AIDS Awareness Month: a Poignant, Personal Experience

Alicia Edmonson

I remember when I found out that a close family member of mine was HIV positive. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1999. My mom had cooked an amazing dinner as usual. Post dinner, everyone settled in for conversation and television. My dad was nowhere to be found. After much searching, I found him outside on the front stoop talking to our family member. Now, emotional comfort and support is not one of my father’s strong areas, so when I saw my father comforting this family member, I realized it was serious.

The evening continued, and family trickled out to their homes. It was at this time my Dad told us that our family member was HIV positive, and had been since 1995. I come from a very accepting family, primarily because of my mother. My father grew up in rural Missouri and was much slower to progress his mindset.

In years that followed, we continued to host holiday dinners, the family continued to attend, but the tension that permeated the air and infiltrated hearts anytime this particular family member enjoyed his share of our holiday meal or took a drink from his glass was transparent. My parents continued to treat him as they always had, and my sister and I followed their example. Fast forward to present day, and his HIV status is an afterthought. It took time, but our family is closer than ever.

I was taught about HIV and AIDS in the 1990s when the preferred method of deterring a potential diagnosis was fear. They thought if they scared us enough then we’d never contract the virus. What they actually did was leave an entire generation believing  they would contract the virus from kissing and toilet seats. We still saw HIV and AIDS as an automatic death sentence which was accompanied by the requisite shunning from society.

When the stories of people like Ryan White and Magic Johnson came to light, we began to realize that this wasn’t a disease that only happened in the LGBTQ community, like we’d been told. This wasn’t a “lifestyle” disease. This was a disease that touched communities everywhere. It is my opinion that as more and more influential people came out as activists who promoted actual education about the disease, the heavy and stifling stigma of the disease began to lift. Focus began to shift from attacking those diagnosed with the virus to attacking the virus itself.

Currently, individuals with HIV or AIDS who are receiving treatment have a life expectancy close to that of the average individual not affected with the disease. There are support groups, dating sites, and continuing advancements in the management of the disease.

Things have changed. What did you learn about AIDs and HIV as a child? How has your understanding changed as an adult? How do you feel like we should all educate our children about AIDs? Discuss below.