Denial, Stigma and Truth
I am reading an interesting little book called “the Joy Diet” by Martha Beck. I am mostly not into popular psychology but I do enjoy her writing and she does tell very funny stories. At the moment I am reading about “Truth”. Now I do not want to go into a large discussion about truth but she did say, and I paraphrase, denial is a tool we haul out when the truth would rock the our lives. This small little sentence really hit me like a ton of bricks, and the question for me is “what are the truths about HIV that are being denied so that I can live in my safe little world?”. So here, today I am going to try some truth telling for myself.
One of the fundamental truths for me about HIV is that it follows the fault-lines of our society. It finds the marginal, the desperate, the poor and exploits their vulnerability. A good example for me are sex workers. Now, time for confession, I had always thought that sex workers (in my self righteousness I called them prostitutes) were very much below me. They had failed, sinned and were generally worthy of pity. And then, I accompanied a friend to a local clinic for an HIV test. This was in the early 1990’s and ARV’s were not widely available and basically an HIV diagnosis was an effective death sentence. As we sat, chatting and trying not to be nervous she told me that she was sleeping with older men so that she could pay her University fees. I was 18 and very much a prude – I don’t think I could even talk about sex without blushing? What was I to do? I believed I had various options; run from the building screaming, or start quoting religious texts, or simply sit? I must admit I was appalled, but I continued sitting. We talked about why her life had lead to this point, we talked about my shock and my urgent need to run away, we talked about our hopes and dreams after we had finished our degrees. We simply talked. Our lives have taken very different paths and I am not even sure I would recognise her in the local supermarket now but I remember the lesson – this could have been me. I was privileged enough to have parents who could afford my University fees, I lived at home with three good meals a day, I had a car and was able to move around at will. I was surrounded by people who loved and cared for me. I was not vulnerable to HIV transmission and infection.
I think we all have stories like this, when our prejudices and pre-conceptions are confronted by human beings that we know and love. Around HIV these stories are so important because they make statistics, people again. Instead of a “prostitute” I had a friend and together we worked out how to keep her safe from HIV. I was unable to deny that she was my friend because that was not true, I could not deny that she was a sex worker because that was not true either. However, having her in my life rocked my stable little world and set me on a journey of questioning that I have never stopped. Denying what is true is not easy, however living a denial is fatal.
I think one of the drivers of stigma and denial is fear of the truth, whatever that may be. I could be afraid that I may die of HIV. I could be afraid that because I am a sex worker I cannot access treatment. I could be afraid that if I am HIV positive I cannot have a baby. However, none of these are true. Perhaps there are deeper fears. In religious terms we may believe that we deserve our punishment, that HIV is a punishment from God or that we are inadequate parents because our children have HIV. These statements are also not true. HIV follows those of us on the margins of society. That is my truth. When it comes to working within this field and living with the virus what is your truth? And, together, can we allow our own truths about HIV to overcome denial and stigma because, I believe, this collective truth is the only thing that will.