The terrible legacy of one mother's search for mid-life love: Newly
single at 39, Rachel went online dating. What happened next will terrify
every woman tempted to do the same
- Rachel Dilley looked online for love after her 20-year relationship crumbled
- Mum-of-three was surprised to find no shortage of men replying to her
- Instantly hit it off with charmer Simon, a builder with two children
- After 3 weeks she found out he was cheating on her
- She tested positive for HIV - which she thought only affected people in Africa
22:06 GMT, 16 March 2014
01:04 GMT, 17 March 2014
Survivor: Rachel Dilley, 39, from Hertfordshire
Emotionally bruised after the
collapse of her 20-year relationship, Rachel Dilley hoped internet
dating would provide romance, a boost to her confidence and, with luck,
short of 40 and with three teenage children, she thought no one would be
interested in her dating profile, which made clear that after two
decades of monogamy she was looking for serious commitment, rather than a
casual, no-strings relationship.
she was surprised to find no shortage of men responding. The first date
was a crushing disappointment but she hit it off instantly with the
second man she met.
builder in the same age bracket as her, Simon was charismatic and
attractive. On their first restaurant date, he showered her with
compliments. They liked the same kind of food and music, and he made her
laugh and feel desirable again.
and easy company, he told Rachel he had two children from a previous
relationship and — having fallen for him hook, line and sinker — it
didn’t cross her mind to quiz him about his sexual history. Fear of
causing offence prevented her from even broaching the subject.
up in a whirlwind love affair, it seemed unthinkable to suggest they
both undergo tests for sexually transmitted diseases before embarking on
a physical relationship — but that’s exactly what she’d do if she could
turn back time.
Within three weeks they
were lovers and were soon talking about moving in together. She
introduced Simon to her children, and was thrilled when they liked him
as much as she did. But then, after just three months, it was all over.
She was devastated to find a letter in his flat from another woman,
suggesting he was also sleeping with someone else. It was a cruel blow
to Rachel’s self-esteem. But the legacy of this ill-fated romance was to
prove much more shattering than just a broken heart.
her horror, she later discovered she had contracted HIV — a disease,
she is ashamed to admit, she had always thought affected only people in
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'When I told my children, they were devastated'
recalls Rachel. Pictured: (left picture) Daughter Charlene and mum
Rachel on the right, (right picture) son Desmond in 2012
‘I can’t believe how little I
knew about HIV and Aids. I thought it was something that happened to
other people, not ordinary mums like myself,’ says Rachel, who lives in
was completely ignorant. All I could remember was seeing a documentary
about Aids victims in Africa and thinking it was a disease, such as
malaria, which only happened somewhere else.’
now 48, was diagnosed HIV positive after going to her GP following the
break-up of her romance nine years ago, complaining of swollen glands, a
sore throat, temperature, feverish chills and a small ulcer on her
DID YOU KNOW?
The average HIV-positive person taking medication can expect to live well into their 70s
‘The GP asked if I’d been abroad,
because my symptoms were similar to malaria, but I hadn’t. When it was
suggested I have an HIV test I agreed in the same way a teetotaller
might agree to a police breath-test, convinced it would be negative.’
weeks later, Rachel was shocked to be told she was HIV positive. ‘My
first words were: “Am I going to die?” I thought it was a death
sentence,’ recalls Rachel, whose sons are now aged 30 and 28 and whose
daughter is 26.
nothing about HIV or Aids and everything I read on the internet
terrified me. When I told my children, they were devastated. My daughter
was so affected she couldn’t speak and my younger son said: “Are you
going to die?” I couldn’t have felt more ashamed because I had no one to
blame but myself.’
if you were to walk past Rachel you would never even think to ask
yourself if she was HIV positive. Well-groomed with an immaculate blonde
bob, slim figure and warm smile, she looks like a healthy, attractive
Rachel Dilley with her ex-partner Devon and son
Desmond, aged 13, in 1998. She says: 'some people still think you can
catch HIV by sharing cups or towels. A friend had a new baby and when I
asked to go round to see him I was told: "No kissing."'
With the advances in anti-viral
medication, Rachel can expect to live a long and normal life. But with
the stigma that still surrounds HIV, she wants other women who
recklessly put romance before their own health to take heed of her
‘If you have
cancer, people feel compassion for you, but with HIV you encounter
prejudice and ignorance, she says. ‘Because it is contracted through
sexual contact or blood, people assume you either sleep around or are a
drug user who sticks shared needles in your arm.
especially those who find themselves single again in middle age after a
long-term relationship, think they are immune. But they need to know
you can contract HIV from one single encounter with one man.
‘Many assume only young people are at risk from STIs, or that HIV is only a problem in the gay community.’
is now a trustee of The Crescent, a charity offering help and support
to people with HIV. More than 100,000 are living with HIV in the UK,
according to the latest statistics, of whom 22 per cent are thought to
be undiagnosed and unaware.
2012, there were 6,390 new HIV diagnoses and despite huge advances in
drug therapy, 490 people died from Aids-related illnesses.
Since appearing on ITV's This Morning last week,
when Rachel confessed she once thought HIV affected only people in
Africa, she has been called 'extremely naive', 'stupid' and 'dumb'.
accounted for 45 per cent of new diagnoses in 2012, compared to 51 per
cent among gay men. One in four people accessing HIV care in 2012 was
aged 50 or over and of those seeking late diagnosis, 57 per cent were
appearing on ITV’s This Morning last week, when Rachel confessed she
once thought HIV affected only people in Africa, she has been called
‘extremely naive’, ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’.
people asked, could Rachel have missed the major public awareness
campaign in 1987 with its Grim Reaper TV ads? How could the death of
rock star Freddie Mercury due to Aids not have registered with her, or
HIV storylines in TV soaps?
pleads guilty as charged. But if by speaking out now she makes one
woman stop and think before sleeping with a new partner without
protection then she will be happy.
Mother-of-three Rachel with two of her children
when they were younger, in 1989. Rachel is now a happy grandmother and
is no longer looking for love
‘Yes, I was naive and
stupid,’ she says. When I was diagnosed I thought I was the only woman
to have contracted HIV in this way. I felt isolated and frightened, but
since then I’ve met many women like me who never thought they might be
Rachel’s immaculate flat points to a woman who yearns for love, from
the purple drapes and matching cushions to the heart-shaped
knick-knacks. She is hardly alone in that respect, nor in suspending her
better judgement in pursuit of love.
is the daughter of devout Christians, and her late father Clifford —
who worked in a leather tanning workshop — belonged to the Salvation
Army. Sex was never talked about at home and Rachel says she was so
naive she had no idea you could fall pregnant by having sex, until she
did, accidentally, at the age of 17.
by her teenage sweetheart, by the time the first Aids Awareness
campaign hit our TV screens, she was in a long-term relationship with
her partner of 20 years, a mechanic, with whom she had two more
Sex was never talked about at home and Rachel
says she was so naive she had no idea you could fall pregnant by having
sex, until she did, accidentally, at the age of 17. Pictured, Rachel
aged 18, in 1985
‘I was a full-time mum
and so busy with the children, I wasn’t even aware of HIV. I didn’t
really know what it was or that it was connected to Aids,’ says Rachel,
who believes it’s time for a new Government awareness campaign.
and her long-term partner never used condoms. By the time he left her,
she was still protected from pregnancy by a contraceptive implant and
she admits she and her new boyfriend never discussed STIs.
hard to believe how trusting I was, but I assumed that, like me, he’d
just come out of a long-term relationship. It felt safe and I didn’t
even think about the risks,’ says Rachel.
after I was diagnosed with HIV I realised just how little I knew about
him and how much I had taken at face value. When I went round to his
flat to tell him I was HIV positive, I found he’d moved and his mobile
phone didn’t work any more.
‘I’m not even sure if the name he
gave me was real. Then one day I happened to see him in town and rushed
over to let him know about my diagnosis. I couldn’t bear the thought of
him passing it on to someone else if he didn’t know he was HIV positive.
‘He told me his new
girlfriend was pregnant and he couldn’t have HIV because it would have
shown up on her blood tests. It seemed to me he just didn’t want to
Just as Rachel
was ignorant about HIV, so she was about the stigma still attached to
the disease. She told everyone about her diagnosis and was often left
feeling hurt by the reaction and what she perceived to be rejection.
I was invited to a friend’s party and I was telling this woman I was
HIV positive. We were getting on really well and she seemed very
sympathetic,’ says Rachel. ‘But afterwards my friend called me up and
said: “Rachel, you know I love you and I don’t care that you have HIV,
but my friend has told me she doesn’t want you to come round again in
case you give the virus to her children.”
These days Rachel, now a grandmother of three, no longer chases romantic love and says she is happy being single.
‘Some people still
think you can catch HIV by sharing cups or towels, or from toilet seats.
Another time, a friend had a new baby and when I asked to go round to
see him I was told: “No kissing.”
else was kissing the baby, but I wasn’t allowed to. Some doctors and
dentists still won’t accept patients if they are HIV positive.’
days Rachel, now a grandmother of three, no longer chases romantic love
and says she is happy being single. She feels no anger towards the man
she believes gave her HIV and takes full responsibility for her own
awareness, giving talks to university students and supporting others has
given her the self-esteem she so desperately craved when she embarked
on internet dating, thinking it could be found in the arms of a man she
‘I used to
be very shy and withdrawn, but through my charity work I’ve discovered a
different side to myself — one that I’m proud of.
can call me stupid, naive or dumb — and perhaps I was back then — but
when I look in the mirror now I like what I see and the person I have
become. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone.’