Jay Hawkridge’s mother was by his side through his dad leaving, his coming out– their bond was unbreakable. But his shock diagnosis left Jay terrified, alone and too afraid to tell the one person he loved most. Then one phone call changed the course of both their lives.
Jay Hawkridge is a handsome, blond 27-year-old with a pierced nose and arms sprinkled with tattoos. He credits his mum Tanya with turning him into a Bon Jovi fan and igniting a lifelong passion for music. Jay is also HIV-positive.
I came out to Mum when I was 15,’ he remembers. ‘I’d been texting a boy and had told a friend who then gossiped around the school. I came home in a foul mood and Mum found me crying in my room. I just said, “I think I like boys.”’
Straight away, she gave her full support. Jay says, ‘She took it like a champ. She’d probably seen it before I’d seen it in myself.’
Tanya admits that as she’d been a young mum (she was only 20 when Jay was born, and split up with his father when Jay was a baby) she came to see him as a best friend. ‘As a child he was always so kind, so clever and thoughtful. When he knew I was having a hard time, he’d leave little notes around the house telling me he loved me.’
But when Jay left their rural Yorkshire home for university in Birmingham, despite their close bond, he began to keep details of his life secret from Tanya. ‘There were a few years when I didn’t go home that often– I was off on my little adventures. As a gay man in a big city, you realise how much is out there. You’re finding yourself and there are some things you don’t want to tell your mum.’
Among the things he didn’t tell her was that, in 2019, five days after a sexual encounter with a man in Manchester who he’d met on Instagram, he became ill enough to present himself at the local hospital. ‘I had a really high fever and no appetite,’ he recalls. ‘I felt like my body was shutting down. It was horrendous – the most ill I’ve ever been. I spent six days in hospital on a drip, most of it asleep.’
The details of what happened next are still shrouded in the delirium of Jay’s illness but he remembers that all he wanted was reassurance from his mum. ‘I saw her at my bedside. She was as pale as a ghost. Then I fell asleep again. When I next woke, it was night time and she was gone – it was horrible.’
Jay was desperate to know why his body suddenly seemed to be rebelling against him but after an MRI and CT scan revealed nothing he was discharged. A month later he was beginning to feel better but still wanted answers, so a friend suggested that he get a full sexual health check.
‘On 30 October 2019, the day before my mum’s birthday, the clinic rang and told me I’d tested positive for HIV. I was out shopping with my friends in Birmingham when I took the call. It was one of those rare moments where everything stops around you, like a grenade has gone off and you can’t hear anything.’
The next three months were what Jay describes as ‘the loneliest of my life’. He discovered that the dramatic illness he’d suffered was due to seroconversion, a sign that the immune system is reacting to the presence of the virus in the body. For some people this feels like a mild flu, but in Jay’s case it had been highly aggressive.
With no idea how he could ever break the news to Tanya, he simply avoided all contact. ‘I didn’t go home for Mum’s birthday that year. I didn’t go home for my birthday in December, or for Christmas or New Year.’
Having received no update from Jay since he’d been in hospital, Tanya knew something was very wrong; she just didn’t know what. ‘To miss things like my birthday or Christmas – it just wasn’t him. Whenever I tried to ask, he’d keep me at arm’s length. I didn’t want to crowd him but I couldn’t understand why he had changed.’
Despite care from the HIV clinic, which Jay describes as ‘wonderful’, his mental state deteriorated as he thought about how the diagnosis would affect his life. ‘My only reference was from a school drama lesson when we watched a film version of the 1990s musical Rent, which showed life in New York under the shadow of Aids. Some of the characters had a very grisly end – which was the reality at that time. The whole thing was ingrained with death and darkness.’
Neither did Jay feel able to tell anyone what he was going through. ‘There was too much stigma, too much misunderstanding. I was frightened I’d lose someone or they’d react badly, so I thought I’d just deal with this by myself.’
As for the man he’d met in Manchester, Jay tried to get in touch with him but says, ‘He ignored me. I’ll never know whether he did this intentionally.’
By March 2020, four and a half months after his diagnosis, Jay could no longer see a way forward. ‘I couldn’t focus on my future any more. I’d got to the point where this was all too difficult to deal with on my own, but I was too afraid to tell anyone so I fooled myself into thinking taking my own life was the answer.’ On the night he intended to kill himself, he rang his mum– not wanting her to find out about his HIV status after his death. He describes the intended conversation as a ‘courtesy call’, wanting to explain why he’d been so cold and distant but in no way looking for her to change his mind. ‘I remember saying that the reason I hadn’t been home was that I’d been living with HIV – and that was why I’d been in hospital. I’d tried to keep it secret and deal with it alone but I couldn’t. It was quite a parallel to me coming out to her all those years ago. I was sitting on the floor again, in tears– only this time we were on the phone so she couldn’t give me a hug.’
What happened next is the thing that Jay says undoubtedly saved his life. ‘Mum’s initial reaction was radio silence for a solid minute then all I could hear was her quietly crying.’ To his intense surprise, Jay heard himself comforting Tanya with the words: ‘I’m not going to die. I’m not going to be unhealthy. I’m going to be fine.’
The words his mum needed to hear also proved to be his saviour. ‘Amid all that reassuring, I found I was reassuring myself. I realised I was going to be healthy and happy– everything was going to be fine. Mum listened, she asked questions and by the end of that call we were in a place of understanding. I wasn’t keeping anything from her any more.’
For Tanya it was a terrifying night. ‘My world fell apart. My experience of HIV – which, untreated, can develop into Aids – was from the 80s. It was this big, awful thing that we were all frightened of, that people died from.’
Today, however, Tanya understands just how far treatment of her son’s illness has come. With medication, Jay’s doctors have reduced his virus levels enough for his illness to be clinically undetectable. And with just two pills a day, he is now unable to transmit the disease.
Jay, meanwhile, has devoted himself to dispelling myths that persist about HIV/Aids and to showing what the modern face of the disease looks like: something you live with, not something you die from. To this end he appears in the forthcoming Sky documentary series Positive. ‘Naturally, this is really important and a milestone for me personally, but from a wider perspective it’s important for every single person that has HIV today because representation matters. I’m just thrilled that I can show my journey.’
You can also find Jay on Instagram and TikTok talking about how his experience affected him, and reassuring people with a positive diagnosis that there is a rich life still to be lived. ‘When I was first diagnosed, I felt like the only person on the planet. Now I realise I’m part of a much bigger story– I’m chapter 50 or 60!’
Tanya, unsurprisingly, is his biggest fan. ‘When I see his videos, I’m just so proud of him. Knowing the journey he has been on– from avoiding me, hiding away and not wanting to tell anyone about being HIV positive to being out there, educating the public and helping others come to terms with their own diagnosis – is also his way of coping and keeping himself strong.’
Both mother and son say that what they have been through together has made their bond stronger than ever. ‘We text and talk all the time,’ says Tanya. ‘He’ll send silly TikToks to make me laugh. I went to stay with him for my birthday and he’ll be coming home for Christmas.’
For Jay, the opportunity to be open again with Tanya has allowed him to revert to being ‘a proper mummy’s boy. I can always be myself with Mum and know that I’m accepted. You can’t ask for more than that.’
World Aids Day on Wednesday 1 December marks four decades since the UK’s first recorded case of HIV. Positive will premiere on Sky Documentaries and Now on that day, 9pm. For more information on HIV/Aids go to tht.org.uk
FROM HEARTBREAK TO BREAKTHROUGHS: 40 YEARS OF HIV/AIDS
1981 First cases of Aids clinically reported in the US in June, in the UK in December.
1982 Terrence Higgins is one of the first people in the UK known to die from an Aids-related illness. The Terrence Higgins Trust is later set up to support those with the disease.
1985 As Aids cases are reported in 51 countries, the UK Department of Health publishes first advice on the disease to medical practitioners. Actor Rock Hudson (above) dies with Aids. An HIV test is developed. Blood-donation centres start screening for HIV.
1987 UK government launches the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign, delivering a leaflet to every household. The first antiretroviral drug is approved in the US. Princess Diana shakes hands with an HIV positive person at a specialist ward for those with HIV/Aids in London with no gloves to disprove the myth that it can be transmitted through touch.
1991 Freddie Mercury (below) dies of an Aids- related illness.
1995 Aids diagnoses in the UK reach 10,000, with more than 25,000 living with HIV.
1996 A combination of antiretroviral drugs called HAART becomes standard treatment for HIV. It has been highly successful, meaning the progression from HIV to Aids is increasingly rare – and has drastically reduced the death rate.
1999 The World Health Report lists Aids as the fourth biggest killer worldwide, two decades after the epidemic began.
2003 The first conviction in England for reckless transmission of HIV.
2010 The Equality Act means HIV is now considered a disability– so people living with it are protected from discrimination.
2017 Public Health England starts to trial pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs for people who do not have HIV but are at risk of getting it – as part of a prevention strategy.
2020 It’s announced that PrEP is to be available free on the NHS. The intention is that it will eliminate new HIV infections within ten years.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: CLAIRE DICKINSON AT FACE MANAGEMENT. GETTY IMAGES