Staying positive

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24 Sep 2014

What makes someone a long-term survivor of HIV? There is no definitive answer — just individual stories. This is mine, writes David Polson.

It is 1984. I’m sitting in my doctor’s surgery waiting to see him about a minor problem. I’m getting increasingly annoyed as other people keep going in ahead of me. Eventually I’m the only one left in the room. The doctor apologises for keeping me waiting; he has some news and wanted to have time to talk.

He didn’t need to tell me, I knew at that moment that it could be only one thing: I was HIV positive. As he talked, I felt that I was falling down this endless black pit with thoughts of fear, denial, guilt and disbelief all whirling around in my head.

But somewhere, deep, deep down this little voice said to me: “No, you are not going to die from AIDS. It will not kill you.” Back in ’84 HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. There was little help for people diagnosed with HIV. So if I was to survive, I had to help myself. That meant keeping my immune system as strong as possible until medical science could eventually come up with a treatment or a cure.

So what to do? First of all I changed my diet and ate more salads, vegetables and fish. Very, very reluctantly I gave up the beloved chocolate and champagne. Secondly, although supplements were largely scoffed at in ’84 there really was nothing else. So I found vitamins and supplements that were promoted as helping defend the immune system.

I also joined a gym and worked out regularly. The message to exercise is everywhere these days — and rightly so: it is one of the greatest means of obtaining, and retaining, good health. (If I had to choose one part of my regime that contributed most to my long-term survival, it would be exercise.) 

Meditation has also played a large part in my life and, I believe, in helping me maintain a positive mind. I quickly came up with my own personal mantra: “My immune system is strong and healthy.” None of us really know the potential of the power of the mind but I really feel that this mantra helped me stay mentally strong and physically healthy during those horrible years when so many people were dying around me. This I believe helped me survive the disease.

After reading Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life, I saw the value in visualisation. None of Hay’s visualisations were relevant to me, so I made my own. I took a piece of cardboard and in the centre I drew a small black dot — this represented the HIV virus. Around this I drew hundreds of green circles representing my immune system overpowering the HIV virus.  Around that I drew a circle of red hearts, representing love: love of my friends, love of myself and love of life! Around that I drew a yellow band representing the sun for health and happiness.

I put this drawing on the wall opposite my bed so that it was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. Along with my mantra, this image stayed in my mind all day long. It reinforced the idea that my immune system was strong and healthy and that it was overpowering the HIV virus.

Humour has also played a part in my longevity; it is very hard to be negative when you are doubled-up with laughter. That was my survival regime from 1984 right up until the drug trials started in 1993. I still maintain parts of it to this day. I meditate regularly and still enjoy a laugh.

But above all, I believe that it was my positive mental approach that has led to my survival. Even while facing the horrid side-effects of those first treatments during the early HIV trials (I have been on 28), I would think to myself: “Well, if the drugs are making me feel this sick, imagine what they are doing to the virus.”

I truly believe that by encompassing the power of positivity, it is possible to face enormous challenges in life, such as a chronic illness like HIV. Of course, I haven’t beaten the virus completely — it continues to be there with me. But I have survived it. And, damn it, I’ll drink a glass of champagne (or two) to that!