We’re breathing together. We’re alive. Did you know today is a gift? That’s why we call it the present. The easiest thing we can do to transform fear is to stop, and breathe. When we breathe in slowly and mindfully, we nourish our bodies, minds, and spirits.
My name is Vasilios. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church, in North Carolina. My name, Vasilios, means ‘kingdom’ in Greek. It comes from the same root as the word basilica, or holy temple. If my body is a temple, then everything living in it must be made sacred… including, in my case, HIV.
I became HIV-positive when I was 19, through unprotected anal sex. The short story is that I was hooking up with people I had just met at a group scene and somebody slipped me a drug. When I woke up from the fog, I realized I had been taken advantage of by multiple people without my consent. It took me 9 years to say #metoo, and all of my 28 to learn what a boundary is. The first 5 years I lived with HIV I wasn’t breathing. It was like I was stuck in a vacuum. I didn’t get on antiretroviral treatment because I had little accessibility to care & stigma made me fear taking my next steps. I got really sick. At one point, I was reduced to 104 pounds and 6 CD4 or immune cells. I should have had thousands of those little warriors. My doctors told me I had 1-3 months left to live, if left untreated. There I was staring death in the face, but I made a new start, through spirituality, medicine, and art.
First, the spirituality:
I did an exercise with my mentor, Sharon Jeffers. She’s the grandmother I never had growing up and a true mystic. On pieces of paper, she laid down the words “fear” and “love” in front of me. She had me stand on fear and feel with every particle of my being what that felt like. I saw HIV—the virus, as well as the stigma associated with it—as lead in my body: dense, dark, and heavy. She then asked me to step forward onto love, and to begin visualizing what loving my HIV would look like. Love was only two feet in front of me, but getting there felt like pushing through a wall of cement. I thought to myself, “I can love HIV.” As I moved from fear into love I visualized darkness turning into something full of light, sparkly and golden, pumping life through my once ‘polluted’ tunnels, now made into a magical network of veins transmitting healing forgiveness inside of me.
I made the intention to let go, to breathe, and to finally begin to heal and feel pleasure, to experience joy, and be more fully me, by embracing HIV. Finally I was ready to start my journey towards a more holistic health.
Only then was I ready for medicine.
You might wonder why I avoided treatment for 5 years, especially when doctors tell us how important it is to start treatment as soon as we test positive. I don’t have an easy answer for you, except to say that lots of bad things happened to me during those five years and I couldn’t cope. For starters, I was so poorly educated that I didn’t think things would get as bad as they did. Then there was my struggle to get good medical care in North Carolina, not to mention the ugly layers of stigma and self-stigma. Bad stuff. Real stuff. The important thing is that, shortly after I accepted the virus and stepped out of fear, I was ready to take my meds. Within 3 months, I had gained 30 pounds and my CD4 cells returned to near normal. My body felt better than it had in years. I was breathing again.
Which brings me around to the role of art in transforming my life. I am an artist. I make digital art and soft sculptures. One of my projects through this period of my life was to embroider weathered jocks and underwear I’d lived in since I contracted HIV. I call this series of artworks “Intimacy Issues.” Disclosure is one of the most important aspects of fighting HIV stigma, preventing the spread of the virus, and gaining a healthy sense of self. One day I had this idea. I thought, what if I had help disclosing my status, and what if it was light-hearted and cute, not heavy and scary? I thought, what if I made an ice-breaker with my underwear? So I drew up a sketch for my magical protective garments with phrases like Love AIDS, I’m Poz & Poz4pleasure. Through this work, fear started to dissipate and I could see myself having an intimate relationship again. I began embroidering my underwear as art therapy and with each stitch I felt empowered.
HIV eventually taught me how to breathe again, that the energy of understanding and compassion can be generated from within me, within us. Through breathing, I re-learned how to listen to my body, to be aware of the stigma projected onto it, and to realize the gift of simply being alive.
I believe there are blessings and hidden blessings in everything. That like the great Sufi poet Rumi said, “The wound is where the light enters you.” HIV is but one of many wounds I have, but for me it is where the most light pours through.