I saw a posting today calling for artists to work with scientists in collaboration to have art reflect the process of the science of HIV for a conference. It's a cool idea on several levels. It's only open to people who are living with HIV so it's not only an opportunity for artists' works to be seen, but it also gives an opportunity for the science of HIV to intersect with the humanity of HIV and I talk about that often in work and blogs. Here is a link to last years'. That's not what this is about though, lol. Not completely anyway.
As a nurse working in HIV, an advocate working for and with different HIV organizations, and as a woman living with HIV, the virus is everywhere for me. Aside from the overarching aspect of living with HIV, HIV also lives with me. It's how I pay bills, how I serve my patients and how I give back to my community. Sometimes, those intersections get heavy. I never expected to eat, sleep, and breathe HIV after my diagnosis. I am certain that most of you can identify with all of the stages we go (and grow) through in becoming comfortable and accepting of our HIV status. It's never really a straight line, is it? We can be good for months, completely unbothered, and bam! Some random act of stigma puts you in a negative headspace, or dating goes wrong, or a health issue takes you left, and you have to reroute and reset.
One thing I have struggled with off and on is how to separate from HIV since I started doing this work. By separate, I mean give myself mental distance from thinking about HIV all the time. Not to mention the fact that there is general life to do outside of medications and doctor visits. Family, relationships, politics, life is gonna life! I love advocacy but sometimes it takes a toll. Call it a brain break, a spiritual separation, or an emotional escape—I've learned they are critical to mental health. The best euphemism I can compare it to is burning the candle from both ends. That's why this blog started to form in my head after seeing the posting I mentioned above. My specific thought was that art therapy (creating things for the spirit and self-expression) is ART therapy (therapy from taking antiretroviral medication). Language is such a pain sometimes, but amusing at others because art and ART are vastly different by definition, but both mean so much to our health and peace of mind.
ART therapy of the antiretroviral kind is a specific thing, right? Taking meds to stay healthy. Talk about a love-hate relationship! For me anyway. Our feelings about our medications are as varied as there are options for us to take. When I talk about ART therapy, it's a small way to encompass everything that comes with living with HIV. The medication is just one aspect, a physical manifestation and action we do to manage what HIV is in our lives. I can hold space for those of you who don't struggle with meds and for whom they bring a feeling of safety and security. That's a beautiful thing. For others though? It may be hard to remember to take them, they may make you feel poorly, or cause angst because you don't want folks to see them and ask what they are for. Or maybe, like me, it's a bit resentment over having to take them. Whatever the case, ART therapy has its role in the healthy mind/body/spirit spectrum. It keeps the virus at bay, the inflammation down and helps the body recover. Antiretroviral adherence and being undetectable can make us feel healthier overall, and it does feel great to know U=U means you can have sex without fear of transmission. (I think sex is an art form with beauty too, like Karma Sutra!)
Art of the creative kind comes in many versions. Painting, sculpting, making things, even dance or yoga can be a form of art. The beauty of art is that you can make it your own and do so many things with it. I have been making jewelry for a long time and picked up painting last year. I like them both for different reasons. I absolutely love seeing someone wearing a pair of earrings I made or having them tell me they got a compliment wearing them. It's also a small side hustle I can make a little extra money at 😉. Painting, while different, is another thing I can sit and do for hours. I'm not an artist by any means, but I can paint what I see. It may not be as good as the original, but it settles my mind, stops my head and heart from racing and gives my body all the little breaks I was talking about. Painting reminds me that comparison to others is the thief of joy, and that even the things we think are imperfect are part of why we recognize beauty. Jewelry lets me make something pretty and then give it to another person to enjoy. Personal art, the art you create and share is a way for you to see yourself not reflected in mirrors.
I hope you find art in your life. Don't be scared to try something new. It doesn't have to be perfect to be just right. If not art, some hobby or venture that allows you to be in a moment that is not tied to HIV, or responsibility to anyone but yourself. Take a brain break.