March 6, 2012
After learning that I was HIV positive, I realized that I wouldn't survive long unless I confronted the mental anguish that my diagnosis had caused. Like so many people with HIV (or whose loved ones are HIV positive), I felt depressed, anxious and generally bad about myself and assumed that other people would think negatively of me.
Yet over the years, I have experienced a series of revelations that have helped me feel better about myself, recover from the trauma of the diagnosis and resume a relatively normal life. The first revelation was that I would have to contend with my presumptions about what other people would think of me. The second? That to heal, I would have to see the faces and hear the stories of other Black women with HIV. Once I realized that sharing with other Black women would improve my well-being, I set out to find my voice, tell my story and try to make sense of my life.
Little did I know that telling my story would help me heal so much that, in time, I would help others do the same. Now, 20 years later, sometimes I wonder if enough is enough, but I've concluded that Black women living with HIV should tell our stories as often as we need to. Over the years, my storytelling has gotten deeper and richer; I no longer start or end with HIV.
That is a result of my third revelation: that certain life experiences can increase a woman's HIV vulnerability, or risk of acquiring HIV. In my case, childhood physical and sexual abuse caused me to develop coping mechanisms that both harmed me and made me more likely to get HIV. But living successfully with this disease requires life-affirming coping skills, and I've had to develop them.
Recently I started taking yoga classes, where I've learned breathing exercises that help me reduce stress and enhance my healing. Yoga opened the door to my fourth revelation: Stressful life experiences that I had been carrying since long before my HIV diagnosis still weigh me down. But I consider it a victory that I recognize this and don't want to run or hide.
I now know that by telling our stories, Black women living with HIV can break through the fear, guilt and shame that keep us frozen in time and susceptible to life-robbing social and health conditions, including HIV.
How you tell your story and who you tell your story to is entirely up to you. But I believe that telling it is a must. Women facing similar trials and tribulations need to know that there is hope -- and we can provide it.
Vanessa Johnson, J.D., the owner of Just Cause Consulting, has 20 years of experience creating leadership-development-training programs for people -- particularly women -- living with HIV/AIDS.