Long back, after getting diagnosed with HIV, I started battling with myself and the people around me. I sometimes felt worthless, useless, ugly, and never understood why God would give me HIV at such a young age. I had thousands of unanswerable questions to the universe. I bottled so many emotions inside me for a very long time.
Later, this led to a battle with suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression for some time. During this period of my breakdown, I learnt so much about the virus and myself, and that helped me become stronger. Although I felt broken, I managed to convince myself that I am bigger than HIV and reminded myself that my story is for people to hear.
At some point, I decided to share my story with my close friends. I told them how I managed to survive. Not all of them responded the same way, and I lost some friends in the process. Despite this, I kept going, owning and telling my story, which made me more resilient to the stigma and discrimination against HIV. I realised that living with HIV is not a doorstep to heaven, but it doesn’t make you any less of a person.
Living with HIV does not define your life journey, so do not let it define you. Instead, you have to define it. Newly diagnosed individuals often feel like they have been given a life sentence. You feel isolated and alone, you are left within the whirlwind of your thoughts and emotions. It is a mental and emotional rollercoaster of coming to terms with the new reality that you have HIV.
Though it can be seen as a life sentence, in terms of it being a lifelong medical condition, but you remain free. This is one of the many chapters in your life with much of the journey still left to live, and its conclusion yet to be written. It is a new chapter, and a new beginning of self awareness, individual purpose and happiness.
Living with this chronic condition undoubtedly has its share of calm waters and turbulent storms, but it doesn’t define who you are. You have the power to chart your course on your journey through life. That being said, turn living with HIV from a perceived weakness into a strength. Recognise it for what it is, but also have the realisation that it has brought forth positive change in your life.
I know this to be true, because I, too, am HIV positive. With one step forward at a time, let us enjoy this journey together. I want to age defiantly, to grow old with a life as full and rewarding as possible, and supported in a way that will not burden me with further stigma, discrimination or inadequate services. To achieve this, we all need to stop and imagine what we see as our own future as HIV+ people or indeed as service providers, and realise that each of the questions to which we have no suitable answers needs to be asked, loudly and clearly, right now.
In looking to the future, for the first time in years, one thing to me is clear: that ageing with HIV needs to be on everyone’s agenda. It’s the next big challenge for all of us. HIV is now a controllable chronic disease with a few complications, but the disease we have no treatment for is stigma.
Stigma against the elderly adds to the existing multifaceted HIV stigma, potentially denying them access to optimal care. A healthy social environment can lead to loneliness and depression, no matter if they are in India or anywhere in the world. Aged people can often feel stigmatised by both their age and HIV status, and may suffer isolation and loneliness as a result.
You don’t have to suffer alone. If you’re feeling low, getting the right support can help you to look after your mental health. You could try talking to family, friends or a healthcare professionals.