I guess I realised there are challenges in life from a young age. My dad died suddenly when I was a child – a heart attack when he was just 34 years of age shattered my young life but also, I now believe, gave me the tools I would later use to come to terms with my HIV diagnosis.
I was a young graduate just out of university when, in 1991 at the age of 22, I was told I was HIV positive. I’d been a teenager in the 1980s and had grown up in rural England believing that AIDS and HIV would not affect someone like me – how naïve and wrong I was to think that way.
My diagnosis changed everything. From being on the cusp of my adult life, all my future plans, hopes and dreams suddenly seemed unobtainable – I was given a death sentence (or so I thought back then). I got thrown into this new reality of hospital appointments, support groups, counselling, illness, and death. It could have been completely overwhelming but from very early on I was determined to find a path through the darkness.
Body & Soul didn’t exist when I was diagnosed but its origins were formed from the Women and Children’s Group which I helped to establish at Body Positive in London. I remember the first meeting with Anita Roddick [founder of The Body Shop] that Emma Colyer [founder and director of Body & Soul] and I attended where we outlined our vision for what would become Body & Soul. From those seeds the organisation that supports so many today was formed.
I did not know how I would find the inner strength to carry on at times, but the flickers of hope and determination I saw in others living with HIV were enough to light the flame within me. Through my voluntary work at Body Positive I got a job working in local government. That 3 month contact turned into 10 years’ service for the council.
After my first decade of living with HIV I was still alive (at diagnosis I was told I might only live 10 years) and decided that I would take a different path – I left my job to set up my own business. It was a leap of faith to leave but if living with HIV had taught me anything to that point it was that you had to seize the moment and not let fear hold you back. My old school motto, carpe diem, couldn’t have been more appropriate. My decision turned out to be the making of the person I am today.
Through all the hurdles that HIV has put in front of me – the death of my partner, rejection from my mother, the cumulative grief of all those lives lost to AIDS, my own spells in hospital – I was unwavering in my belief that I could carry on. That belief has got me to where I am today, ready to face my next challenge: running the London Marathon for Body & Soul in 2017 – 26 miles for my 26th year of living with HIV. It is a daunting prospect but as a long term survivor I relish the opportunity to prove to myself and others that whatever traumas you may experience in life, it doesn’t have to be a barrier to reaching your full potential and crossing the finishing line with a smile.