By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton
“I’ve had a lot of struggles because of the stigma related to HIV. In about 2004, I was charged because of trespassing in the General Hospital. This was when I was still drinking—I don’t even remember any of this. But I was charged because I was in there after hours and was passed out on a chair or something. The security guard asked what I was doing there, and I spat on him. So anyway I was charged for trespassing. Once they found out I was HIV positive, they upgraded the charges to assault causing bodily harm. It’s a really serious charge. Now I’m on a watch list Canada wide because of that. So I was in jail because of this. I was doing five months, trying to fight this. The lawyer said, ‘You might as well plead guilty because this is the best I can do.’ So I pled guilt to this big charge. So I was in jail on this charge because of having HIV and they were denying me my medication because they were waiting for one of their specialists to come and check my blood to make sure that I was in fact HIV positive. Even in jail there was stigma. They separated me from the rest of the population … When I got out, I had a big chip on my shoulder and I thought, ‘This has to change.’ People in jail living with HIV need to have a few more rights than what I was given—medication and proper healthcare.’ So I told my story to a few people and now people in jails have better access to care.”
“It was about 2008. That’s when I started to realize, ‘Well, I’m living now so I need to learn how to live because I don’t know how. Dying is easy, living is hard’ … Then I started to open my mind a little more and see the big picture globally and realize the affect that HIV has on people globally … Wow, it’s staggering and overwhelming, like what the heck can I do? All I can do is what I can do for me. Hopefully what I do for me can help other people, just by example and sharing my story—help others become aware of HIV and the kind of struggles people living with HIV face. I also want to create an awareness that this isn’t going away and it is getting worse. Certainly in the aboriginal population it is increasing. That’s what concerns me the most … I think a big reason why is communication. I’ve been going out and speaking to aboriginal communities. There’s a fear for them because, living in such small communities, they don’t want to be singled out and be shunned. It’s very heavy in the native community. There’s a silence, you can feel it. I wonder why people don’t just talk about it. I think back to my plight when I was first diagnosed with HIV. That was it. I slammed the door onto the world basically—I wouldn’t let anything in and I wouldn’t let anything out. But a human being can’t live that way and we weren’t created that way. We need each other, that’s something I learned through this. I learned about the amount of resources that are available out there to a person who has a disease—thousands of people out there willing to help. I had never seen that before. I saw the other side of life where everybody is taking stuff, so seeing that really gave me hope and made me think I wanted to live again … I just keep feeding my spirit because the rest of me is pretty much gone. But I’m getting healthier. I keep believing that before I die there will be a cure or a better way of treating it. I take four pills a day now, every twelve hours and they kick the shit out of my digestive system. I can’t sleep, no appetite, no energy … Be sure, get tested. It’s free.”
Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
Ross Armstrong was an activist and he wanted life to be better for those living with HIV. After his diagnosis in 1984, he became a part of HIV Edmonton’s (previously the AIDS Network of Edmonton) team and emerged as the public face of AIDS in Edmonton. Ross died on July 1, 1986, two short years after his diagnosis.
The challenges and suffering Ross endured and the courage he displayed during those first years of the local epidemic led HIV Edmonton to name the hub of our agency – the drop-in centre – the Ross Armstrong Centre, which is a safe, caring place for HIV positive individuals to meet, have a cup of coffee, or share a nutritious community meal.
The Ross Armstrong Centre is a constant reminder that HIV is not always the biggest issue that our clients face. The biggest hurdle for most of our clients is accessing what they need to survive – their basic human needs. Our client programs allow us to support and assist our clients during the most chaotic times in their lives and to alleviate some of the struggles that they face on a daily basis – such as securing the 500 calories that are required to take their HIV medications. In order to continue to support our clients in this way, we rely heavily on the generosity of donors.
All money raised during this campaign will go towards supporting our clients who, in addition to living with HIV, struggle to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter and access to health and social services. It would be amazing if we could reach $5,000 by the end of the series. Even if it’s a small amount, please consider donating: http://tilt.tc/U2VI