When I was a child, 5 or 6 years old, we lived on the banks of the Tennessee River. I couldn’t swim so I had to wear a life jacket anytime I wanted to go by the water. One night my dad and some friends were fishing on the dock and I was with them. I was wearing my life jacket, but for whatever reason I can no longer remember, I chose to take it off. I was watching the adults fish and probably walking too close around them cause someone bumped into me and I fell into the water. My dad jumped in after me and saved me. I was choking on water and scared. I know it scared my parents too, and they were angry that I took off my life jacket and it brought up the whole issue of me learning to swim. Living on the river, it’s important to know how to swim. This night highlighted that fact for my parents and my mom wanted my dad to teach me how. So one day my dad took me by the river with him, we walked onto the very dock that I had fallen from, and he explained to me that I needed to learn to swim. “Don’t be afraid, I’ll be right here,” he said “but the only way I know how to teach you is the same way I was taught.”... then he threw me in the water. Of course, panic immediately set in, and I kicked and paddled like my life depended on it, lol. And I realized something, my head was above water, I was swimming. I was so excited that I could swim, even if it was only doggy paddling, but I no longer feared the water, I loved it. Don’t judge my dad too harshly, this wasn’t an uncommon practice in the old school South. I know one thing, sometimes when you’re not given a choice, you learn real quick what you can do.
This story comes to mind when I think about my life in advocacy. Just two years ago, I knew nothing about advocacy. I sat on the riverside of life and knew nothing about this world of activism. I lived safe in my life jacket, taking care of myself, dealing with my own issues, and content to do so. Then I met the women of the Positive Women’s Network-USA and realized, I wanted to learn how to swim. This was 2016 when I met these amazing women. I was inspired by the work they did and I knew I wanted to get involved, so I threw myself in the river. I dove in head first. After going home, I signed up to join the Community Advisory Board of my local ASO (AIDS Service Organization), then I was offered the opportunity to sit on the Alabama HIV Prevention and Care Planning Committee, then I was accepted to join the PWN Policy Fellowship--all of this happened within two months time. It all seemed to happen so fast. Around this same time, my wife of 23 years decided to divorce me, my kids stopped talking to me, and much of my family disowned me; I was just getting into advocacy while my home life was falling apart. I felt like I was drowning, I felt that sense of panic, that sense that I was in over my head, but I refused to go under. The waves in my life were boisterous and at times I didn’t know if I could make it, but I continued to kick and paddle and something happened, I realized that I could do this, somehow, I was keeping my head above water. A year later I joined iAdvocate (an advocacy group with Thrive Alabama), started three educational Facebook groups, I started blogging for The Well Project, became the PWN Alabama State Lead and a U=U ambassador. And now I’m working on building the first PWN regional chapter for the state of Alabama, and am training to be an official member spokesperson for PWN-USA. I keep throwing myself out into the deep, having no idea what lies ahead lol, and it’s not easy to swallow your fear and insecurities and have faith in your ability to do something that you’ve never done before, or survive hardships and misfortune that challenge every fiber of our beings, but like I said, when you’re thrown out of your comfort level you discover strength within yourself you didn’t know you had or think possible.
I’ve gone through turbulent times when the waves of life seemed too much for me, but I refused to give up, I’ve dove head first into advocacy endeavors I had no experience in, but I didn’t let that stop me from trying. They say that if you go out on a limb, you may discover that you can fly… well, my experience has been more like fins than wings but whatever, lol. Flying would be easy, it would be fun, but swimming takes work, a deliberate effort and a firm desire to not go under, and that’s been my experience. When things get tough you have to make a deliberate effort and have a firm desire to not give up. If you do, you’ll be surprised what you find within you.