By Shannon Houska
Fellow Katie’s staff, faculty, classmates and friends,
I am sharing the personal story of my HIV diagnosis and the impact it had on my life because I want to help people who feel silenced and shamed to feel encouraged to get the support and assistance they need to lead happier lives. This is the story of how I came to my commitment to co-lead a team of fundraisers for the upcoming Minnesota AIDS Walk 2014.
Silence is deadly.
I remained silent about something that matters too much for a very long time. Keeping silent about my HIV positive status left me to suffer alone, ashamed and without hope. I am unwilling to remain silent about the most important truths any longer.
I am HIV positive.
I was diagnosed when I was 23 years old. It was earth-shattering news to me. I suspected that I was sick, but the final confirmation was unbearable. I remember sitting in downtown Minneapolis at the Red Door Clinic and hearing the news. Two tears fell from my eyes and I chose to hold the rest in. I was embarrassed of myself. I was ashamed. I did not want people in the waiting room of the clinic to see me crying. So I held my emotions inside and walked out of the clinic and pretended that nothing was wrong. In fact, many things were wrong, and my entire life changed for me that day.
I was 23 years old, and the dream of being a wife and mother one day was the dream that had carried me through the darkest times in my childhood and my teens. I gave up on that dream the day that I learned that I was HIV positive. I gave up on myself and many other dreams I had for my future after that. I didn’t tell my family or friends the truth about what was going on with me. I did not tell anyone who loved me that I was sick. I did not let anyone who cared about me know that I was scared. I did not reach out for support or guidance. I remained silent and I kept a deadly secret to myself. I stopped visiting the people who cared about me, stopped answering their calls and started thinking about a way out of my desperate situation. I believed that I had no reason to live any longer. I was depressed. My plan was to end my own life. I collected pills and stockpiled them. I set a date. I wrote goodbye letters.
One person in my life sensed that something was very wrong with me. She showed up at my door demanding to that I let her in and tell her the truth about what was going on with me. I told her about my diagnosis and about my plan to end my own life. I did not believe there was anything that she or anyone else could do or should do to stop me. She saved my life by having me admitted into a psychiatric care unit for 24-hour supervision. The staff at the psychiatric ward took away the strings from my shoes so I would not strangle myself with them. They refused to give me razors to shave my armpits or my legs so that I would not slit my wrists with them. They held me and would not release me until I was willing to begin accepting my diagnosis and reconsidering suicide. When I was finally released, I was not yet a healthy or happy person, and I continued to keep my secret to myself and contemplated suicide as the easiest way out of my suffering.
Years passed, and I searched desperately for some way to make meaning out of what my life had become. I looked for a purpose and for a reason to keep living, and I could not find one for a very long time. Finally, I have found a purpose that far surpasses my regrets or my fears. My purpose gives me hope. It gives me a reason to persevere. I believe I can help people struggling with stigmatized illnesses like HIV or AIDS and encourage others to unload the harmful burden of their silence and their self-imposed shame by sharing my story. I find great comfort in this belief and in my determination to be a voice for people who might be too ashamed to speak up for themselves at this time. Silence can be deadly, but it does not have to be that way.
I am honored to co-lead a team of compassionate women and men raising money for this year’s Minnesota AIDS Walk. Please visit mnaidswalk.org if you would like to join our team, Silence Is Deadly, or make donation by clicking under donations and typing in our team name.
Shannon M. Houska
Shannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.