Chapter one: Positive voices
Part I: The joke that changed her life
"I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today." William Allen White
These simple words uttered by a renowned journalist, author, politician and the leader of the Progressive Movement in the United States, underline the courage, determination and strong will of people whose life stories have been narrated in this book.
They are young and creative. They had been living normal happy lives bubbling with joy before one fine morning a simple blood test changed their status. From negative, they became positive. For a moment life lost all meaning to them.
A bit of struggle with their internal world and the external surroundings, and they finally emerged winners. Their positive attitude overpowered their positive blood. They stood up to embrace their lives with fresh vigour.
They have been witness to various shades of life - from vibrant hues to shades of grey. They could either succumb to fear and weakness or fight back. What they were left was a bright hope and a strong will to look forward and reclaim their lives, and they did it. Today they stand strong and beautiful as inspiration to many others while they narrate their stories to be shared with the world.
NOTE: A few of the story narrations mention the real names of people, which have been used with their consent. Other narrations carry fictitious names to protect their identity. Any resemblance to actual persons, incidents or situations is purely coincidental.
The joke that changed her life
After donating blood for the colleague who was admitted in the hospital Chong Kinley [fictitious name] came back to her office and jokingly told her colleagues, "I have donated my blood but that's a waste. I am HIV positive!"
Two days later, she got a call from the Public Health Officer. He asked her for another blood screening as the first report was not clear. Chong went to see the officer, who gently asked her, "What if I tell you that you are HIV positive?"
The question was straight and it made its impact.
"I was numb. Although I had always feared of having caught the infection by the man I lost my virginity to, there was part of me which said nothing would happen to me. Therefore, when I was tested positive the news came to me as a shock."
After breaking the news, the officer was now talking to her, asking questions like what she knew about the infection, CD4 count, treatment etc. Though physically present before the health officer, Chong's mind had wandered to a different time zone. Nothing was actually getting registered in her brain.
"At that moment I was only thinking about my aunt, who was waiting outside for me. I did not want her to start getting ideas if I took unusually long to come out." The year was 2006.
A giggly young girl, Chong normally jokes about everything. Her wholehearted laughter is infectious. But that day she was unusually quiet. The family went for a picnic the next day and there she had a fight with the park caretaker, an unusual occurrence for Chong. She skipped office on Monday on an excuse that she was having heavy menstruation and a bad backache.
There was turbulence inside her, for she was unable to share the burden of that heavy news with anyone. The best way out was to run away from it. "I did not want to see the counsellor. Every time he called me I either switched off my phone or put it on silent."
Gradually the reality sank in and Chong resumed her normal life. For four years she carried on without sharing with anyone the secret embedded deep in her heart. One day she fell ill. That was the time Chong confided in her youngest sister among her five siblings. Her sister accepted it with a mature understanding and kept the news a secret.
"My parents are uneducated. For them HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, which infects only sex workers. They would not be able to take it that their own daughter is HIV positive. But that does not mean I will never tell them. I have plans to reveal my status to them after my two elder brothers are settled", says Chong.
Sharing her life's journey, the bubbly girl Chong (now 26 year old) recalls that past incident, which created doubts in her to have got infected by the virus. "After a week of having physical contact with my first boy friend, I was diagnosed with a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). When the doctor asked me if I had had sex with someone, I declined. I was only 18 then. But I had misgivings as that man was casual about sex, used to visit Bangkok frequently and we did not use any protection. Despite my doubts, there was a wishful thinking that I might not have contracted the infection as we were together only once." She was not a sexually active girl.
It was hard for Chong to believe that a bluff played by her would have such serious implications in her own life. It took time for the jovial girl to get back to her life and laughter. What helped her most was a meeting with other positive people in 2009. The meeting changed her life. Now she goes to the health centre for regular check-ups and to collect medicines. Her job is carrying on well.
Chong is also keenly involved in indirect advocacy, since her colleagues and friends are not aware of her status. "I continuously keep talking with my friends about HIV infection and persuade them to practice safe sex. Sometimes they question as to why I always talk of HIV. I jokingly tell them that I am HIV positive and that's the reason I talk about it."
Moving on with life, and on advice of her sister, Chong is mulling over the idea of adopting a child now, and making her life complete.