At that moment, the one thing that I had ever truly wanted for myself was taken away from me because I was HIV positive. This made me feel disgusting, unlovable and undeserving of good things.
Thankfully, I found an alternative route to study in the UK and my life has changed dramatically since. I will not say the journey from diagnosis to where I am today has been all rosy.
Growing up in Lagos, I was excited and intrigued about life and wanted to learn as much as possible about it. I lost this curiosity at the age of 10 when I realised that I didn’t fit into the mould of what a Nigerian man should be.
I knew I liked boys, but rather than seeing myself as gay, I saw myself as having a problem that could be fixed. I was always taught that homosexuals would go to hell for their wrongdoings. So I never said out loud to myself or told anyone else I was gay because I didn’t believe I could be.
I was trapped in a cycle of not being able to suppress my attraction to boys, despite hearing that people like me would go to hell in my home, church and school. I felt condemned.
When I turned 19, I started to realise that no one in my life understood me. All of the decisions I had made up until that point had been for the sake of others, to be the person they wanted me to be.
I wanted to study abroad in Australia as a way of taking back control. It seemed like the perfect place to go because it was so far away, that I could hide away and figure out who I was. Australia was supposed to be my saviour, the place where I would discover myself before returning home – it was heartbreaking when it didn’t happen that way.
A HIV test was a requirement for my visa application. At first, I thought I’d be fine. No one around me talked about testing for sexually transmitted infections or the fact that anyone could contract HIV regardless of what type of sex they have, so how could I accept the possibility of being positive?
My first thoughts were: ‘You’ve done this to yourself by doing the things that you’ve always been taught were wrong. This is a deserving punishment for being a gay man.’
I was also angry that I wasn’t going to die. I knew that HIV was treatable, and I wished that it wasn’t so I could avoid having to live with the virus for a long time. I started treatment a few days after my diagnosis.
I realise now that I had so many negative perceptions of myself because of HIV, which caused me a lot of psychological harm. It’s hard to imagine how I could have thought these things, but this is the impact of HIV stigma.
In Nigeria, HIV was never spoken of in a positive light – this has a devastating impact on people living with HIV. You end up internalising the negative conversations you hear. Other people’s negative perceptions become how you see yourself.
After my diagnosis, I had to navigate coming to terms with my status on my own – as well as come up with alternative plans on how I could achieve the dream of studying for my master’s degree.
A few months into my diagnosis, I started to have a different perception and thought – well, I could try something different. I looked at university courses in the UK and about six months after my diagnosis, I ended up going to a university in Glasgow to study public health in January 2020.
It took me a while to find my feet. I recall walking into grocery stores and thinking, ‘What do I buy?’ and ‘what on earth is a parsnip!?’ I hadn’t seen most of these things on the shelves in my entire life.
When I finally got the space I wanted, negative feelings that I had pushed beneath the surface started to emerge. There was no one around that I could relate to and talk to about how I felt. It was also in the middle of the lockdown.
The perception I had of myself was so negative due to my HIV status, sexuality, low self-esteem, and everything else I’d dealt with. I fell into a deep depression, resigning myself to the fact that I couldn’t have a good life – back home or in the UK.
I couldn’t imagine things getting better, so in the summer of 2020 things got to an all-time low and I started having suicidal thoughts. The idea of living another day was unbearable.
The thing that brought me back was the thought that people manage to have a good life, so there has to be a way for me too. I told my housemate how I was feeling and realised how far I’d slipped into depression without even noticing.
My housemate took me to the hospital and I began the process of seeking help. I started accessing services – like counselling – that have helped me so much and are still to this day on my journey of self-acceptance. Having someone support me in reshaping my thought process from negative to positive gave me the strength I needed to keep going. Also, they helped me find coping mechanisms for when I am anxious or slipping into depression.
In Autumn 2020, I applied to volunteer for Terrence Higgins Trust’s Positive Voices programme, where people living with HIV deliver educational talks about their lived experience and the reality of the virus today.
At first, I just listened to others and their experience of stigma and discrimination – it was like therapy for me. That was when I realised there was so much self-stigma that I needed to work through.
It took me a while to get the courage to share my story, but I got there in the end. After my first talk in December of that same year, for the first time in my entire life, I felt free. Free to tell a whole room of people that I am a gay man living with HIV and I accept myself.
It feels incredible to be able to help others on the journey that I’ve been on, as well as tackling stigma and misinformation around HIV at the root through talking to schools and workplaces. As a speaker, I am helping to challenge stigma by telling, and owning, my story.
I now work for the charity full-time and speak to people living with HIV from all walks of life every day. I say to them, ‘I’ve felt like life was not worth living. But you know what? There’s a way to overcome it.’
I’m not solely responsible for where I am today – there are people, experiences and organisations that I’ve interacted with that have made me who I am. They all come together to shape Ese today and who I will be going forward.
For the first time in a very long time, I have thought about the future and not been filled with fear and dread. I’m looking forward to what life has in store for me.
Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email [email protected]
This year marks 50 years of Pride, so it seems only fitting that Metro.co.uk goes above and beyond in our ongoing LGBTQ+ support, through a wealth of content that not only celebrates all things Pride, but also share stories, take time to reflect and raises awareness for the community this Pride Month.
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