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28 October 2009

Positive living

Linda Booi is 23. Six years ago, at the start of her adulthood, HIV-positive results tore her world apart. Worst of all, her family and community rejected her. This is her story.

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Linda Booi's* (23) nightmare began when she completed a short HIV/Aids course at Technikon at the time she was studying towards a National Diploma in Accounting. At the back of her mind were the passionate nights she had spent with her partner. They had used no condoms.

Like most people, Linda postponed the HIV test several times, not thinking that the results could be positive. Most people have a sense of security, thinking that HIV poses no real danger to them.

"After a long time I decided to go for the tests. I kept telling myself I was too young and healthy and that there was no way I could be HIV-positive," said Linda.

"People look at themselves in the mirror and say, 'Hey, I haven't been sick, I have no pimples and I have lost no weight in the past year. So I cannot be HIV-positive."

Her worst nightmare became reality in October 2002 when she was diagnosed as being HIV-positive.

The memories
Linda still remembers the counsellor's words clearly.

"You are not the only one who is HIV-positive. You are not going to die now. We are all going to die, but you can live longer if you take care of yourself," Linda tearfully recalls.

"I felt my temperature rising to top. My heart was beating fast and I had a pain in my chest. The room went dark and I heard a voice from a distance asking, 'Are you okay, Linda?' I could not answer as I did not know where I was. The voice slowly faded in the dark as I heard a little girl's voice screaming very loudly. The sounds of her screams became louder and stronger. I could not take it anymore. I covered my ears with my hands to avoid hearing her pain and everything just went blank."

"I do not know for how long I passed out, but before I opened my eyes, I remembered what had just happened. I prayed so hard for it to be just a dream, but it was reality," she said.

"I was shocked, confused, scared and angry at the world, at God and at every partner I ever had sex with. I could have killed someone that day," she said, wiping away tears. "I thought life was over and that I was going to die."

Body and shock
Shock is perfectly normal under these circumstances. News like this is something to which the whole body reacts.

On her way back home Linda tried to figure out an easy way to tell her parents, but the environment at home prevented her from sharing what was troubling her.

The invisible epidemic
Fear of rejection causes many people to deny or not disclose their status. Therefore, the epidemic remains largely invisible.

"I kept wishing for a perfect moment to tell my parents, but the time was never right. I think it was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life," she said.

When she finally told her parents she wished she didn't have to.

Telling her parents
"My mother kept quiet. She was crying. Disappointment and disbelief were written all over her face. My father was disgusted. I sat down patiently giving them time to digest the news and wished they would comfort me as if I were a little girl. My wish was in vain," she said.

The pain became unbearable for Linda as she felt like an outsider in her home.

"My parents had a hard time dealing with my status. They accused me of sleeping around," she said.

The rejection begins
Her father told everyone including the neighbours. It seemed as if he had little concern for her. Soon her status was the talk of the town.

Preachers made an example of her at church. They said HIV/Aids was a punishment from God. People stared at her whenever she sang or prayed. In their minds they thought life was going to be over for her soon.

Three weeks after she was diagnosed, she was hospitalised for depression.

During her stay in hospital, she decided to talk directly to the virus. These were her words: "I have accepted the fact that you can kill me, but I can kill you by killing myself".

And so she negotiated a deal with the virus.

Search for a new life
She left home in search of a better life.

"Life was not easy. Every night I cried endlessly. I wanted to understand this disease before I could mend the broken pieces of my life," Linda said.

Linda worked at Panorama in a private home the following year. Everything was fine until the day she told her employer about her HIV-status. The treatment was worse than that at home.

"I was often told to be careful, especially with the kids," she recalls.

She wasn't surprised by the rejection, as she had been down this road before.

Learning about her status
She left her job and decided to join the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) as a volunteer. She wanted to learn more about her status. She met new friends, who knew exactly how she felt.

It was while she was working as a secretary in a private company, that colleagues started questioning her involvement with the TAC.

"I thought disclosing my status and living with my parents would be the toughest thing I had to deal with, but I was wrong," she said.

"I thought disclosing at work would make my life much easier. Instead it got worse. My HIV-status became the main topic of conversation. Everyone was passing bad comments. I later resigned, as I could not take the stress anymore," she said.

The healing process
Eventually, she started telling people about her HIV-status. She thought if she came out with her HIV-status as a young person, others would accept that HIV is not a death sentence.

"Disclosing was a healing process in my life," Linda said.

Many people have contributed in discriminating against people who are HIV- positive – even if they are not aware of doing it. Society's prejudice has forced people who are HIV-positive to form separate social groups. People living with HIV are not dying of the disease. The discrimination and stigma from society is what kills them.

In the end, the effects of living with HIV/Aids are more psychological than physical. People are still getting infected with this deadly virus every day.

Despite knowing how to protect themselves, protection is not always possible.

Moving on
"Life has not been easy, but I came a long way and won't let people's ignorance pull me down. I am discovering more about me and life every day," she said.

She said lonely moments and cold nights were frequent and that she could not run away from them. These were times when she asked herself why this had to happen to her and wondered what was next?

Linda said she has learned to be responsible and takes good care of herself. She stresses the fact that even if people think HIV/Aids can't happen to them, it can. And that using condoms can indeed prevent the spread of HIV.

Many HIV-positive people live lonely lives because of the stigma attached to the virus.

"I believe disclosing is a healing process. You get used to talking about the virus and you accept it yourself. The virus has changed my life for the better," she said.

*Not her real name.

- (Charmaine Quma, Health24, updated October 2008)

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