I Have to be Strong Because I Have No Other Choice
Kota Bharu, October 2014
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Today I went to the launch of Rumah Sahabat, which is located in Kota Bharu, at the invitation of Malaysian Aids Council. It is a halfway home that provides shelter, support group and methadone therapy to former drug addicts who are HIV+.
I was greeted at the airport by a designated driver, let’s call him Abu.
Abu is a well-dressed, well-spoken guy who works as a peer counselor with Ministry of Health. His main role is to provide counselling and, I guess the best word to describe it is “pujukan”, to those who are HIV+ to start antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. He also volunteers at the centre that provides needle exchange to current addicts who are not ready to graduate to methadone therapy.
On the way to Rumah Sahabat he told me that he came back to Kota Bharu earlier this year. Prior to this he worked for 4 years with Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) teaching Fardhu ‘Ain to Orang Asli children in Gua Musang.
“It is hard work, kak,” Abu explained. “I worked for 3 weeks without any leave, and then I get one week off.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“The location is very remote,” said Abu. “It takes about 2 hours by motorbike just to get out to the main road, and then it would be another hour to get to Kota Bharu.”
“So, after four years I took a job with Ministry of Health at its Health Education Division. But I could not get used to living in Kuala Lumpur, so after 3 months I came back to Kota Bharu.”
“Kuala Lumpur is hot,” he said with a chuckle.
After the launch ceremony was over, I decided to try to catch an earlier flight back to Subang so I turned down the invitation to join the delegation for a Kota Bharu food tour. So Abu, once again, became my designated driver.
I asked him about his education and how he ended up choosing a career as a peer counsellor.
“I went to a religious school,” Abu said, “Then I went to further my studies in Melaka.”
“I lived in my kampong my entire life that when I went off to college I became completely uncontrollable. I experienced an extreme form of cultural shock. That’s also the reason why I cannot live outside Kota Bharu for too long,” Abu explained.
Then he slowed the car and confided, “Kak, actually I am HIV+ too. I was diagnosed in 2007 but I refused to get any treatment because I could not believe it. I only started treatment in 2011, and now I am in a 2-year clinical study for a new combination of ARV.”
I asked him if it was his HIV+ status that made him decide to work as a peer counsellor.
“Not at first,” Abu said. “Working with JHEOA was the best option for me. I get to go to the hospital once a month, and then at the same time I get to do something useful with my life.”
“I love teaching. I did a lot of volunteer work during the one-week leave that I got every month,” Abu added.
“At first it was helping to distribute condoms to sexual workers. Then I volunteered at the needle exchange centre.
Drug addicts have it a lot harder than other high-risk groups. They don’t know how to tell if they are sick; on top of that they have to fight off the addiction. Almost always when a drug abuser discovers that he has HIV+, his CD4 count is very close to 200, which means it would progress to full-blown AIDS soon.
Sexual workers depend on being healthy in order to be able to continue getting customers. So they are the most aware; they will voluntarily get tested twice a year.
I, on the other hand, am in the promiscuous group,” Abu explained.
“Before you say anything,” he continued, “Let me just say it – padan muka saya. Serves me right, right?”
I laughed and said I did not intend to say that at all.
“We have different challenges and carry different burdens,” I said to Abu.
“You are given a second chance at life and are able to contribute back to the society in a meaningful way. Not all of us are given the opportunity, or come to self-awareness, to do so.”
“That is true,” Abu agreed.
“In fact, I knew I was putting myself at risk. I remember saying berani buat, berani tanggung when the people around me asked me to practice safe sex. So, when I discovered I was HIV+, I told myself, well Abu, you got what you deserve.”
“Acceptance took a long time,” he added.
“I waited 4 years before accepting that I need to look after myself and started my therapy. Not that I was blaming God or anything: I just simply could not believe I am HIV+ because I felt completely healthy. But 8 HIV+ tests couldn’t all be wrong, right?”
“How young are you?” I asked.
“I am 32 now. I discovered I was HIV+ when I was 25.”
“My parents still don’t know about this,” Abu said.
“They are nice people. I just haven’t found the right words to say.”
“Is it hard living with HIV?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he answered. “Of course I miss eating sushi and Bliss yogurt (we both laughed), but managing my condition is pretty easy. It is a lot about compliance to the ARV therapy and the usual stuff — eat healthily, exercise, sleep.
There is a lot of support group and the Government is doing a lot of work behind the scenes that regular people don’t see. What is hard, at least for me, is talking to these drug addicts and trying to convince them to take the medicine. Most of them don’t want to because they fear the medicine will interfere with their “enjoyment” of taking heroin. Being a HIV+ person gives me a better understanding of what these abusers go through, and I think I can reach out to them.
It is not easy to be a peer counselor. You need to have a very steady and strong heart and mind because 99% of the time you get defeated. But I have to be strong because I have no other choice.”
We hugged our goodbyes at the airport. I wished him well and told him to give me a call if he is ever in Kuala Lumpur again. I knew now what he meant when he said Kuala Lumpur is hot.
I don’t think I can do what Abu does. I am book-smart, I know how to make money but I don’t think I have the presence of mind or heart to be able to devote my life to saving other people’s lives.
Saya doakan Abu dipanjangkan umur dan dimurahkan rezeki dan diberi keberkatan supaya dia boleh membantu seberapa ramai yang mungkin mengatasi masalah ketagihan dadah dan mendapatkan rawatan yang sewajarnya, Inshaa Allah, amin.