AIDS ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE.
Christian nearly died because he wouldn't accept he had Aids. Today he lives a full life - and wants to educate heterosexual people about HIV.
I'm going to be dead soon anyway, Christian thought back in 2007. He suspected he was HIV positive, and for him HIV meant Aids, and Aids meant death. There seemed no escaping the equation.
Still psychologically numb a year later, Christian didn't even want to hear the encouraging words the HIV specialist had for him. "You can live a normal life, a good 20 to 30 years, with the medication," the doctor said. "You're just trying to make the last days of my life a little easier to bear, you jerk," Christian thought to himself.
Today the 42-year-old is sitting on his couch in the two-room flat he shares with his wife in the Reinickendorf district of Berlin. He's a big, fun-loving man with a broad grin and a firm handshake. And looks like a guy who can pull his weight if he needs to - his bald scalp gives him brawny look. He smiles a lot. It's impossible to overlook how much he enjoys life.
“Crazy,” says Christian and shakes himself, remembering the way he panicked himself back then. "If I could turn back the clock, I would do the test much earlier."
"I WOULD DO THE TEST MUCH EARLIER."
Christian took the test at the last minute during that period of fear. He had suspected for some time that he was HIV positive, but had suppressed the thought as long as he could.
OUT OF BREATH ON HOLIDAY
Christian became infected ten years ago from a one-night-stand in Thailand. Then he got married and was faithful to his wife. He didn't notice anything amiss until 2007, during another vacation in Thailand, when he suddenly found himself short of breath. He also had a high fever - everything pointed towards pneumonia. He received medication in a private clinic and soon started feeling better. Three days later a doctor walked into his ward holding an x-ray of Christian's lung and said, "You have Aids."
Christian thought it was absurd. "I threw him right out! You can't see Aids on an x-ray!" He thought. Today he knows the doctor was right. Christian was suffering from pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), a lung inflammation typical among Aids patients.
His doctor in Berlin thought he knew better and assured him that the Aids diagnosis was ridiculous - he'd simply caught some tropical disease. Christian wanted to believe him, but was troubled by doubts. Could the Thai doctor have been right?
The doubts grew. Things weren't working out in bed with his wife. He didn't want to scare her so he didn't say anything, and he didn't want to take an HIV test because he was scared of the result. The fear paralysed him. For a year, he didn't tell anyone, grew withdrawn, and organized his will. Until he suddenly encountered the same symptoms he felt in Thailand: weakness, shortness of breath: "I could barely climb the stairs to my flat."
He cancelled a trip to Thailand with his wife and went back to the doctor - this time to a lung specialist. But the specialist couldn't explain his symptoms, and sent him for an x-ray and a CT scan and referred the case to a colleague, who put Christian on a stationary bike to test his lungs.
While Christian was working the pedals, the doctor glanced at the CT images - and stopped short. Then he reached for the phone. "Can't you see that the man has Aids?" he yelled down the line to his colleague. Christian, gasping for breath on the bicycle next to him, froze. And decided his life was over.
"BETTER TO DIE NOW, I THOUGHT TO MYSELF"
He raced to the airport in a friend's car to say goodbye to his wife as she left for Thailand. She was worried. "It's nothing serious," he told her. She wanted to stay with him. "Nah, better for you to go," he told her, and then went straight from the airport to Behring hospital in Zehlendorf, Berlin, a specialist clinic for lung diseases. Even as his blood was being tested he told the doctor, "I don't need a psychologist. I can handle it." Then the diagnosis was confirmed: Christian was HIV-positive.
In the clinic he had his pneumonia treated.
And contemplated suicide. Better to die now than vegetate and waste away, he thought, remembering images of emaciated Aids patients from the 1980s - exactly the same stereotype Christian faces today. "No way you have Aids - with a belly like that!" people tell him, and he has to laugh.
"NO WAY YOU HAVE AIDS - WITH A BELLY LIKE THAT!"
The main problem was his ignorance. If he'd been able to believe the doctor who promised him a long and fulfilling life, he could have started to live it earlier. What finally made it possible was the self-help movement organized by people with HIV, which he is now an active part of.
Meeting other HIV-positive people changed everything. "They all looked so normal," he says. "I thought: maybe I do have a chance!" Christian visited a group at the Pluspunkt advice centre in Berlin. "They saved me," he says. Because he was often the only heterosexual there, he got involved in the PositHIV & Hetero network, a nationwide organization of heterosexual women and men who live with the virus.
Heterosexual people display the most ignorance and prejudice about HIV and Aids, says Christian. "The gay community is well-informed, but not the heteros - they think it's dirty. If you're a man you're gay or a junkie, if you're a woman you're a whore or a slut."
Now Christian lives a full life again. Every morning he takes two tablets to keep the HIV in his body in check, and he goes to the doctor regularly to check his blood. "The pills are my constant companions," he says with a rueful grin - but otherwise his life has few limits. The side effects like nausea and diarrhoea stopped after the first six months.
So Christian is living proof that HIV-positive people can lead a normal life. He could have taken early retirement, but it was important to him to keep working - for financial reasons, certainly, "but also because I wanted to stay part of society." And so every morning he goes to a call centre where he works for a major airline.
And his wife? She was not infected, and though she was scared at first, the couple got informed together, and now she has learned to deal with the issue better. In bed, though, things still aren't working out. Christian is too frightened that his wife could become infected too. Even though his medication means it is virtually impossible for the virus to be transmitted to her, and they could use condoms, the fear won't go away. "I'm blocked there," says Christian, and for a moment he looks very thoughtful.
"I TAKE THE TIME TO ENJOY BEAUTIFUL MOMENTS"
The infection has also changed his life for the better, because now death is always on his mind. "I used to do all kinds of things, and a lot rushed by me. I just drank alcohol to get wasted." Now he enjoys life much more intensively, goes out into nature, visits the nearby Lake Schäfer, sits on a bench and turns off his phone. "I take the time to enjoy beautiful moments."
He still doesn't really believe he has much life left. He doesn't know for sure what the virus has done to his body and how the medication will affect him in the long run. "I'm so scared of death. Life is so beautiful!"