Letters to my younger self

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02 Mar 2016

Dear Dianne

How wonderfully you have grown since acquiring HIV 15 years ago. When you were diagnosed you were told you may have had HIV for up to a decade. How frightened you were at the thought you may have infected your then eight-year- old boy through breastfeeding — you hadn’t, he was thankfully all-clear. 

And remember that first time you cut yourself peeling the vegies; the panic that ensued as your hubby went to offer aid and you reeled back with fear?

Through all the fear, and the dark times of being seriously ill, you still managed to rise up and raise four gorgeous children. You managed to study for a degree and — even when you could no longer work — you fought to keep a sense of purpose by helping other women living with HIV.

Despite the physical and emotional challenges you have faced over the years, you have never played the victim. Instead, you have contributed to the community by becoming an activist and educating women about what it really means to be living with HIV. It has been an incredible journey.

So I say to you: don’t give up. Take it step by step. You’ll get through this and emerge stronger than ever before.

Dear David
When you were diagnosed with HTLV 111 (later to be named HIV), you weren’t overly daunted at first. Particularly as your doctor told you there was only a 10 percent chance of developing AIDS — how wrong he proved to be!

Post-diagnosis you sought out other positive people, which — in 1984 — proved difficult. So you started up Melbourne Positive Friends, a peer-support group. Meeting people with shared experiences helped combat the intense stigma everyone was feeling.

Members of the group had families reject them; the media was hysterical over AIDS; and the Grim Reaper TV ad increased discrimination toward positive people — including from within the gay community.

So what did this time teach you? It taught you resilience. It taught you that if you wanted to fight oppression, you needed safety in numbers. And the best way to do that was to become a member of the fledgling People Living with AIDS movement in Melbourne. 

When you became the organisation’s president in 1989 — not long after your first AIDSdefining illness — it gave you the confidence to be open about your status; it helped you control the negative feelings you harboured about being HIV-positive.

Gradually, you learnt to bounce back in your life, your work — even your relationships. However daunting the future may seem right now, things will get better; your life will become richer and you will become more and more resilient.

Dear Kim
Be kind to yourself, treat yourself right. The trauma of being diagnosed with HIV is not something that sits easy; it is a defining moment in your life but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. And this is not your last experience; life goes on and in 2016 there is no reason why you can't have the most amazing life you've always dreamed about.

Align yourself with friends and family that love and care for you. Reach out to other women living with HIV. Educate yourself around HIV. You will be confronted by ignorance and fear in the form of discrimination.

Be steadfast in your understanding of HIV, as the path for discrimination and stigma to perpetuate is through the lack of knowledge and you doubting yourself.

And remember, you are positively fabulous.

Dear Kath
Be mindful not to waste time on negative emotions like guilt, shame or self-loathing. Acknowledge how you are feeling, then deal with it and move forward gently. Learn from your mistakes; they’ll make you more resilient.

Begin each day with hope. Focus on ways to live well and stay healthy. Consume nutritious wholesome foods; exercise. Walk and connect with nature; soak up the fresh air and sunshine. Never be worried to hug or kiss your children.

Value each experience. Develop sound friendships and networks. Be quick to challenge stigma and discrimination. Most of all, be
kind to your lovable self, and continue to be awesome and amazing.

Dear Graham
You’ve had a positive diagnosis, and are feeling pretty shattered right now. Understandable in the circumstances. The first thing I’d say to you is don’t panic! I’ve seen others panic through shame and fear and they succumbed quickly. 

And don’t buy into the conspiracy theories about scientists trying to kill us. Be assured, effective medication will be available in time to keep you going and with minimum of downside.

But right now you’ll feel like an outcast, a failure, a loser; having got this virus when it was known already how it was transmitted. Some hard-toexplain urge made you take the risks. But don’t beat yourself up. You’ll soon learn that people get infected in all sorts of ways and circumstances.

Remember: it’s just a mindless virus that takes advantage of every opportunity available.

So, Graham, relax as best you can, after all, it’s not a death sentence any more. Sure, it will change your life, but it’s definitely
not the end — just another beginning!