In observance of World AIDS Day, I wanted to share an interview that I did with Tim'm West about his personal experience with AIDS and how it has affected his life. Read it and govern yourselves accordingly.
Life With AIDS: A Personal Testimony
Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic reared its ugly head back in the 1980’s, society’s knowledge and ability to deal with the disease has increased significantly. But while the overall awareness has increased the numbers of those becoming infected continues to rise, especially among those in the African American community.
According to Avert.org, at the end of 2008 and estimated 33.4 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, and according to YouthAids.org 5,700 people die from it every day. In the face of those staggering statics the question then becomes: Are people just not taking this disease seriously? How do we bridge the gap between providing information and making it effective?
Tim’m West is a 36-year-old man who has been living with HIV for more than ten years, and he has made it his personal mission to help educate about the disease and be a living testimony that there is life after contracting the disease.
I had a chance to speak with West about his personal experience of living with a disease that has no respect of persons and his ability to find hope somewhere in between.
Janaya Black: How old were you when you contracted HIV?
Tim’m West: Probably 26.
JB: How did you contract it?
TW: Unprotected sex.
JB: What emotions did you experience when you found out that you were HIV positive?
TW: Initially…I mean, I’ve been working in the field of HIV/AIDS part-time so I knew a lot about the virus. Being a Black man who had sex with both males and females I was aware of the risks, at least in the gay male community. But, I think when you have a connection to the gay community it’s not so much that it’s not shocking, but it’s not as mind blowing as it might be to some people who just don’t expect it.
So I think you kind of grow up being told that if you practice that behavior or if you decide to be in “that lifestyle”, that you’re going to be more susceptible to HIV/AIDS. Because of some of the health symptoms I was experiencing at the time that I got tested…it was disappointing, but I was somewhat prepared for it when I got the results. It was more or less that I was getting tested to confirm something that I already believed to be true.
JB: Prior to you going to have that test, what were some of the symptoms that you were experiencing?
TW: It was the weight loss. You know, right now I’m a pretty healthy 205 lbs, but I think at that time I was probably 165 lbs but I just thought I was real cut up. So there was some weight loss along with it, but not a whole lot of symptoms. Like my lymph nodes were swelling some but it wasn’t anything really extreme, just things when you’re really attentive to your body you kind of notice.
JB: How have you adapted or conditioned yourself to live with it?
TW: Well, I think you’re faced with a choice when one faces anything about a chronic illness. We often put HIV in a different category but I think this is true for all kinds of diseases. With HIV you can decide that you’re going to just give up and die or you can decide you want to live. And for me it became about a health issue. It became about how people live with it; about what I need to do to make sure I can. There are plenty of thousands of other people who live healthy full lives with HIV. For me, those are the examples I look to.
I had to let go of the shame and the stigma that’s associated with it because people get so caught up in those issues that they don’t take care of themselves. HIV is not treated like cancer. You know, you tell someone they have cancer no one asks anything. They don’t ask if you smoke. They don’t ask how you got it; they just immediately have this out pouring of sympathy. But if you say you have HIV, immediately people want to know how you got it and what you did wrong to get it. And I think that’s a critical difference and it really underscores the degree of stigma around it, which needs to change. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so vocal and visible about my HIV status because I think people need real positive, real life examples of people who decide to beat it.
JB: You mentioned stigma in your personal experience. What kind of stigma, or discriminations, have you come up against with letting people know your status?
TW: There’s some in dating. You know, everyone’s entitled to not date someone who’s HIV positive and not put themselves at risk. But, yeah, there’s some of that in particular. The gay male community is over sensitized to it, but I haven’t found that to be as problematic as people might think. I think a lot of people applaud my courage for being open and honest about it, and I think those are the people that I look to. So, in some ways it’s been a really interesting discriminating tool I’ve used; being open about my HIV status to assess other people's character. You know, how will they respond.
I’ve taught high school in both Washington, D.C. and Oakland, CA urban schools, and in both settings students knew both about my orientation as well as my HIV status and it wasn’t an issue. And I think that part of it is just because I think I present myself in a way that demands respect and I’m known for what I do well and how I do it. So you bring a certain level of professionalism and confidence to your game and I think people just have to respect that.
JB: As far as care goes, what are some of the things that you have to do on a daily basis to maintain good health?
TW: You have to stay with the regimen, and not everybody takes medication. But I didn’t have the fortune of being able to delay treatment, and basically that’s the advantage of getting tested early and always knowing your status; that if you know your status early you may be able to defer treatment for some period of time and that enables you to add a few more years to whatever your life span would be. So I always say always know your test results.
But I’m on the medication. I take my cocktail- they call it a drug cocktail- twice a day. And provided I adhere it, it’s worked for the past 10 years. I’ve never been hospitalized. I get sick like other people get sick. I think that’s one of the things I would say is definitely (say beyond just disclosing, discrimination and dating) one of the pains of living with HIV. If you get a flu it’s a little bit different than when most people get the flu. You wonder the kind of impact it’s going to have on your immune system because it’s already compromised.
JB: What are still some of the most common misconceptions that people have about HIV?
TW: Some of them are quite tragic and sad. I still do work in the field with HIV and AIDS and common ones are that HIV can be spread through contact and through fluids like saliva. Another one is that you can tell when someone is HIV positive. I always enjoy dispelling that one personally. [Another one is] that straight people don’t get it and that all gay men have it.
JB: What are some of the things you’ve been doing to help raise the awareness?
TW: Right now I work for an organization called St. Hope Foundation and they have a drop in center for young African American men ages 16-24. We work there and do a lot of sort of 1-on-1 discussions with young brothers. We try to look at their whole distinct lives, not just attending to the HIV status. We do a lot of testing and just a lot of taking care of the whole person to lead to a point where they don’t have to just deal with HIV. That’s our whole idea is to do prevention based work.
But, I think in my personal life, I’m a rap artist and a spoken word artist, so I’ve integrated a lot of HIV/AIDS messaging in my lyrics and in my poetry. I think that’s been one of the more productive ways I can get some of the messaging across.
JB: In your 10 years of living and dealing with this successfully, what would you say is your biggest personal triumph?
TW: Wow. I can say it simply is that I haven’t given up. I mean it’s tiring- it’s really tiring. I don’t at all mean to give the impression that living with HIV is a cakewalk and I’ve had some trials of late that have been demoralizing. Your medication; when you’re not sure if it’s working anymore and even the reminder of just taking those things every day, and they’re not Flintstones. It’s not just popping pills. They’re medications that have quite toxic effects on the body every time you don’t regulate that kind of thing. So there’s just the exhaustion of it and I think the fact that I get up every day and say, “Hey, I’m going to fight again today because I believe I’m worth it."
JB: What would you say to someone, especially the Black community, about the importance of getting tested?
TW: What I always say about that is getting tested is a win-win situation. There’s a saying that what you don’t know won’t hurt you, and with HIV that’s just completely the opposite. What you don’t know can kill you and put others at risk. So if you get tested and you’re negative, great. You have an opportunity to recommit to safe practices, better behavior and that’s a good thing. If you get tested and you’re positive then you know about what’s going on in your body and you can start to get the care you need to lead a productive and a good life. So we need to know what our statues are so we can take care of ourselves. HIV/AIDS is as big a threat now as it ever was. The only difference is that now, in this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for ignorance. So don’t wait, get tested and know your status.
For more information on HIV/AID or to find a testing location in your area, please visit www.hivtest.org.
For more information on Tim'm West, please visit www.reddirt.biz.
Visit me at black-smithenterprises.com or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/janayablack.