FIVE ways to THRIVE

This month I had the opportunity to participate in the ‘Stories from HIV Long-Term Thrivers’ forum where I gave a spoken word performance alongside an amazing and inspiring panel. The forum was organized by ViiV healthcare.

How did I give this spoken word performance? I decided to share my 5 ways to thrive! Even today, to many people HIV is still seen as a disease to be ashamed of, they consider it as a big challenge while actually you can live a perfectly happy and healthy life. Here are my 5 ways to thrive for those who missed my performance:

Trust (again)

In 2003, when a doctor told me to buy my coffin when I was diagnosed with HIV and sent me away desperate, without a prescription, I spent  a few hours thinking only about my death. I lost all confidence to live. Instead of looking for help, I started preparing my funeral. Hope started glowing when my husband brought me to another hospital for sound advice and to get my HIV treatment started. When I held my first pills in my hand, I rejoiced in taking them because I firmly believed they were going to save my life. Only after regaining trust in myself, I was able to work on my next step…

Move (my body)

My new reality made me even more aware of the importance to keep myself in shape and healthy. But what what get me going? In 2003, I wore a beautiful sky blue wedding dress and I set myself as a goal to wear it again at my 20th wedding anniversary next year. So, I decided to walk at least 10 km every day to keep me in shape and make sure for me wedding dress to fit me again. Another really important driver was for me to reduce the number of pills I am taking as I also need to take care of my diabetes. So as a huge added benefit of my daily walks I was also able to reduce 4 pills. And my weight? Well, I lost 8 kg so far, just a tiny bit to go. I like my healthy new me!

Share (my emotions)

You all know by now that I came out of the closet with a big bang! As a campaign poster girl, with my message posted all over Amsterdam. After staying with my secret for more than 10 years, sharing my story with the world was a huge relief for me and made me even stronger and more courageous. It was also a great motivator to help more people in the HIV community, for example by peer counselling and support people living with HIV on emotional well being. It also motivated me to learn ever more about HIV, related stigma and existing inequalities in the world. Last but not least, I also launched an initiative called Stories of Hope to show the diversity and talents of the HIV community worldwide.

Perform (my arts)

My greatest passion has always been to be on the stage. Since very early on in my life, I liked entertaining people. And I do so in many different ways, as a poet, through traditional Burundian dance or playing my indonongo… While I am lucky to consider my passion as my job, my key message to all of you is to work out routines, find hobbies or simply try to enjoy your job and all other great things in life. Creating and maintaining a diverse lifestyle is probably really my biggest secret to staying healthy. So, despite having gone through so much in my life, I am confidently looking forward to growing old.

Dream (my desires)

Unfortunately, in Africa people living with HIV/ AIDS are still dying. My nephew Kevin lost both his parents because of AIDS within 8 days in the year 2015. During the forum I shared my wish for a world where children like Kevin will not lose their parents anymore, where they can access health services so they can get tested and treated, and where they can grow old in good health. And right now, for Kevin I wish he can be supported to grow up in a community where he will not be stigmatised.

Yes it is possible to thrive whilst living with HIV. I, and many others in the HIV community, am an example of that. I am always proud to share my little secrets to growing old while enjoying my life with HIV! 

Ageing positively

As a woman and mother living with HIV how do I see ageing?

A lot of people are afraid of ageing, yet for me it is a very exciting journey and I am actually looking forward to getting older! So, let me share with you why I see ageing in a positive way.

The whole of my adult life, only based on my appearance, people often assume I am still very young. This despite my double trouble of HIV and diabetes. In my life this has led to many embarrasing situations.

When I took my first born for her first vaccination to the clinic 20 years ago, the nurse told me to call my mother. When I told her that I was the mother of my daughter, she yelled at me ”Listen girl, don’t play with me. Call your mother, we need to ask her some questions”. This made me very sad as it reminded me of my mother who died two years earlier. So, with tears in my eyes I responded that “I AM the mom”. When she started hitting me I took out a breast, squished it and made the milk jump unto her. Calmly, I said, “Do you believe me now?” With her guilty face, not even apologizing, she finally started vaccinating my baby. That was the first time I really wanted to age and look like a mother to the people around me.

Three years later, another story happened on the 14th of February 2004 during my husband’s birthday in Luanda, Angola. We invited friends to celebrate with us at a local disco. Everyone was allowed to enter, except me! The bouncer said “You are a ‘quatorzinha’ (14 year old), you can’t enter here!” Everybody started defending me saying I am 26, married and a mother. So when we were about to leave by car, our Angolan driver greeted us and called me “boss, please get in”. The bouncer asked him if he knew me and he replied that we are a married couple. Finally the bouncer believed me, apologized and let us in. I really wanted to celebrate in this place as dancing can lift my spirit! In no time I was already back in a good mood to forget all the drama of being called a quatorzinha.

Since then there were countless times I have been mistaken for my age, hoping that when I reach 40+ things will change. But even as recent as last week, when I wanted to buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket, I still was asked to show my ID by two employees to prove I was older than 18! I told them to look deeper, that I was older than that. But they would not believe me and that without showing my ID they were not going to give me the bottle. Luckily, I had my passport with me. You should have seen their face when I showed it and when they read I am 45! They apologized and said “We are so sorry you look too young for your age!”

Over the years I have learned from these stories that instead of feeling insulted by people that misjudge my age just by looks, I should accept it as a compliment. So these days, I smile at these embarrasing yet funny moments rather than becoming angry like I used to in the past.

What is my ‘secret’ to ageing? I firmly believe that taking good care of my body and mind has a huge positive effect. I am staying in shape by walking everyday 10+ km, I love performing on stage, I am always trying to be happy when I am at home by singing and laughing out loud. This positive take on life must help I guess. And the added benefit is that I am still reducing my diabetes medication intake!

So ageing does not bother me at all. The fact that my ‘looks’ apparently do not match my age is something I now embrace rather than fight! What matters most is that while I am ageing, I also become more fulfilled, happy and healthy!

Peace,

Eliane