Imagined community: Marissa’s story

For most clients of Pozhet an HIV diagnosis is a shock, something they didn’t expect and aren’t prepared for.

Marissa* is in her twenties and just returned from backpacking around Europe, Africa and Asia. A month later she presents to her local GP with a severe rash and flu-like symptoms. He leafs through medical books about tropical diseases but can’t seem to find a definitive diagnosis and sends her home to rest. He doesn’t ask about her sexual history and doesn’t find out she had a ‘holiday romance’ with a man she met in Thailand.

Eight years later Marissa becomes extremely unwell and is hospitalised. She has never been tested for HIV but a canny physician suggests a test and it returns positive. Her CD4 count is around 100 and her viral load is very high.

By then she has a husband and he tests negative. Marissa is in shock and takes a long time to recover. She has ongoing complications from being diagnosed late but HIV treatment slowly helps her feel better. Her husband is upset and it takes them some time and counselling to work through the issues. They are amazed to find that their service options are limited. There are no support groups for them in regional Australia and services for heterosexuals are based in cities. They attend the local sexual health clinic and meet with a counsellor who tries to put them in touch with another couple a few hours away but the other couple are reluctant to meet. Like Marissa and her partner, they live quietly with HIV and prefer to keep it that way.

After three years of isolation the couple attend a Pozhet Retreat. It is a surreal experience for them to meet others like themselves. Marissa cries as she talks about her feelings of isolation, keeping a big secret and the impact being diagnosed with HIV has had on her self-esteem and her relationship with her husband. Once outgoing and confident, she has withdrawn and stays at home a lot. Coming to the Retreat is a big step for them. Marissa plans to resume her studies and feels a lot better for having met other women with similar stories. Her husband is also relieved to talk with another HIV negative partner about some of the difficulties he faces. The Retreat brings them all closer together and they feel part of a community, albeit small, isolated and spread out across the region.

*not her real name

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