“For me, talking about it [HIV] is therapy.”
– Sanaa, diagnosed with HIV in 2012
When she arrived in Australia from Zimbabwe in 2012, Sanaa begun forming hard, ball-shaped lumps in her underarms. Initially, she thought it was due to the deodorant she was using, but they turned out to be abscesses and quickly became septic, resulting in a visit to Armidale Hospital’s Emergency Department.
When medical staff asked to do a HIV test on Sanaa, she thought nothing of it.
“I said ‘yes, go ahead’, as I wasn’t expecting that to be what was wrong, so I was very shocked when the result came back positive for HIV,” she says. “At the time, I was living alone in an isolated, regional community and my family – my community – were so far away in my homeland.”
No matter the distance, Sanaa confides that even if her family had been nearby, she still would not have disclosed her diagnosis at that time, as she herself took a long time to get used to the idea of being HIV positive.
For Sanaa, self-caring had to come before sharing.
“It wasn’t until a year after I was diagnosed that I chose to tell anyone about my situation, and even when I did, very few people knew and do to this day,” she explains.
“Part of this was me in denial. My news was something I kept within me – the early stage of knowing was not easy; I would think about it every night. Then, there was and is still a disclosure issue due to my African background.”
Playing heavily on Sanaa’s mind was the impact her disclosure would have on her family.
“Disclosure in my community is not an individualistic action. Because we have such a strong communal approach to how we live, you must consider the impact your disclosure will have on your community. You must ask yourself, ‘what will this mean for the people around me?’” she explains.
Sanaa’s concern was certainly a founded one; just before she came out to Australia, Sanaa had lost her sister to HIV and she was worried disclosing her own diagnosis would open those healing wounds for her mother. She also thought about her own children, now adults, and whether they would understand, accept and continue to include her in their lives.
“The first person I told was my eldest daughter. A week after I told her, she phoned me and explained she had been quiet because she was trying to get used to the idea and that she had since thought about it, and decided she wouldn’t judge me and that she would support me with anything I needed.”
For a long time, Sanaa’s eldest daughter was the only person who knew her ‘secret’, even when she returned to Zimbabwe to visit her and the rest of her family.
“It was a huge relief to have my daughter support me with my HIV diagnosis, as I was raised believing that if someone judged me, they would abandon me.
“When my younger daughter had completed her university studies, I chose to tell her my status, but she already knew. She has seen me taking my antiretrovirals and Googled it for herself. I am yet to tell my son,” Sanaa adds.
Years on, sharing has become Sanaa’s strongest support mechanism.
While it was challenging for Sanaa to maintain the privacy of her status in a small town early on, her doctor connected her with a social worker, and he encouraged her to find comfort in others experiencing what she was.
“The first time I attended a social gathering with a HIV network, I was worried I would be judged, but coming out, I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. When I look back now, I am not the person that I was then and those social events really helped me build my resilience,” she says.
“HIV has taught me to be more open, to be less judgemental and the importance of building my own resilience. I learnt to be resilient by taking home the lived experiences of people who have gone on this journey before me – some for over 20 years! I look at those people, knowing I am less than 10 years into my journey, and I am happy knowing there is so much ahead of me.”
Sanaa knows she might not be able to take away other peoples’ fears, but she is proud to use herself as a living example of someone who has gone through what others are just starting to go through.
She says: “No matter how bad a situation has been, each one of us has a positive story to tell and it’s this positivity that keeps each of us going, and that lives on for others needing something to hold up as hope. For me, talking about it is therapy.”