HIV & Me: Growing Up with a Secret
Written by Michael Erikson*
For pretty much all my life I wondered why I had so many different doctors. Iím not sure how many doctors I had, but I remember when I was younger I went to San Francisco for doctor visits twice a year. When I was 13 years old, it was at one of these visits that I found out I have HIV. They told me that when I was born, my mother, who also has the virus, passed it on to me.
When I first found out that I had the virus, I didnít know what it meant. I donít think Iíd ever even heard of HIV or AIDS before that day, so because of this I wasnít really scared when I found out about it. I didnít know what to say when they told me I had it, but I could tell it wasnít a good thing to have because of the expressions on everyoneís faces and their tone when they told me about it. When they asked me if I had any questions, there was only one question I could think of: Was I going to die?
When they told me about it everything made sense. It made clear why my mom and I had to take special medication. After they told me the news, they told me about a summer camp for kids like me called Camp Kindle. It made clear why they always had a red ribbon at this camp.
Camp Kindle is a camp for children who are infected with or affected with HIV or AIDS. The camp was started by Eva Payne in August 1998. She started the camp when she realized that there were no camps for children whose lives were affected by HIV or AIDS. She wanted to start a summer camp for these children so they could feel like they were not alone and that there are people out there who love and support them. The campís first session was in July 1999 and it was held in Hordville, Nebraska and served 50 campers. Between then and now, Camp Kindle has served more than 1,500 campers.
Camp Kindle means a lot to the children who get to go. Kassidy, my friend and fellow camper, says that the camp lets children with HIV express themselves. ďSome of them donít get to do that often at school, or at home, or at church, because of influences and stigma,Ē she said. Kassidy went to camp with me and has gotten to know people who have been victims of the stereotypes that come along with the virus.
ďCamp Kindle is about spreading education, because a lot of people are uneducated about the disease of HIV and AIDS,Ē says Rockpile, a counselor at the camp. To me, the camp is about many things, but this is one of the main things itís about.
ďUsually when kids go there for the first time, they arenít too happy to be there,Ē said Rockpile, whose real name is Russell Boring. Rockpile was my counselor at the camp. I have to admit that I wasnít very excited to go there my first year. I was going to a place with a bunch of people I had never met before and before I went to camp, I had never really spent a whole entire day without my parents, which scared me a little bit. On my first day, about three summers ago, I was surprised because the campsite wasnít really the way Iíd pictured it in my mind. At the front of the campsite there was a huge cafeteria where we ate, held our camp activities, and had our big end-of-the-week showcase where we showed everybody what we had been doing and the projects we were working on.
When my friend and I were talking about camp, I thought about all the good times I had there. I wish I could go this year too, but thereís a camp rule that once you graduate from your cabin, you have to spend a year away from camp so you can mature and come back the following year as a CIT (counselor in training). I imagined everything I would do up there if I went this year and all the new people I would get to know.
Camp Kindle is important to me because the children who go there always leave with more than they came with. I donít mean material items, although you do leave with some pretty cool things. Rockpile said that the camp helps HIV positive children understand the virus. ďA lot of [the campers] say I know I have it, but I donít understand what it actually means to me,Ē he said. He was right. Before camp, I knew I had it, but I didnít know what it meant. At camp I learned more about what I have and how to manage it.
There are a lot of myths out there about HIV. One is that any kind of physical contact with someone who has HIV or AIDS will cause you to be infected. Another one is that only gay people can get HIV. For anyone who believes this or any others like it, let me tell you now that a lot of them are not true. There are a few different ways to get it. A lot of people get it by having unprotected sex with someone who already has the virus. It can also be caught by using a needle that was used by someone who already has the virus. Children who are born to a mother who has it or are being breast-fed by someone who has it will also get the virus.
I havenít known for all that long about this and there arenít many people I really trust, so I havenít told anyone about my HIV. The only people who know are my family, my doctors, and people at Camp Kindle. Thatís why Iím writing this article under a pseudonym. Since only a few people know about it, Iíve never had to personally deal with discrimination, however, Iíve heard stories of people discriminating against other people with the virus. An example of this is when a school in Pennsylvania denied admission to a kid because he was HIV positive.
At this point, I bet youíre wondering what the point of this article is. The point is that there are many myths out there about HIV and AIDS and there are a lot of people who believe them, so Iím hoping that by reading my story you realize that not everything that people say about them is the real and whole truth.
For me, being HIV positive hasnít been all that bad. I really havenít had it all that hard since it isnít public information and Iíve only had one major health issue that this virus has made worse than it should have been. I do know of people who have had a tough life because of HIV or AIDS, whether itís because of discrimination, or because of health complications that were made worse by the virus.
Studies have shown that the percentage of women in South Africa who pass on the virus to their children has gone down. This is because for the past couple years, South Africans have been investing in ways to fight HIV and AIDS. In fact, 95 percent of the women there are now getting the antiretroviral treatment they need to protect their children. Also, the number of new infections that occurred between 2001 and 2009 dropped by 22 percent. It seems like things in South Africa, as far as preventing HIV and AIDS go, are improving. Unfortunately, the same canít be said for women here in America.
According to a team of US AIDS experts, the yearly number of new HIV cases among black women in Baltimore and some other major US cities is five times higher than originally thought. As a matter of fact, a recent study has shown that the HIV rate among black women in some cities here in the US is as bad as some countries in Africa. Itís unfortunate and sad that HIV is as bad as it is here in America, especially since weíve always been the more developed country. I also feel sad for the children out there who will have the virus and will have to deal with the problems that come with it.
I am one of the 1.1 million people infected with HIV in the US, and one of Fresno Countyís 1,908 total reported cases of HIV. As of March 2011, adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24 years in Fresno County accounted for nearly 20 percent of all HIV cases in the county. Iím one of those adolescents. In 2010, Fresnoís only AIDS clinic closed due to lack of funding. HIV among teens in Fresno canít be ignored, but according to a recent NPR poll, young people donít think having HIV is a big deal. HIV shouldnít be taken lightly, but people should also be careful about spreading harmful stereotypes about the virus.
*In order to protect his privacy the author is using a pseudonym.
This post was originally published by New America Media.
Photo from New America Media