I still remember the weather that day. The sky was a pale grey and I remember I could see my breath. The clouds were thick and the rain was slowly drizzling onto my face. A light mist was falling and though I couldn't see it, I could feel it, like ice stinging my face. I remember walking, but I was oblivious to the sights and sounds around me. I remember hearing people talking, laughing, and moving around me but in my world, time had stood still. I remember my legs felt like they were 1000 lbs each, my head was throbbing unlike any pain I've ever experienced. I remember everything spinning and becoming so dark. I remember throwing up and someone trying to console me, my mom trying to embrace me. But the one thing I remember the most, was the feeling that I couldn't breathe, like the walls were closing in around me, like I was suffocating, like the last breath I was taking would be the last of my life. That was the day I found out I had HIV.
When I was a little girl I was raised in a family who instilled enormous ethics, values and morals into my up-bringing. My parents promised me a future which included meeting and falling in love with Prince Charming, getting married, having a family and growing old together. This was a future that I looked forward to and worked hard to achieve. I eventually grew up and went away to University and then, I did meet my Prince Charming. We were married and spent 17 wonderful years together, or so I thought. I had spent many years at University to achieve an education and a degree to be able to do what I loved and I worked in a profession that brought me enormous joy and satisfaction. I was considered middle upper class and we lived a very comfortable life. We had a child (who is HIV negative ), we were a family and I thought I was living the dream until that day... the day when time stood still.
I was diagnosed with HIV in December 2007. I was 3 months away from my 38th birthday. I had been married for 8 years. I remember calling the Doctor 5 times that day, asking for them to re-check, and re-check and re-check the results. It had to be a mistake, a human error, someone hadn't done their job right, someone must have switched my results, mixed them with someone else's. Hadn't they??? It had to be a mistake - didn't it???? It was impossible wasn't it???? Because, people like me don't get HIV... do they????
I had done everything right, I had married my love, we had STD checks done before we had sex, we committed our lives to each other, we loved each other. I had never cheated, nor even looked outside of our marriage but yet, here I was suddenly faced with the hard cold fact that my husband had.
I spent 6 years in a state of numbness after my HIV diagnosis, living in a constant state of fear, feeling worthless, and dirty. I lived in a secret world where my fear of rejection was so severe I didn't tell anyone about my diagnosis except my immediate family. I experienced severe depression and anxiety. My once vibrant life had burned out. I was withering away inside, dying a slow death but not from HIV. What was killing me was the "stigma" of HIV.
I have spent years emotionally healing from my HIV diagnosis. It took me 5 years to even be able write the word HIV on a piece of paper or type it into the Google bar. I vomited almost every day for the first year. I wouldn't drink from my son's water bottle or eat off his fork for over 3 years. I battled severe nightmares, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, social isolation and experienced severe low self-esteem and I gained 150 lbs. Until one day, after years of emotional work, I felt the sun on my face again.
That is why I need to share my story. I am exactly 8 years post my HIV diagnosis and I want to tell you who I am, because, I am you. I am a middle class, working professional. I was married and have a child. I drive a nice car, and I wear nice clothes. I am highly educated and extremely skilled in my work in the health care field. I laugh and I cry just like you, I have emotions and I hurt the same as you. I dreamed the same dreams as you when I was a child. I believed in fairy tales and happy endings, just like you. I sat on my Daddy's lap, just like you and believed him when he said he would protect me from all the bad things in the world.
But something bad did happen to me, and I am choosing to no longer allow HIV to control my life. I'm choosing to share my story to help others who suffer with this disease not because of its physical side effects but because of its emotional side effects, and I want people to know that this can happen to you.
I want you all to know that we are human, that we didn't choose for this to happen to us. That we deserve respect, and love and dignity. That we are not "HIV", we are people. HIV doesn't define us, nor does it control us. Medical advancements allows us to live normal, long, healthy lives now, but the stigma of HIV keeps us from moving forward in our plight for freedom. I choose not to see my diagnosis as a curse but as a challenge to be the best I can every day despite my "challenges".
I choose to be strong, resilient, courageous and stand up for what I believe in. To tell my truth, that I'm not weak, or dirty, or worthless because I have HIV, but rather I'm strong, worthy and stand tall in spite of it. My own healing has led me to a place where I have decided to become an advocate in the fight to help eliminate the stigma of HIV and ultimately change how society views HIV.
A big piece in my journey of healing was working with my team of highly skilled and dedicated professionals and Doctors at the Oak Tree Clinic at BC Women's Hospital. I call them my "real life Angels", as they embraced, loved educated and supported me in ways that words cannot express. The program was instrumental in making me realize the need to stand up not only for myself but also for the thousands of people who are afraid to share their own stories of their HIV diagnosis in fear of being rejected, or losing their job, losing their relationship, being shunned, hated, feared, or unlovable.
So I ask that today, on Worlds AIDS Day that you remember when you are in the supermarket or in the lineup at the bank, I am there, I am you. I am your neighbour, your aerobics instructor, your bus driver or your waitress. I am a person. I am a human - I am you. So please look past my HIV and see me.
Patient from the BC Women’s Oak Tree Clinic