0110: Stay Positive (World AIDS Day special)

Content warning: The following story contains references to someone contracting HIV, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Stay Positive," Jacci Zappa

If you met me on the street, you might think, ‘Aw, what a cute, amiable white girl.’ I would blend in just fine with the stereotypical white girl crowd: coffee in hand, big fat scarf around my neck, and wellie boots on my feet. What you would Never in a million years guess is that my immune system is working harder than most, keeping a virus at bay. I am the outlier when people have an image of what HIV looks like, I probably do not fit your mold and I detest being called, ‘cute.' Maybe we shouldn’t have a mold. 

My story is just that, my story, I tell it to you now in hope that it sheds light on a very stigmatized epidemic. Human Immunodeficiency Virus knows no color, race, or gender preference. You cannot ‘catch’ HIV by sitting on the toilet seat after me or sharing the same utensil. HIV can be exposed, weakened, and transmission eradicated by bringing light to the subject: education, awareness, and proper precautions.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer In Tanzania two years ago. I fell for a very intelligent host country national, even though I told myself I wouldn’t date while serving abroad because that just gets messy. It turns out he was part of the reason why I wanted to stay on another year, we were considering the ‘M’ word and how that would work. I also found my niche working with an HIV outreach NGO. Life seemed pretty fulfilling. I am faith-filled and purposely remained a virgin and intended to stay that way until marriage. Call me old fashioned, but I wanted that to be my gift to future husband. I was not as fervent in my morals as I tried for 25 years to be.

Once you live in a foreign country and date someone who is very good at painting you a beautiful vignette of your future together, wearing down how it is ok to show affection for someone you are going to spend the rest of your life with...funny how life happens differently that we plan and intend. My logic was worn down and I believed him.

*Side note: Interesting how you cannot always see how unhealthy a relationship is when you are in it, away from your support network, but once removed it becomes widely apparent. He was my biggest support and I wanted to make him happy. That meant giving him all of me.

It wasn’t until September 11th, 2014 (already a tough day in our history) when I heard the news. That was truly the first time I have ever felt like my world was physically inverted. I felt as though I was stuck in a very bad dream. The thoughts: Impossible. Impossible that it could happen to Me. Impossible because I am in a committed relationship...How could he?! All of these thoughts and feelings were whirling around like a tornado inside me. Then came the numbness. All the while ‘Be strong for your family’ and ‘You will not let this virus win’ were divine driving factors that made me get out of bed during the week of purgatory where Peace Corps Tanzania awaited authorization from Washington DC to medically evacuate me back to the states to begin treatment as soon as possible.

It’s true, during trauma, victims go through distinct phases and it is so important to let yourself feel each emotion while processing through them. Numb and no appetite, I functioned, relying on faith alone. Unfortunately Tanzanian culture and HIV stigma had an overtly aversive effect on the man who I thought I could marry. Shattering him, thoughts of suicide clouded his vision, thinking he could no longer be a viable member of society with this plague inside him. In Tanzania they do not talk about HIV openly, similar here. All I could do was encourage him in my weakest and most frustrated moment, ‘You are not alone. You have a family that loves you and this is not the end for Tanzania’s youngest and most successful entrepreneur.’ HIV can be managed successfully if treatment is adhered. The idea that fear can drive someone into such darkness widened my purview of how stigmatized this virus truly is and how much hope can be shared if only more people talked about it. 

Fast forward one month, treatment is underway back home and HIV is undetected in my blood count. I do believe in miracles and modern medicine. Treatment started with taking two pills once a day, now I only take one pill once a day and I intend to keep it that way until we find a cure. HIV medication has come so far in the last twenty years. This one pill targets the virus’ reproduction cycle at three different phases. I do not think it is outlandish to believe finding a cure will happen in our lifetime. I am more likely going to die of a heart attack because I love food so much than this virus taking over my immune system and lowering it to an AIDS level. There are so many precautionary options available: proper use of condoms, PrEP, free needle exchanges and testing, abstinence, and PEP if you think you have been exposed. You just need to ask. 

If there is anything you should take away from my story, let it be hope, not sadness. I do not think of myself as broken because I am not. I am beautifully and wonderfully made to speak up for those who have lost their voice. I am positive. My HIV status is a subnote, but not my title. Every time I would rather be asked a blunt question about HIV and transmission rates, than avoided. One of my favorite poems, "Instructions For A Bad Day," by Shane Koyczan speaks perfect truth, "Silence left to its own devices, breeds silence so speak and be heard.’ Ignorance and stigma are fed by fear and uncertainty. ‘Life is going to come at you armed with hard times and tough choices, your voice is your weapon, your thoughts ammunition."

Be brave and know that you are never in it alone. Feel free to show your weakness, because through weakness we find our voice, our strength. 

One Love.

About the art:

I'm not sure I cried more while reading someone's story submission than I did while reading Jacci's story. Jacci and I dated for nearly two years early in our college experiences at Oregon State and she is still counted among my most favorite human beings on this planet.

While this is the first time Jacci has shared her story publicly, I have lived with this knowledge for nearly two years, and the reaction I had when she called and told me she'd contracted HIV was similar to the reaction she shares in this story. Disbelief. Shock. Fear. Concern. Impossible.

And she did it in the most JACCI-way possible - with positivity and charm. She was already making jokes about it, too! Because that's how Jacci approaches the world. She is one of the most optimistic, eager, and curious humans I've ever met, and to have such an illness befall her, I was crushed.

So when creating this piece, I wanted to create something bright, vibrant, and optimistic. That way it would match Jacci's aura and overall demeanor. I also wanted to involve the words from the poem she quoted in this piece, so that it would serve as a wonderful reminder for her moving forward. I even snuck in a Circa Survive safecamp logo in the background to remind Jacci that she is safe with us, she is not alone. She has everyone.

I'm so thankful Jacci was comfortable sharing her story with us. It takes an immense amount of courage to destigmatize a topic like HIV/AIDS, and this is a wonderful step forward in doing so.

- Craig