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'Being HIV positive is not a death sentence' - Boss talks about living with the virus

PUBLISHED: 08:48 07 December 2019

Creative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Creative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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When he was diagnosed as HIV positive, it was a secret he fiercely guarded. But five years on, happy and healthy, this boss has returned to Norwich determined to get us all talking about it more. Caroline Culot reports.

Creative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYCreative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

When Alex Causton-Ronaldson was given the news he was HIV positive, he went through the worst 10 seconds of his life.

"I remember thinking 'I am going to die, I'm not going to have kids, I won't be able to travel, no one will ever love me'."

It was 2013 and the first day of a new job in London for the ex Norwich School pupil whose parents are both solicitors.

"My boyfriend at the time told me to go home, I remember getting on the tube, I just went numb, I just sat staring out of the window at nothing and thinking 'what am I going to cook tonight'? I got home, put the dinner on, I was emptying the dishwasher and my boyfriend walked in the door, and I couldn't look at him because I knew when I did, it would be real. He finally grabbed me and turned me to him and I'd never cried like that."

Creative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYCreative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Alex, who is speaking out for the first time to raise reduce the stigma about HIV, decided not to tell anyone, including his employers.

"I had to go in work the next day with a big smile on my face, luckily it was near a hospital. I told them I was just popping out in my lunch break and really I went to a clinic and was having a conversation with a nurse who was saying 'welcome to your new life with HIV,' when the doctor said he wanted to talk to me urgently."

It turned out Alex had such a low blood platelet count, he could have bled to death from a paper cut.

"I literally got put in a wheelchair in my lunch break, I had to ring up my new boss and I said: 'You know I said I was just popping out, actually I've just been admitted to A&E and so I am not going to be back today and probably not next week either'.

Creative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYCreative Sponge director, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, who has been living with HIV for five years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

"I was in hospital for a week, on my own in the tropical and infectious diseases ward, I was too scared to tell anyone, We didn't have HR departments, the HR was the MD so it was very difficult to go to him and say 'I've got HIV and I need extra support at work'.

"I didn't tell anyone, work, my mum, my friends, that was so difficult as I love my mum so much, we are so close and she knew everything about my life except this, I lived in secret for about a year."

Eventually, Alex plucked up the courage to tell his mum, Yvonne Causton.

"I came back to Norwich and went to see her, she told me afterwards she suspected.

Alex with Prince Harry talking about the impact of rugby star Gareth Thomas stating he had HIV. Pic: submittedAlex with Prince Harry talking about the impact of rugby star Gareth Thomas stating he had HIV. Pic: submitted

"I sat there and said to mum 'I need to tell you I've got HIV' and she said 'okay, I'm going to bed'. I got really upset and called my best friend and said 'everything I've been terrified of has become real, she's not okay with it', but I was so wrong. The next day my mum said she was just shocked and more upset that I'd had it for a year and not told her. All I'd wanted in hospital was my mum but I couldn't have her there as she'd find out, you put so much stigma on yourself.

"My sister, my whole family are incredible, when I told my dad and step-brother, they went on to do a fundraising event for HIV, my family have always been behind me. I have a tattoo which says 'to thine own self be true', a line from Hamlet, and that's because when, at the age of 13, I told my dad I was gay, he said 'as long as you stay true to yourself I'll always be happy', I've always lived by that, I have always been a very open and honest person, no filter. My parents really shaped me, they've always been incredibly supportive. I am lucky to have the family I have."

Alex take three pills a day which keeps the HIV dormant - it's at an 'undetectable' level meaning he cannot pass it onto someone, even through sex, and he sees a doctor every six months.

The only challenge is he can't travel to some countries in the Far and Middle East which don't allow foreign visitors who are HIV positive. He came clean to an HR manager at a previous job and has never looked back.

Alex and his supportive family on the wedding day recently of his sister Hannah. Pic: submittedAlex and his supportive family on the wedding day recently of his sister Hannah. Pic: submitted

By his openness he hopes to encourage more people to get tested because so many have it but don't realise.

"We've come a long way from those ads in the 1980s which depicted tombstones, it did what it needed to do, scared the hell out of people, but being HIV positive isn't a death sentence, if everyone in the UK got tested, we would eventually eradicate it."

Alex has just moved back to Norwich, working as the new account director for marketing agency Creative Sponge, and had no worries about telling its MD, Nikki Lamb, on their first meeting.

"My career has always been the most important thing for me. I now always tell people and gauge the reaction, Nikki didn't even blink. I knew that this was a company I could work with.

Alex and his family; his step brother, sister and mum. Pic: submittedAlex and his family; his step brother, sister and mum. Pic: submitted

"I believe it is my duty to be as open as I can be about HIV and the guys at Creative Sponge have been absolutely wonderful."

For help, including advice on how to tell someone, including an employer, that you are HIV positive, call the Terrence Higgins Trust, THT, helpline on 0808 802 1221.

Facts and myths

Alex Causton-Ronaldson as a boy. Pic: submittedAlex Causton-Ronaldson as a boy. Pic: submitted

Efforts have bee made in recent years to reduce the stigma around HIV, with a number of high-profile celebrities revealing their positive status.

They include former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas, who in September said he wanted to "break the stigma" around the condition.

We've included some quick facts about HIV to bust the myths.

- There's a difference between HIV and AIDS - HIV is a virus which attacks your immune system. AIDS is the term used to describe the condition once the immune system has been severely damaged.

- You can't catch HIV through sweat, urine or saliva - it is transmitted through the bodily fluid of an infected person, either blood, semen, vaginal secretions or breastmilk.

- It does not discriminate - the majority of new UK diagnoses are in the heterosexual community, and roughly a third are women.

- It is manageable with the right treatment - antiretroviral medications prevent the virus from replicating in the body.

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