By: Robert Bartram
Softly-spoken Nyasha lives in Zimbabwe. Just a moment's acquaintance with her will tell you that she is kind, generous and thoughtful. She discovered that she was HIV positive in 2000, and initially her diagnosis sent her into a tailspin. She went into her shell, didn't speak to anyone and lost a dangerous amount of weight - all things that would worsen her condition, not improve it. Even at her workplace, she would simply collect her cup of tea during work breaks instead of socialising with her colleagues as she had always done before. Her condition made her paranoid, convinced that everyone was talking and laughing about her behind her back. But it was not the disease itself that caused her to be like this, but the sense of social stigma that came with it.
This is often the all-too tragic response of people living with HIV. Believing they will become social outcasts, they force this punishment on themselves. But Nyasha has broken out of this dangerous cycle. With the help of the work of Byron Katieu; she has not only come to accept her condition, but counsels others in their response to it.
"Basically I was seeing myself as no longer fit, no longer part of them." Eventually, after much prompting by her doctor, she summoned up the courage to attend a support group. And then she suddenly realised that she was not alone. She opened up bit-by-bit, telling first her sister, then her sister-in-law. They were supportive, but she implored them not to tell anyone. But realising that if she ever fell ill, she had a duty to inform other people around her - such as her manager - not least so that they could advise any medical staff of her condition. The final hurdle was to inform her mother, and once she had done this, she knew the stigma would disappear.
"My main problem," she says, "was that I couldn't accept it. I wanted to hide it, yet it was showing." That's why her advice for people living with HIV is so straightforward: to accept it. To accept HIV is to "liberate yourself psychologically." Many run away from the truth of the condition, even refusing to get tested in the first place. The only way to live life is to live positively, she asserts. Quite simply, "if you live positively, you can live to [the age] where you were supposed to get to."
She implores others to be open with loved ones, especially children. She presumed that her children would never understand "because they are children" but soon came to understand that "they have to know what is going on...because they are your support system." In the early days, after initial diagnosis, she even suggests that they can be a practical help in reminding someone living with HIV to take their medication.
But sharing with non-family members is also vital, says Nyasha. She is now so open about her condition that she is a volunteer helper for many others with HIV and loves the fulfillment of helping others. She is so positive about her new life, she says, that often other people with HIV refuse to believe that she has the condition too!
Finally, she wants the world to know that HIV does not discriminate: it can kill the most significant or the lowliest people in society. But by the same token, anyone can live with it too, they just have to generate a positive outlook and believe they can defeat it.
By: Robert Bartram
Julien Chiwunda is 59 years old, a widow, and the mother of four grown-up children and four grandchildren. Her husband passed away from HIV 20 years ago, and she herself tested positive for HIV in 2003.
As with so many people living with HIV, it was not the condition itself that made her so unwell, but the self-stigma that came with it. For instance, when her husband was ill, he was transformed in size and seemed to waste away in front of her. When driving him to the doctor, as she did every week, Julien would see other people looking at her. Because she herself was so healthy, she believed that they assumed that her husband had caught the virus from her. "Every time I would get prepared to take my husband to the doctor," she says, "a thought would flash in my mind and I would feel miserable."
The stigma even poisoned her personal relationships. When her husband's relatives visited home, she convinced herself that they were talking about her as the source of the problem. As a result, she would withdraw and become miserable without anything ever being said to her.
Julien is well aware of the damage self-stigmatizing can have, as it "limits me from doing what I know I am able to do. Because I just judge myself and say I can't do this because I am HIV Positive." This condition was so marked that at one time she could not see the point of continuing her education, as she assumed that she would die soon. It's also the reason why she didn't build a new house for herself. What's more, she often wished that she were dead.
But Julien turned her life around with the Work. She is now so passionate about the Work that she is happy to label it "a tool that unlocks one's freedom...The Work will give you an open mind." Today, she questions every thought that comes to her and simply asks herself whether it is true or not. "And then the moment I ask myself that question, I find that it's not true, it's just my thinking." Now she is free and simply doesn't care what people think about her.
She encourages other people to adopt the Work too. It gives anyone, she says, the "freedom to sit down, go through your own life, go through all those stressful thoughts, question the thoughts step-by-step...it's a road that leads to you attaining your freedom." Above all, she insists, the Work "equips them with the ability to forget what happened yesterday and look forward to what is going to happen, because that is the reality."
The positive results have had a practical effect, too. Julien is convinced that the Work shows each individual the innate strength we all have in running our own lives, managing our affairs, even running businesses. The Work allows us all to live completely and productively and to enjoy our lives as they unfold.
By: Robert Bartram
Imagine if you had an illness that made it almost impossible to go out each day. Imagine if that illness meant you couldn't eat properly and lost dangerous amounts of weight. Imagine that it made your work more difficult and you could never make any progress.
Now imagine that illness made you so frightened that you could barely speak to anyone about it, not even your family. Imagine you felt so ashamed that you couldn't discuss it with your friends, whom you begin to ignore but only because you are convinced that they are ignoring you. Imagine that it also made you so angry you could only shout at your children when they did something wrong. Or shout at your colleagues because you truly believe that they are criticising you and laughing at you behind your back.
There's a name for this illness: HIV. But it's not the HIV itself that causes all these terrible problems, but the stigma that accompanies it. The stigma that makes you believe you are no longer a worthy human being.
But here's the thing: you can choose to ignore that stigma. You can choose to ignore all the destructive beliefs that can come with HIV and you can live your life to the full once again. Not only that, but you can help others to overcome their stigma too, because believe us, you're not the only one suffering from it. In fact, you can learn to love yourself so much that it may sometimes even feel that the HIV itself has disappeared too.
And yes: I'm talking about you.