached age 17 when his life took a completely different turn. “I was doing welding until I found out that some rash came up on my skin and my mother said drink cerese maybe that would keep it away but doing it for over a month didn’t actually work out so I went to Slipe Pen Road Clinic and they say come back the next day and I went back the following day and the following day they said it was scabies, but I must still come back the other day,” he explains. “They gave me some prescription and I filled it, went back the next day and found myself in section three where actually the nurse asked me to do a HIV test. She was asking me questions like when was the last time I had sex and if I had used a condom.then my mind was drifting as I was wondering if a did use condom. Then I realize that I never really use condom,” he continues.
“I didn’t really take it as anything. I went back the next month for my result and that was when I found out I was HIV positive because the nurse turn around to me and say Jason you are HIV positive. I was like shocked,” he recalls.
He was in disbelief. Surely he could not have got the virus from ladies he had been with as they were always older and of course, fat. “Doing the test was fine but when I went home my mind was drifting in the past but I was saying nothing like that because everybody I had sex with was fat ladies. so my definition of HIV was a different version,” he says.
So different was his perception of HIV that when he first heard that he was positive all Jason could feel was anger, which later turned to despair. “Actually my mind went blank for awhile about 15 minutes and then she asked me who I am going to tell and I say I am going to tell my parents but all that was going through my mind was to just get up and hit her with the chair. I was very angry because I was saying I was going to die so I should just get it over and done,” he recalls.
Still in a state of denial and disbelief, Jason says he went home and slept. The next day he found himself in Stony Hill standing at the edge of a cliff just waiting for life to slip away. Until this day he says, he has no idea who was the man and where he came from who showed up and started talking to him. “A gentleman stopped me and said any problem I am in I can really come out. It was like something just kicked inside and I just turned back and went to Slipe Pen Road to see if I was dreaming or something.
I had to go back in the same chair just to hear over again and from there I decided to tell my parents,” Jason recounts. “From what the gentleman actually tell me I was getting the courage saying not to worry kill myself because there must be hope and life must go on and so I just found the courage to go and tell my mother. She actually laughed until she realized I was very serious and then she called the family and told them,” he says.
At first Jason says his father was very angry and even went as far as to say hurtful things that he did not mean. It took a while but his parents eventually accepted that he was HIV positive, but not before the blame game begun. “Then daddy was starting to blame her and say that she leave me to do certain things and didn’t take me up in hands and so forth. But I was thinking that Daddy was the one who was always mixing up his ‘roots’ and so I was looking back at that,” Jason points out in a reflective mood.
For the young man lack of knowledge on the subject could very well be responsible for the predicament he now finds himself in. “It was like watching television and seeing them show the kids in Africa and how they meagre down and so I was saying that is only meagre person that has HIV and so forth, but then I find out the wrong way that even fat persons could have it,” says Jason with a slight smirk.
Even though he says he is more focused now, Jason discloses that there are times when he goes back into his shell and even wonders why he had not simply gone ahead and committed suicide. “Sometimes I say you know I should just kill myself and done because you know life does get hard at times. Sometimes if it wasn’t for friends and family,” he says as his voice trails off to a whisper. He however has managed to keep those thoughts at bay, as he knows that if he should die it would hurt his family. “The whole point of life for me now is that if I die it would tear up a lot of people inside,” he says.
These days instead of partying with his friends as much as he used to, Jason spends a lot of his days sharing his experience as a teen living with HIV, a job that he finds rather rewarding. “I love sitting in the crowd and wait until everyone is finished and just hear some stuff that they really say about HIV and so on. It does really bring back memories. Some of the times when I go up and start speaking if you drop a pin you can hear it echo. Even if I don’t reach the whole 20 teenagers, and I reach at least two that will be good”, he said with a gleam in his eyes.
Outside of this responsibility, Jason says he just wants to be a typical teenager. “Every teenager just wants a car and that is typically me. I am working towards it and I am halfway there. I have already been to New York, flew out (of Jamaica) for the first time and everybody say the first time was going to be hard but it was so much fun..then I say I want to do sky diving,” he says smiling.
Fortunately for Jason he still has many of reasons to smile, as unlike others who find themselves with this dreaded retrovirus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), he does not face any discrimination from friends or family. Jason says he does not want to see any of his friends in a similar position so he shares all the information he receives from the Jamaica Aids Support where he currently works. “Everything I learn from JAS I actually share it with them. Sometimes condom come I bring it to them and watch them fight for the condoms,” he says.
Unlike two years ago Jason is determined to live his life to its full extent and even has plans of one day getting married. ” Right now I say is no sickness going to take me home is either some stray shot catch me but no sickness is going to take me home,” he says with a determined look on his face.
But life is not always bright and Jason has to be careful of his diet at all times. “Certain things I have to cut out. I do like typical teenager stuff like drink; smoke and you know all those things have to cut out. At times I feel like Jason again just to be a little troublemaker. However at times I feel like I am not free to be a teenager like when me and my friends go into clubs and I have two Guinness they will come and say that is the last one.”
But that is just a minor inconvenience to Jason who is grateful that he is still in good health after going through a serious bout of sickness. While his health last, Jason says he plans to go back to school so he can take up a temporary job position with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in New York when he is 20 years old. This opportunity was opened for him when he went to New York recently to attend a UNFPA conference, where he told his story. An experience, which he said, he thoroughly enjoyed, as he was able to meet Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan.
Concluding the interview Jason had a message for friends and family members of persons who are HIV positive. “If your friends and family are HIV positive don’t push them aside because when you do, that is it for them,” he urged.
There are some 22,000 persons living with HIV in Jamaica. There are more than 40 million worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that half a million of these persons live in the Caribbean.