I am 28. White. A Female. And a former Peace Corps Volunteer. I am HIV Positive. This is my story of how a few months, a few people, and a few events in Zambia changed me and my life forever. This is the story of how I contracted HIV and brought my Peace Corps Journey to a crashing halt... and how I am working now to pick up and put back together the pieces of my life as a newly diagnosed person living with HIV. This was not the journey I had originally planned... my path has traumatically and dramatically changed... but it is the one I am on now. There is no going back. There is only forward. I welcome you to follow along with me as I attempt to explore this new life ahead of me, whether you are someone from the Peace Corps community, or someone living with HIV. I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions, and opinions. Let us go forward together. To start from the beginning, click here He Gave Me More Than A Bracelet.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


So, a few weeks ago, an intern from the Stigma Action Network contacted me and asked if I would be interested in writing a guest blog entry for their website. I immediately said yes, and she asked if I could focus on anything that I've experienced so far, internally or externally, which I have felt was stigmatizing. So, I worked on writing something, and my response came in the form of a poem (yeah, I don't know when I decide all the sudden that I'm going to attempt to be a poet lol). My poem about stigma was posted on the Stigma Action Network's blog 2 days ago, but I will also post it here for my readers. Please check out their blog after reading here!

I want to preface this by saying, please read this objectively. Know that I simply wrote honestly and truthfully about what I've experienced so far. I do not intend to offend or hurt anyone in doing so. Please know that just because I have mentioned something or someone here does not mean that I am upset or angry with them. I know that most of this stuff is/was never intentional or meant to be hurtful. But, it did happen. It was said. Stigma is around us, whether intentional or not.

Stigma is not just one thing.
Stigma is many things.
It comes in the form of words, thoughts, actions, attitudes, looks, and in my own imagination.
Stigma may be different for you than it is for me.

Stigma is when your uncle says, “Hmmm… I didn’t think we had those kind of people around here”.
When your grandmothers says, “Oh, bi-sexual ones are the worst! They just spread it to everyone!”
When your sister says, “Oh my gosh. I would freak out if my kid’s babysitter had HIV!”

Stigma is when your family and friends suddenly think you are sickly and weaker than everyone else…
“Oh that is a long day… you must be tired.”
“Are you sure you can handle doing that?”
“Oh, you just can’t get up early in the morning anymore.”
“No, we can’t come over if ****** has a cold… we wouldn’t want Jessica to get sick.”

Stigma is when you have to lie or hide things from people out of fear of their reactions.
When you awkwardly have to come up with an excuse during job interviews about why you got sick and had to leave your previous job.
When you have to cover your tracks and delete your browsing history lest your employer find out that you have HIV.
When you must hide your last name from social networking sites so that Google and the whole world can’t find out your secret.

Stigma is when, no matter your level of education, people suddenly see you as stupid and lesser of a person.
When they repeatedly ask you, “How could you have been so stupid to make those mistakes?”
When they assume you must have either been raped or be a drug user or a prostitute.
When a pharmacist or doctor looks and talks down to you.

Stigma is when you see a parent slightly cringe when their child puts his fingers near or in your mouth.
When you notice the startled look on an old friend’s face when you reach to take a sip from his drink.
When someone wonders if they must warn a family friend of your status before bringing you to visit that person’s house.
When people don’t say anything at all because they feel it is awkward or taboo to talk about.

Stigma is when you feel ashamed for being a sexual person.
When you refrain from flirting with someone because you assume it would be a waste of time and just later lead to rejection.
When 67% of people say on a poll that they probably wouldn’t be willing to date you.

Stigma is when you feel guilty for your past choice(s).
When you feel you will always have to attempt to prove yourself and make up for it now.
When the world thinks they know you just because of those 3 letters. H-I-V.
When they don’t care who or what you were before or what you will be after- to them you will always just be HIV.

This is stigma for me.
The little things, whether intentional or not.
The looks, the words, the thoughts, the attitudes.
Most of it stems from fear and a lack of knowledge.
Some of it is just inside me.
I don’t know if it will ever be gone.
It is just there,
And maybe it always will be.


  1. your poem is so clear and honest, it's wonderful. I have often wondered/worried if I unintentionally do or say things that are perceived as stigma to my HIV-positive friends, but I'm also always hesitant to ask them because I don't want them to think I only think of them as HIV-positive. your poem gives me a little more insight and things to think about, so thank you. keep up with what you're doing, you're a real inspiration.

  2. wow jess. this was really amazing in its level of honesty. it definitely provoked some self-reflection on my part and my actions with people around me.
    thanks for sharing.

  3. I enjoyed your poem Jessica. I thought it was very honest. I am going to check out the other blog.

  4. I love that you've pointed out the more subtle forms of stigma - I feel like those are often overlooked but I imagine they can hurt far worse than overt discrimination. Once again, kudos for your honesty!

    I found this article on the Atlantic that I thought you would find interesting.


  5. I love this poem! It's chilling-to-the-bone brutally honest and incredibly personal. Maybe you should become a poet after all :) I've been a loyal fan of your blog for quite some time but this is my first comment. Pardon for being incognito. I think you are a very strong and driven person. Keep on opening people's eyes about HIV, the world needs to know the truth.

  6. Jess - this post prompted me to write to you about that survey you posted - would you date someone who's HIV+. I answered that survey with a "no", but I think the question itself is out of context, which skews your results if you are taking it personally. My reasoning for answering no wasn't just because of HIV, but more related to the fact that I wouldn't knowingly choose the more difficult, challenging course over a more easy path. You could have included other challenges - would you date someone in a wheelchair? would you date someone who's infertile? would you date someone with 6 children? with cancer? alcoholic? who lives in a different state? Some people have larger capacity than others to overlook, or take on challenging situations. I think, if you are trying to determine if HIV is the deciding factor, you'd have to include some of these other "challenges" and see who answers no to only HIV.