FS Magazine Upfront How does getting naked stop HIV stigma? By Adam Nathan Schultz | @larsvontrier It was November last year when I received a phone call from my doctor who informed me of my diagnosis. It was not a great time to be me back then. I was just about to be made redundant, I was hooked on crystal meth, I’d just contracted HIV, and if that wasn’t enough, a suspicious-looking lump appeared on my neck which had the cancer-like aesthetic to it. The fact that Christmas, which I decided to spend with my family for the first time in ten years, was just around the corner added that comic punch to the entire stream of tragedies that I was faced with all at once. One of the first things that was suggested to me when dealing with my diagnosis was that it was bound to feel like going through a bereavement process, as if you were saying goodbye to an old version of yourself in order to make room for that new, HIV-positive you. If that was true, I skipped the denial part in my five stages of grief and jumped straight to anger. I was furious: with myself for allowing this to happen; with the person who passed the virus on to me for being in an equally miserable place at the time it occurred; with humanity for nurturing a world where things like HIV were still in existence. Shortly after the diagnosis I came across the FS/GMFA ‘HIV Stripped Bare’ campaign which one of my friends posted on Facebook. I recall very well the sense of distaste, disgust even, that came over me. The photo I was looking at was of Ruaidhri, a cute 25-year-old from Ireland, who claimed: “I told this guy about my HIV status. It took him by surprise because I don’t think he was expecting someone like me to be positive.” A number of things did not sit well with me about this ad. First of all, the guy was naked and smiling to the camera, it was irreconcilable for me at the time to be both HIV-positive and positive about life in general. These two were the opposite of each other. Secondly, it sounds as if Ruaidhri has no problem telling people about his status. Not only that, he makes the conversation topic appear funny, trivial, anecdotal even. And lastly: who the hell are GMFA and FS and why on Earth are they so casual about portraying people who live with HIV? Whatever happened to the usual angle that one normally sees in HIV-related literature, where it’s the virus itself that takes centre stage, not the people who carry it? Whatever happened to inciting fear in readers instead of attempting to humanise those who have to face the reality of the condition every single day of their lives? It was some weeks later I was talking to a friend of mine who has lived with the condition for the past 15 years. I wanted to educate myself, find out what the journey ahead of me would involve, what difficulties I will have to overcome. And I remember very clearly the look that he gave me when he said: “Do not ever apologise for your status. To anyone. Ever.” According to my friend’s philosophy one should not feel that being HIV-positive is a reason to be ashamed. Not only that, having the virus does not mean we have to give anyone any sort of explanation as to how or why it happened. I took his advice very seriously and never said sorry, not even to my parents, for being HIV-positive. The act of reclaiming my own dignity through the ‘no apology’ approach has brought me back to the FS/GMFA ‘HIV Stripped Bare’ campaign. I finally got it. HIV is not supposed to stop you from living a happy and fulfilling life and it shouldn’t prevent anyone from getting close to you because of the stigma attached to the virus. All we need is a bit of dialogue and education through the mutual experience of how the virus may or may not affect one’s well-being. One year post-diagnosis and I’m in a different place altogether. For starters I have now joined the HIV Stripped Bare campaign myself to promote the stigma-shattering approach it tries to convey. I now know that the well-established narrative that I had in my head about what living with HIV would be like and how the virus would alter my relationship with my fellow human beings was absolutely rubbish. In fact, the diagnosis has changed many aspects of my life for the better. That lump on my neck that the doctors suspected to be cancer turned out to be a swollen gland – a result of crystal meth addiction which I tackled quite aggressively over the past year. I quit the career I built in the supply chain to pursue something more meaningful, and now I run my very own massage therapy business (www.touchinn.co.uk). I quit smoking (well, mostly), and I ran my first marathon this year. I have turned my life upside down. I came out of my own shell and became more present in the community to help others who go through the terrible experiences of substance abuse, but mostly to help myself by making these experiences worth something. I know this will sound borderline ironic, but it’s thanks to being HIV-positive that I have never been in a better shape – both mentally and physically. Yet it took me a while to get here. I now see that I allowed my perception of the virus to spoil my life for much longer than should have been the case. Don’t make my mistakes. Would you like to share an opinion with FS readers? Email us at [email protected].