Depression and Aids, Double Stigma
Priscilla Body began to give motivational talks when she realised how much she had to be thankful for. ped me appreciate each moment' Priscilla Body has struggled with the double stigma of HIV and depression in a traditionally conservative community. She tells Glynis Horning how a renewed sense of purpose now helps her to relish every moment. ix years ago, I felt on top of the world. I'd found love again after a failed marriage and many years on my own, and I'd just produced two beautiful sons in quick succession. (I also have a grown daughter from my first husband). Matthew, 2, and Michael, 1, were the centre of the quiet life I shared with my beloved husband, Mike, who also had an adult daughter.
We got on well from the start -1 was the shy secretary from Marburg near Port Shepstone, and he the outgoing former Brit from the Isle of Man, who ran his own small telecommunication business in Durban. Then, in September 2003, I caught flu - and I just couldn't shake it. Two months later, simple household chores became difficult, and one night my chest grew so tight I couldn't sit, let alone stand, and SO Psychologies February/March 2010 still breathe. Mike hurried me to hospital, and a battery of tests revealed TB in one of my lungs. I assumed I'd become rundown from trying to cope with my young family, and once I started medication, I improved enough to be released. The day I was discharged, a hospital counsellor asked if I would like a routine HIV and Aids test. I agreed and thought nothing of it - I had no reason to do otherwise. I was packing to leave when she told me the news: 'You are HIV positive.' My first reaction was sheer disbelief and shock, but it tightened to unbearable fear as she went on to inform me: 'It's a chronic illness, treatment is very costly, and many patients don't live long - five years, perhaps.' Five years! My boys would be 7 and 8. I'd be leaving them without a mother, and Mike would have to struggle on his own.
I felt my world imploding, along with my body. My CD4 count (referring to the blood cell component that is destroyed when one has HIV) was just 32 per cubic millimetre of blood, and antiretroviral (ARV) treatment is usually started if you have under 200.1 had full-blown Aids. Deepening depression I knew little about this condition, and my ignorance fed my fear. Death was soon just one element of the crushing cloud of uncertainty that had settled over me, pushing me down to a place so dark I could barely recognise myself. How had I been infected, and what did this mean for my relationship - the foundation of my family? In my weakened, confused state, I wrestled, sleepless, with these and other questions for five days, before I could bring myself to tell Mike.
His shock and concern mirrored mine. But there was no blame, no resentment, only unreserved support and love. It continued when Mike went for a test and insisted I have another, hoping against hope there'd been some mistake. He was negative, but I proved positive again. I couldn't figure out how I'd contracted HIV. Mike and I had been together since 1995, and before him I had not had any relationships since my first marriage. He never expressed doubts about me, but I worried that he must have them. (I concluded, eventually, that I must have been infected by a blood transfusion after a miscarriage during my first marriage).
I lost my self-esteem along with my looks, fading into a skeletal, thin-haired, 39 kilogram wraith (I'm 1,54 metres tall). I'd stopped work when I had my boys (who, thankfully, both tested negative), and I stopped seeing anyone, including my family, who I could not bring myself to tell. My father had passed away a few years earlier, and my aged mother was ill herself and in no state to be worried by my troubles, even though I longed to share them. I had no idea what to tell my three sisters - they knew only that I'd had pneumonia. In the following months, I virtually gave up. I would try to play with the kids, but something insignificant would upset me and I'd snap.
Or I'd picture them without me, and take to my bed and sleep -1 suppose it was a form of escape and denial. I stopped going to the shops for | basic necessities. I couldn't stand I to see myself in a mirror - the S ARVs had triggered a rash that HOST MY SELF-ESTEEM ALONG WITH MY LOOKS covered my face, lipodystrophy (redistribution of body fat to areas like the tummy and back of the neck), and strange hallucinations. I felt I was losing both my body and my mind. As for my spirit, this flickered weakly in the dark, even though I tried to stoke it for my boys and Mike. Did he now see me as a diseased person, I wondered, or as a wife? I was convinced my relationship with him would unravel. How could he love me the way I was, for all his assurances and unflagging support? When he got home from work, he'd listen a while, but inevitably reached a stage when he no longer wanted to talk. Finding help The only people I found I could open up to were our pastor and his wife. They were amazing: non-judgemental and encouraging.
By now I was wrestling not only with fears, but with a deep anger. 'Why me, God?' I thought. Why had I been given a second chance at love, a second family, only to be taken from them in this cruel way? And what had my family done to deserve this punishment? Our pastor provided an invaluable space for me to vent about what I now see as society's greatest ills, each prickly with stigma: HIV and depression. With his and his wife's support, I realised my negative attitude was influencing and compounding my plight. With this warm couple's help, I was also finally able to open up to my youngest sister. We come from a traditional Indian Christian background, but she is more progressive in her thinking. I asked her to tell our older sisters.
They still don't talk about it, but they have been supportive. I turned to meditation and prayer, which helped me to accept my condition, and start living again in spite of it. Seeing my life falling apart goaded me into action. Consciously shifting my focus from myself to others - not just my family, but the community - slowly pulled me out of my depression. I joined a support group, and when I discovered how much I had compared to so many who don't have loving homes and healthy kids, I began giving motivational talks.
Encouraging others to be open about their status has restored my sense of purpose - the best protection against depression. ARVs have restored my body. My CD4 count has risen to 455, and the virus has now been undetectable for almost a year. Each morning I wake up feeling grateful to have another day with Mike, Matthew and Michael - another day to make a difference. Mike and I are still intimate - but we use protection, of course. HIV is not a death sentence - there are people with medical conditions who are far more ill than I am. The trick is to use this realisation to avoid despair, and to relish every minute we have on this earth. Today is all we have to make a difference.