WHEN Sue Mason started dating after her divorce, she knew there was no chance of her getting pregnant.
Then 45, the mum-of-one, from Worthing, West Sussex, had an 18-month relationship with a handsome dad - and stopped using protection when things got serious.
After they split, Sue's ex Colin* started to get ill and was told he was HIV positive. He had been unknowingly living with the virus for years.
Colin died just weeks after breaking the news - leaving Sue angry, grieving and terrified about her own HIV positive status.
Sue is far from alone in her experience, as there's been a five-fold increase in women between 45 and 56 being treated for HIV over the past 10 years.
I was married for 10 years before divorcing when I was 45, leaving me a single mum to my daughter.
A year later, I felt ready to dip my toe into the dating scene. I met Colin* while out with my girlfriends in a bar.
He was a lovely man, a dad-of-one with a warm, friendly personality. We had lots in common. Like me, he was recently divorced.
He was the first person I had dated since my ex-husband. By then, I was already peri-menopausal and the chances of getting pregnant were non-existent.
So as months went by and our relationship became more committed, we didn’t always use a condom during sex.
Back then, I thought of contraception as something meant to prevent pregnancy.
It didn't occur to me to worry about STDs, I wrongly assumed they weren't something that happened to older, heterosexual women.
After a year of dating, Colin and I moved in together. But there was something missing from our relationship, so we split after 18 months.
We stayed in touch though, we were still good friends and would occasionally go for a drink.
Around the time of our split, Colin started feeling ill. He was back and forth to the doctor with chest infections and other health niggles.
Then he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. When he got released, he asked to come and see me.
He said: “Sue, while in hospital, I was diagnosed with HIV. I think you ought to get a test, too.”
My first reaction was shock and anger. I remember saying “how dare you expose me to this?” But he told me “I didn’t know I was infected.”
At that time, I knew little about HIV and AIDS, except that it had claimed the lives of Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury.
I thought it was a death sentence. Today, I know that isn’t right, but that was how I saw it back then.
A few days later, I felt ready to have the test. I had to wait two weeks for the result.
By the time my test came back, showing I was HIV positive, Colin was in the hospital with pneumonia again.
Unfortunately, his health went downhill very quickly, and he died just a few weeks later. He was only 43 years old.
It was a dark, scary time. I was devastated for Colin and his family. He was a lovely man and a good dad, who didn't deserve to die so young.
But I was also terrified for myself.
Losing Colin to the disease only confirmed my fear of HIV. I was 47 and my daughter Sally* was just eight years old.
All I could think was - what will happen to my little girl if I get sick or die?
Over the next few months, I started researching HIV and educating myself. I realized that, with proper medical care, many people live with it long-term.
Gradually, I came to terms with being HIV positive.
HIV in over-45s: the facts
There's been a five-fold increase in women aged 45-56 receiving care for HIV in the past ten years, a study found last month. Experts put the increase down to the rising divorce rate and a more liberal attitude to sex in general — yet this group is often left out of HIV prevention, education, and research. People who have come out of long marriages or been through bereavement may have had unprotected sex without considering the risks.
They are also less likely to have been screened for STDs or infections picked up through an act of infidelity. The PRIME study (Positive Transitions Through the Menopause) is one of the largest studies of HIV and aging in women globally. Researchers found some women had difficulty distinguishing menopausal symptoms from HIV-related symptoms.
About six months after being diagnosed, a check-up showed my immune system was being compromised - so I started taking two tablets-a-day.
They had the desired effect, my immune system returned to normal. But Sally saw me taking the tablets and asked what was wrong.
I told her it was hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopausal women. She started reminding me to take my medication every day, bless her.
She was only nine years old, I didn't want to tell her the truth until she was old enough to understand.
I have faced a stigma about being HIV positive. One family doctor, who I'd never met before, said: “I see you have HIV - where did you get that from?” I felt like he was judging me.
I was tempted to reply: “I got it on the bus, on the way to my appointment.” Instead, I told him: “I got it from unprotected sex, of course.”
It was also hard dating again. I was honest about my status, and many men walked away because of it, which I found upsetting.
These days, there are specialist dating websites for people who are HIV positive, but they didn't exist back then.
I also worried about my daughter and how the stigma might affect her. What if her friends at school started refusing to play with her?
I joined support groups and soon realized everyone has their own stories of prejudice, cruelty and unkind comments.
It made me think, there must be something I could do to help. When I was 50, I started working as a volunteer with the Terence Higgins Trust - an HIV support charity.
I left my job in retail management to work for the trust - I'm now a coordinator of the Positive Voices project, running a team of volunteers in London and Brighton.
We go to schools and hospitals, telling our stories, and I've presented the UK's only radio show for people living with HIV for three years now, on RadioReverb.
I told Sally about my HIV when I was 14. Understandably, she was upset.
But by the time she was 16, she was comfortable enough to ask me to speak about sexual health at her own school.
Sometimes she teases me, "Mum, don't you ever get fed up banging on about sexual health?"
But I tell her absolutely not, I want to educate people and change their opinions.
In 2016, I met Martin* through mutual friends. He was comfortable with my status and we went onto marry in February this year.
I'll be taking two pills-a-day for the rest of my life and have my 'health MOT' every six months.
I try to stay healthy by eating well, exercising and only drinking in moderation. My HIV is currently at undetectable levels and cannot be passed on - and I've been told I have a normal life expectancy.
I'm probably healthier than most of my friends who don't live with HIV. I may be 60, but I don't look it. My HIV status has given me a buzz of vitality.
Living with HIV
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. There's currently no cure but there are very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life. With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV will not develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan. Here in the UK, the most common way of getting HIV is through having anal or vaginal sex without a condom. Sharing needles also puts you at risk, while the virus can be transferred from mum to baby during pregnancy. You cannot transmit HIV through sweat, urine or saliva. The first symptom is normally a flu-like illness two to six weeks after infection, lasting for one to two weeks. After this, you may have no symptoms for several years, although the virus continues to damage your immune system.
Today, everyone who knows me knows I'm HIV positive. I got fed up with having to hide it.
I hope future generations won't have to endure the same level of stigma I have. My message to all singletons is to use contraception and get tested if you are worried.
HIV can happen to absolutely anyone. I was a middle class, middle-aged woman - not the stereotype patient - and it happened to me.
I still think of Colin, and am so thankful he was brave enough to tell me about his HIV - who knows what could have happened otherwise.
Back then, I had no signs of being unwell and it would have never entered my mind to get tested. But early diagnosis saves lives.
We previously spoke to a woman who got HIV from her drug addict mom, but is proof you can live a healthy life with the virus.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Date Posted: Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 , Total Page Views: 532
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