FOR Neil Ward, the chance to share his experience with HIV to an international online audience was a cathartic one.
“It gave me an opportunity to really confront my past demons and deal with them once and for all,” the Brisbane resident (pictured above) said.
“It also then made me realise how strong I am now and how much I needed to share my story to help others’ who have gone through, and will go through the same.”
Ward, 41, who has lived with HIV since he was diagnosed in August 2001, is one of the many human faces and stories in a series of online videos tacking HIV stigma while raising awareness and the need for prevention. The videos are authorised by the HIV Foundation Queensland, and were produced in conjunction with MediaCom and directed by Mikey Trotter.
“After the interview had been completed and I was laying in bed that night, it opened up old wounds that I thought I had no issues with, however the pain and feelings of that period came flooding back,” Ward recalled.
“I remembered the person I was… how rock bottom I’d hit at the time, how sad I was, how isolated I was.
“I put my hand up to participate in the documentary because I consider myself very lucky. I am very healthy, I have the support and love of everyone in my life.
“I am sure that I am not the only person living with HIV that became infected through rape, and I wanted to let others know that you don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed like I did. Not everyone gets to make the decision whether or not to take calculated risks during sex… I didn’t.”
Ward said there were even some people who didn’t know he was living with HIV, but he had reached a point in his life where he was happy to be open about it in order to help others.
“I posted (the video) on my Facebook so that people weren’t blind-sided by seeing the documentary without knowing I was in it,” he said.
“One of the main things that my experience with filming the documentary did for me, was enable me to realise that I don’t have to hide in the shadows anymore.
“That it’s ok to be me, it’s ok to be living with HIV. I am no threat to anyone and that I am blessed to be surrounded by people who are educated about HIV. It has opened up dialogue with people who didn’t know I was positive and enabled me to share with them. It has given me the courage to live an open full life.”
Ward also recalled the shock and harrowing experience he had when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2001.
“The world stopped and I was looking at my GP – seeing her lips move but not hearing anything after she told me my results were confirmed positive,” he recalled.
“That night I walked through the streets of Melbourne in the rain, lost, crying. Over the coming weeks I spiralled into a depression feeling alone and that I couldn’t turn to anyone for help. Eventually I overdosed on alcohol and pills. Fortunately thanks to a friend overseas that I was chatting to on MSN at the time realised something was up and called the emergency services who came and resuscitated me.
“Once I was released from hospital, a friend took me in and I moved interstate and lived with her for a year while I started rebuilding my life and coming to terms with my diagnosis. I eventually reached out for help from Queensland Aids Council and starting working with a psychologist.
“Many years later, I am now a pillar of strength. My life is not particularly affected by HIV except that I have to take three tablets at night, and have quarterly blood tests. Everyone in my life knows that I am positive and it makes no difference. It holds no bearing on any of my relationships. It is a chronic disease that I manage by taking good care of myself.”
Ward believed there was a misconception that HIV was a “gay” disease.
“It simply is not. It affects human beings: Men, women and children. It is every person’s responsibility to protect themselves from contracting it.
“People living with HIV look like any other person…we live normal everyday lives…we contribute to society.”