FOREWORD: This is quite the lengthy read. But it is a piece that bears a powerful message. Read, be inspired, pass on the message, and sound off in the comments section.
Ever since the test result was handed over to you, your life has not been the same. With the HIV diagnosis, you suddenly see your life turning into a nightmare.
You know for a fact that there are no words that can adequately capture or express the inner turmoil you struggle with on a daily basis, the suffocating weight of the double stigma you bear. Some have not been able to bring themselves to confide in anyone, not even their parents or siblings. In order to avoid the discomfiting attention of people who are mostly selfish or the frequently shallow pity that the borderline unselfish provides, you crafted for yourself a mask. It is a plastic happy-faced mask that you faithfully put on every morning before you go to school or work, to keep the intruders out. They think you are fine, but you cry so much that your cheeks are hardly ever dry. There are some who are fortunate to have someone loving who truly cares. They sing the worn-out tune of comfort to you, perhaps because of how difficult it is to find the right words. “HIV is not a death sentence,” they say. They mean well and you know it. But in response you think, “That is just what they say to make one feel better.” By responding thus, you wall even your loved ones out and their best words of comfort fall lifeless at your feet, never reaching your heart. They say “sorry” and you scream that you do not want pity.
Perhaps you are right, because pity makes you feel handicapped. But you also leave your loved ones confused. They see you need comfort, but they don’t know how to reach you. And that’s how you keep out both enemies and friends and incubate upon your misery. People then begin to be too careful about what they say to you because of your heightened emotional sensitivity which, even though is quite understandable, becomes an obstacle because it prevents you from hearing some HARD TRUTHS – words you need to hear.
So, brace yourself, because you are about to hear some today.
Truth is bitter, they say. But if it will save your life, should I hesitate to administer it? Almost every medicinal substance has a bitter taste and perhaps there is a lesson in this. If your child has an abscess, you will puncture it and inflict great pain on him on her. In this situation, inflicting pain is a proof of love. There is a day and time for political correctness, but today is not that that day. I do you no service by telling a reassuring lie.
You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
The medicine your heart needs is a strong dose of undiluted truth. Many children fear and even hate the doctor after he has given them injections. He acted to save their lives but got hated in return. Some of you may react this way to this medicine of truth. I appeal that you watch yourself in order to avoid this reflexive response. I invite you to REASON and WEIGH the issues raised analytically rather than react sentimentally. My motive is love and nothing else.
HIV is not a death sentence! You say they tell you that just to make you feel better. Are you implying therefore that HIV is really a death sentence? Besides, don’t you think you deserve to feel better? Perhaps you want to hear statements that only serve to fuel the misery inside you. This terrible thing has happened to you, for which the proper response is to get really depressed. Maybe you are right. But observe that you are the one thinking this. This idea is thriving inside your head because you have made a home for it. If you have justified your misery and embraced it, if you consistently find a reason to fault every word of comfort that your loved ones provide, then you should be aware that YOU ARE DELIBERATELY CHOOSING AN EMOTIONAL STATE and are selectively attending to only statements that reinforce it. This can be likened to planting a seed and then watering it. THIS IS ALL YOU HAPPENING. It is your choice and your creation. I speak concerning your emotional state. If it is a choice, then that is good news. You can choose again.
I know of one condition that is a death sentence. It is life. LIFE IS A DEATH SENTENCE. Fault this statement if you can. EVERYBODY DIES. Interestingly, I find that we humans are inflicted with a condition akin to delusions of immortality. People assume they will live long healthy lives. Did I say assume? They KNOW they will live long and healthy lives. This “immortality complex” is obvious in children when they play recklessly e.g. running across a busy street. This complex is still present in adults but in an attenuated form. If we have accepted out impending deaths as a fact of our existence, why would we be so afraid of it? I am not saying we should all want to die. This has nothing to do with what we want or don’t want. I am presenting for your consumption bitter pill number one, a fact of life. YOU WILL DIE.
Everyone will die. People who are HIV positive will die. People who are HIV negative will die. So you see, you already had a death sentence hanging on your head before the diagnosis. HIV is not the true cause of death. Life is! Human life is naturally transient. Do not envy the “immortality” of the person who is HIV negative. Why envy them for something they do not have?
“Something must kill a man,” I have heard people say. Since you have been diagnosed to have HIV, we now know for sure that HIV will kill you, right? Wrong! People who have HIV are not automatically insured from other causes of death. One can have HIV and die in a plane crash; one can have HIV and die from complications of diabetes; one can HIV and die from an unrelated cancer. People who are HIV negative can also die from these things. So you see, you are in error when you say you know HIV will kill you. You don’t. Feel free to exclaim and say, “God forbid! I can’t die in a car crash!” I’ll say “Amen” but since its bitter pill day, I’ll quickly add, “So said all those who died in car crashes.” Bitter pill number two: YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT WILL KILL YOU. You don’t know when or how you will die. So it is still same for you as it is for everyone. HIV will not kill you…unless you let it.
“It could have been worse.” This is yet another line you think people throw at you to make you feel better. What if it is true? There are so many illnesses that deserve to be seen as a death sentence even more than HIV. For some illnesses, it would not be out of place to go straight home and write your will immediately you are diagnosed. For some of these, you would be given six months to live. Far be it from me to make light of your predicament, but let us be objective for a minute. HIV is worse in prognosis compared to many conditions. But the fact remains that there are many other conditions that are worse than HIV. Just like HIV, there are many conditions in which a person has to take drugs every day. A person can have HIV and two or three other conditions. Would you have preferred to be born blind, deaf and dumb? But there are those who came into the world this way and went on to write their names in gold on the pages of human history. Could it have been worse? The answer is YES! That is the truth! Don’t tempt misfortune. She can be a bitch and can throw on your plate several afflictions simultaneously. And what if there were no drugs for HIV? There are many illnesses that cannot be cured or controlled. Bitter pill number three: HIV IS NOT ONE OF THEM.
I am going to be realistic. HIV infection does have its problems. One has to live with the constant fear of infecting a partner with HIV. There is distress concerning disclosure of one’s status to a partner and issues with confidentiality. There are also fears concerning the possibility of marriage. All these concerns are valid. Concerning infection of a partner with HIV, research shows that persons who consistently take their medication EVERY DAY over a period of time but don’t use protection are very unlikely to transmit HIV. (Abeg this is not a licence for risky behaviour). Throw in a condom and it becomes extra safe. Definitely safer than having sex with a random stranger who may have HIV, where you feel safe because you don’t know his/her status. This situation compared to the one above is at best “pseudo-safe”. You can get married if you wish and your children won’t be positive. But people are afraid and ignorant, just as they are concerning your sexuality. For this reason, it may be difficult to hitch a partner for marriage. But the ignorance is theirs not yours. Decide not to suffer for it. Make their ignorance impotent against you by seeing their uninformed perspective for what it is. The development of thick skin against arrows shot at you by ignorance is justified. The only thing you should always be vulnerable to is TRUTH and WISDOM. If you are rejected by a potential partner because of your status, don’t hate him or her. Don’t judge them. You may have done worse if you were in their shoes. They are just being human. Understand their humanity and let them be. This is how you should respond to stigma, whether it arises because of your sexuality or your status. The world is full of ignorant people. You cannot deprive yourself of happiness just because they exist. The best payback is being happy in spite of them. Swear it! SWEAR TO BE HAPPY IN SPITE OF THEM ALL! Find a way! Do it!
Now you have been diagnosed to have HIV, what next? This is an important question to ask and even though I cannot predict your reaction, one thing is certain. A REACTION IS INESCAPABLE. You MUST react to this information concerning your health and you have no choice but to react. Since we know that you will react, what then will your reaction be? You have just three choices.
Firstly, you could commit suicide. Some have done it and you could. That is the truth. But let us think about this option for a minute. The first thing you should know is that death is one thing that you will certainly come to you eventually. Why the hurry? Life itself was “designed” to end abruptly in death, if you are lucky, at an old age. And there are a million situations and conditions that are competing with each other to end your life as quickly as possible. Why kill yourself and help them? And more importantly, why are you eager to end life without knowing what it is or embrace death without knowing what it is?
Now I’m waxing philosophical, but think about it. There was a time when you did not exist. But for some inexplicable reason, now you exist. YOU ARE HERE! You don’t know why you are here but you are here nonetheless. Is life an incredible gift? Yes! What is the purpose of life? Perhaps you think life is pointless because you are infected. Are you right? There are people who are living happy, successful lives with HIV. HIV doesn’t automatically make you are a failure. Being HIV negative does automatically guarantee a happy and successful life. Happiness is a product of the choices you make before your time comes. Can HIV stop you from making the Forbes top 100 billionaire list? Does it stop you from being “Man of the Year” on Times magazine? Many people who influenced the course of human history never got married. Does life still have value even after HIV? Yes it does! It is just that YOU THINK IT HAS NO VALUE. These people who went ahead to live great lives and influence their generation positively did not think as you are thinking.
If you commit suicide, that would be a miscalculation on your part. YOU WOULD BE THROWING AWAY SOMETHING YOU THINK HAS NO VALUE. But you are wrong. There is TOO MUCH you can DO, BE and HAVE even after getting diagnosed.
Many people will choose the second option. You may decide not to kill yourself maybe because you don’t have the courage to do it, but then you wallow in sorrow and hope depression will do the job for you. Not having the will to kill yourself actively, you can do it passively by surrendering to chronic guilt and self-loathing. You could allow the diagnosis to colour and undermine your every endeavour. You could starve yourself of the best things life has to offer as a form of self-flagellation. Your laughter would become mirthless and your eyes lose their twinkle. You could keep going to school or doing your jobs but only put in enough just to get by. You know you could be the best in what you do but you don’t even want to try. You could keep the best version of yourself inside and take it to the grave so the world never sees it; dragging yourself from day to day, yet never really living. This can be a passive suicide. A friend once told me, “If you want to swallow a toad, swallow a large one.” If you have chosen to LIVE, then live life to the fullest.
My dear, when life throws you a lemon, make lemonade. This is the power of transcendence. It is the power to turn darkness into light; the power to take a bad situation and make it good. How can you know what you are capable of if you don’t even try? Life has struck you down. Your best revenge is to succeed so much that the whole world cannot but notice you. Be so happy that people will wonder how you can be so happy in spite of your troubles. This is your chance to take your “ordinary life” and turn it into inspirational story. Life gave you double stigma. What are you going to give yourself? Reward yourself for all the pain you have suffered with success. Become paranoid about your health. You should take very good care of yourself to such an extent that you live healthier than people who are HIV negative. Go for regular check-ups. Regulate your diet. Jog every morning and eat healthy. Take your drugs religiously every single day and let me see how HIV will conquer you. Laugh louder and be merrier now that you are HIV positive. Love harder and work to be wealthy. Become the evidence to the world that HIV can be transcended. Oh, not just HIV, every problem can be transcended. YOU ARE THE PROOF. YOU ARE THE REASON WHY WE CAN SAY SO. All you need to do now is PROVE IT!
When you were HIV negative you were always among the top ten in your class. Now that you are HIV positive, swear to be number one consistently. Be the “staff of the month” until you leave that company to establish yours. Become a fountain of vivacity, happiness and compassion. People should not meet you and remain the same. They said you are positive, bah? Show them the other side of positive. Accept it and become the most positive, optimistic human being alive. Set up a foundation and reach out to people who suffer from one problem or another. It doesn’t have to be HIV. Go out there and become a force for change in your community; a force to reckon with. Be a friend of the friendless, a beacon of hope for the suffering. I speak to you who bear the weight of double stigma. Make them say of you, “If not for him, where would I be today?” Make them point at you and say, “You are our hero!” Make them say it! And I promise you, when you lie on that dying bed someday in the future, and remember what a great life you have lived, how many smiles you have put on the faces of people around you and how many tears you wiped away as a product of your endeavour, you will open your arms to death and smile, saying, “I am ready, take me now!”
Conquer life! Conquer HIV! Conquer death! The possibility exists. It didn’t have to exist but it does! Does it make sense to not take advantage of this possibility no matter how slim? The possibility exists because of you So that you can try and fail and then try again until you conquer. You have got to do it!
Finally, I beg for your forgiveness. Forgive me for being so bold as to speak in this manner concerning a condition I do not have at the moment and therefore do not TRULY understand. The best way to respond to a fool is to ignore him. I hereby shrink and disappear into the background, ashamed of my foolishness and tactless presumption. Right here and right now, nothing else matters apart from you. Please let nothing else matter! YOU ARE EVERYTHING. YOU ARE THE ONLY THING THAT IS IMPORTANT – you and your happiness. Forget about me but take the words to heart and pick yourself up from the dust. You have mourned enough and beat yourself up enough. Now is the time to rise. Like the mythical phoenix, arise from the flames of adversity, reborn.
Yours in Tough love,