I’d like to share with you all my speech that I presented just a couple of days ago, for a facilitator's training exam, you might call it. This was through the local AIDS organization, to test how prepared I am now to go out on my own, and speak in public about living with HIV. i realize some of the dialogue has already been voiced, however, i hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
Good afternoon everyone: I’m here today representing both myself and our local AIDS Service Organization. My hope is that all of you are here today because you want to be, as HIV/AIDS is truly not something to be taken lightly.
With respect to myself, I was diagnosed HIV+ in March, 1993. And with respect to the agency, I began using their services upon moving here from my hometown London, Ontario in 1995. At the same time I also began volunteering to help achieve a better understanding of the disease, as well as to become connected with others living with HIV.
Services include such things as:
- Education towards informing the general public on safer sexual behaviours – a large part of this is done through Speaker’s Bureau, which is what’s brought me here today
- As well as, outreach programs to better assist with confidentiality issues
- Support to help those both infected and affected with this disease, to better cope with various issues that arise
- Provides a safe environment, as well as, a place to access free supplies (condoms, lube, etc.)
- Provides annual events: examples: World AIDS Day Vigil and Taste for Life, which help to continually promote awareness
- Anonymous testing every Thursday evening from 4-7 pm
- Volunteer training sessions for both clients and the public
- Information for accessing clean/free needle exchange programs
Before I continue on with sharing my own personal story, I would like to ask if there are any questions with respect to the format of the agency?
Prior to my world of living with HIV, I completed my grade 12 education and really had no desire to go to college or university, due to the time I was dedicating to my career as a classical ballet dancer. My training for this began when I was only 10 yrs old and went on until I completed my schooling. I did however, drop out of high-school for a couple of years to get some work experience, and then returned as an adult student to complete my grade 12.
I then went on to dance professionally with four companies across Canada over a seven year period, consisting of Halifax, NS, Edmonton, AB, Montreal, Que and Toronto, ON.
At a point in my career and still not knowing I was HIV+, I felt my body wasn’t responding in the capacity it should have been. I’m not sure how, but I went on to dance professionally for another couple of years and the ironic thing about my career was I had become inspired when a touring group from the National Ballet of Canada located in Toronto came to our elementary school and performed. The last company I was with we did just that. Besides performing in theatres we also travelled to schools within the Greater Toronto Area, so I guess you could say I came full circle with my career. My desire was to one day become either a teacher or choreographer at this stage in my life.
The AIDS Service Organization for me personally has allowed me to become connected again with my life. Upon hearing the words HIV+ for the first time in 1993, my world fell apart. As I just stated I was retiring from my career of 17 years in Classical Dance, as well as, settling into a relationship that lasted for 10 years. My former partner and I are still living together as roommates since meeting each other in 1990.
The way I look at it, my life-long relationship now is one who lives with this disease, by being reminded daily with having to take medication, and the overall impact my diagnosis has had on my life over the years. During my earlier years of having unprotected sex, and due to a lack of sex education during my years of attending grade school, my life was going to be taking a dramatic turn for the worse and I wasn’t even aware of it. When I was in grade school, sex education basically consisted of how women could prevent pregnancy and not much else. The unfortunate thing here is that HIV did not exist during my own grade school years, so information was not out there to be given as there was no need for it.
During the earliest years of when HIV did surface, I was simply going on with my life, my career, and it was not an issue until the day I found out I was infected.
I’ve been part of the agency's Speaker’s Bureau for some time, and have replenished much of my own personality that I used to have prior to my diagnosis, simply because they’ve allowed an outlet for people with this disease to express themselves openly and shamelessly.
Anyone is vulnerable to this disease if they’re not taking proper precautions to prevent it. It’s truly important to be educated as much as possible, to promote awareness amongst ourselves, and again, ultimately acknowledge the fact that this disease can affect any one of us at anytime.
Before I get into further detail with respect to having been on my death bed only a few years ago, I would like to share a student’s feelings after hearing me speak. This gentleman came up to me afterwards in tears, stating that he has an uncle who is HIV+ and he now feels more hopeful to openly discuss certain issues with him. He had no one in his life he felt he could turn to with respect to learning more about this disease, and he was so grateful for having us come to his school.
In 2007, my immune system was so compromised with having chosen to take a drug holiday, and in my own mind I figured my body was becoming resistant to certain drugs. Leading up to having been admitted to intensive care at University Hospital in London, ON, I was gradually losing weight over several months. I began collapsing, weighing only 90 lbs. I came into contact with a parasite that nearly killed me. I spent the next two months back here in Kitchener at Freeport Hospital. I was never so scared in my life as the day I was admitted to Freeport Hospital. To me this was where you came to die, and I lay in my bed and cried more than ever before. I had to learn to walk and write again, as the parasite paralyzed one side of my body. This even affected my speech for a period of time. I figured it was only a matter of time until I passed away because of this.
However, I’m certain that my athletic background helped me to battle this horrible crisis. Once the anti-biotics did their part, I had to strengthen and re-train muscles, and this has been extremely difficult. To this day I suffer from neuropathy in both feet.
As I stated earlier, my former partner and current roommate to this day has been an ongoing support in my life. A few years after I broke up our relationship, I met another gentleman at an AIDS Conference in Toronto and we became partners. We had something in common - HIV/AIDS. To make a long story short, during both our health battles our relationship became one of long-distance phone calls every night, as he lived near Kingston, Ontario. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago, and my own health did not allow me to be able to attend his funeral. However, my former partner became good friends with him and did attend his funeral.
Let me share with you a couple of questions I often get asked:
How did my family and friends handle my diagnosis?
Family and close friends have always supported my life style. Certainly there was concern in the beginning that this was a gay disease. However, this is not the case, and I can’t imagine those people feeling any different about me even if it were.
Am I confronted with stigma and misinformation?
Unfortunately, I feel there will always be some stigma attached to this disease. As I look at it, stigma is always having to deal with unwanted emotions. There are many people in society that are homophobic, it’s human nature, and I suppose they’ll never look past this state of acknowledgment. I’d like to say that I’m proud to be gay; I’ve been living a life of fulfillment, other than this disease of course. There is always good to come out of bad, and I’ve had many, many opportunities to continue fulfilling my aspirations in life. But I still would not like to see anyone go through what I have because of HIV/AIDS.
I’ve also been sharing my story through community blogging, as I’m in a play the “Laramie Project” – 10 years Later. For those of you who do not know, this script was written by members of the Tectonic Theatre group in respect to the “Matthew Shepard Story”. Matthew was a 21 year old gay student of Wyoming University, who was viciously beaten to death because he was gay.
This production is also being performed to help bring awareness towards students being bullied in society at large. This topic of course hits home for me, because I chose to be a classical ballet dancer from the age of 10.
Again, I would like to ask if anyone has any questions.?
Before I close, I’d like to take a couple of minutes to ask a couple of questions of my own.
- As a student body, would you please raise your hand if you have a family member or know of someone who is HIV+?
- What steps have you already been taking with providing extra precautions based on what you feel you know about the disease?
- Also, how has this impacted your life personally?
In closing, I would like to add that my own story is one of many, and I sincerely appreciate you all having me here today, to express the impact this disease can have on a person. The quote I like to use is “to think of the impact HIV/AIDS has had in the world at large, and multiply that by 10" - this is basically at times how impacted a person can feel from having this disease. Again, this is not something to take lightly, and I only wish you all stay safe and protected.