I have just returned from the great metropolis of London where along with an amazing and diverse group of other positive men and women we underwent training to be part of The People Living with HIV Stigma Index: UK Initiative 2009. This is a new and exciting research and advocacy initiative that is by and for people living with HIV and which will generate evidence that can better inform and improve policy and practice to address HIV related stigma in the UK. I certainly believe that by reducing stigma we can be one step nearer in our fight against HIV/AIDS and it is one of the foremost hurdles to overcome – that is why I continue to speak out and also why I write this blog.
The training was very intense and it was great to be with other positive people from all over the UK and from all walks of life who are totally committed to the cause of reducing stigma. The hotel some of us were staying in was close to Tower Bridge an area steeped with history and tradition, so I arrived early the day before the training was due to commence in order to do some sightseeing. Aside from the intense training there was also quite a lot of intense bonding and social activity going on and on the second night a few of us decided to venture out of the hotel for dinner. We wandered along Tower Bridge Road looking for a cheap eating establishment, but what with Veritee’s leg problems and pink flowered stick, my wonky hip and poor Sue’s ‘nueropathetic’ feet caused by the meds, we weren’t able to venture very far. Obviously money as always was the deciding factor so our first stop was a handy Wetherspoons pub, only to find they’d run out of everything including bread. The vacant looking bloke behind the bar who possessed little or no English shook his uncomprehending head as we tried to place our orders.
“No chips?” unbelievable, we looked at each other aghast, “Jacket potatoes?
“What no spuds in any shape or form?”
“Garlic bread then?”
What kind of joint was this – no cheeps, no jackets, no breed – maybe he was referring to us and Wetherspoons had suddenly adopted a smart dress code, but although we weren’t exactly wearing jackeets as such, we were hardly dishevelled looking, even if we had become slightly unruly by this time being deprived of our national staple diet of carbohydrates. Before we were physically evicted we marched out of our own accord, on our dignity, with Veritee waving her pink flowered stick and crossed the death defying road to an Italian restaurant, which looked decidedly scruffy from the outside but in this case appearances were deceptive, because inside it was immaculate. Glasses sparkled on the starched white tablecloths; attentive not to mention handsome Italian waiters adorned in silk waistcoats hovered at our elbows eager to attend to our every need. The owner informed us that normally we would need a reservation but tonight we were in luck as he could squeeze us lovely ladies in. And it was true, we congratulated ourselves, we were indeed in luck because the homemade pasta was delicious and so was the house wine, which we made very short work of, and we were nattering away, as you do, when an ominous smell of burning became embarrassingly evident in our direct vicinity.
“Can anyone smell burning,” I looked around. “Must be coming from the kitchen,” we decided and carried on nattering. But the smell was getting stronger and stronger and it was then that we noticed that Veritee’s huge linen napkin was on fire – and not only on fire but ablaze with magnificent blue and orange flames. Completely unphased Veritee grabbed what was now the huge ball of fire and extinguished it with her bare hands and carried on talking. At least we thought she’d extinguished it, but it must have been a good half an hour later when the owner, who was now heralding in group of very posh customers to their table, which was right next to ours, began wafting his refined Italian nose around and sniffing the air over our heads like the Bisto kid in that old Bisto advert, trying to identify where the odious smell was coming from.
The odious smell was in fact issuing from Veritee’s huge handbag under the table where the smouldering napkin had decided to relight itself, like one of those birthday candles that refuses to go out and was now in immediate danger of setting fire to the tablecloth, if not the whole restaurant and rewriting history by setting off the next Great Fire of London. Veritee quickly skulked past the owner clutching her smouldering bag to the downstairs loo where she got rid of the incendiary evidence in a sanitary towel disposal bin. We refrained from ordering desserts and quickly took our leave. Apparently the major conflagration of 1666 started at a bakery in Pudding Lane so maybe it’s a good job we left before ordering a pud before the place burnt down. Talk about London’s burning – call the engines – call the engines – fire fire – fire fire – pour on water – pour on water.
Didn’t hear anything about any Italian restaurants burning down on the local news but did hear that the lift in Tower Bridge, the one I almost went in the day before on my sight seeing trip, had suddenly plummeted to the ground injuring quite a few Spanish tourists who were left with broken legs and ankles. I suggested we all took a ride on the Ghost Bus the next night, but everyone was too knackered after the training and in view of what happened to the lift, maybe it was a good thing – although we could have become ghost-bus-ters.
I was actually sorry when the training came to an end and we were all reluctantly forced to say goodbye. We decided we would stay in touch by forming a group on Face Book. Some names were bandied around and Mark came up with ‘Riddled’ as in riddled with it, which then became ‘Stiggled’ to incorporate the word stigma.
I didn’t want to get off the Virgin train and return to the problems of my day to day and family life. I wanted to ride around forever passing through town to town like some kind of ghost train as opposed to ghost bus. Anyway, my feet were killing me after all that walking which made me think me in regard to the old women’s lib joke of why should there be more women train drivers – a woman’s right to choo choose, that it could be adapted considering my aching feet to shoe shoes, or choo choos in relation to Jimmy Choo.
There was a nice man sitting opposite me on the train and I started fantasising about how comforting it would be to have someone like that to come home to – a safe, respectable man with a good job who would look after me, love me even. Most people with HIV I have noted, including me, are desperately lonely and would love a significant other who would accept us for what and who we are and not reject us because of what we have. One of the African girls on the training course mentioned that she would like to marry a British farmer. I have heard this (I won’t say burning in lieu of the flaming napkin episode) desire expressed before from one of the African ladies in my ‘hivine’ group and I have rather optimistically promised to try to find her one. I do believe there is a website with farmers looking for wives, a bit like the old nursery rhyme- the farmer wants a wife, eee eye addy oh the farmer wants a wife, but I have yet to check it out.
Maybe I should start a dating agency here on my website I offered, farmers or otherwise. Sue suggested that as my surname is Seed I should call it seedydating.com. So watch this space, although the seedy reference might encourage gardeners as well as farmers. Oh well, the more the merrier as long as it doesn’t encourage seedy types of a more deviant nature.
The classic moment of the training and the whole weekend for me, apart from Veritee nearly causing the next major conflagration of London, was when she suggested to the woman from the Ministry of Health who was giving us a PowerPoint presentation on the rising statistics of HIV and offering up the advice that if people were concerned that they might be positive they should go for a test, asked her outright if she’d ever had one and if not she should. You should have seen her face. I added that people should go for a test even if they didn’t think they were positive. It was interesting to note that the oldest people in our training group had all nearly died from undiagnosed HIV – so hiviners take note. If you are in doubt and even if you are not – don’t be put off by the stigma associated with taking an HIV test. Fighting HIV related stigma is what this blog and what the research project we are about to embark upon is all about.
I am trying to calm myself after having had a very heated argument, which once again reverts back to stigma, about counsellors who are HIV positive not being able to counsel another person with HIV because their own issues would get in the way. To me that is like saying that a gay person cannot counsel another gay person, or a person who has cancer cannot counsel a person who also has cancer.
I would really appreciate other people’s thoughts on this issue or am I alone in thinking that it takes one to know one.
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