Living with HIV can sometimes feel like having a laundry list of adjustments that you constantly have to make.
This is definitely true when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. While there are general benefits that come with implementing exercise and nutrition into your routine, these things are pretty much a necessity when you’re HIV positive.
By the time I tested positive (in the fall of 2004) I had been actively working out for at least 6 years. That didn’t make it any easier to adapt to the life change that came with a positive diagnosis.
Preexisting Body Image Issues
Part of what complicated things for me was the fact that I’ve lived with body image issues practically all my life, having been heavier since my adolescent years. What began in middle school (and continued in high school) were insecurities about my body, which would only become more pronounced as a young adult in college.
Added to that equation were the (then) yet to be addressed issues with accepting my sexuality, which came with their own set of body image and appearance-related challenges. Simply put, I was already predisposed to being hyper-conscious of my perceived physical imperfections, and to moving through life feeling insecure about my body and all things related to my appearance.
Fortunately, while I was in college I began my fitness journey. I started working out, which quickly became a bit of an obsession -- mainly because I quickly started seeing results (just from doing consistent cardio at the gym). This marked a significant turning point for me since I’d been (unknowingly) battling body dysmorphia for at least 8 years, from age 16 until about 24. For the next 6 years, exercise-related focus and determination had become such standard parts of my daily routine that the disruption caused by HIV’s entrance into my life at age 30 came as a complete surprise.
While I can’t pinpoint the exact point at which I resumed working out after learning I was HIV positive, I recall that being one of many things I took a hiatus from as I slowly found my way through learning how to adapt to my reality as a person living with HIV. It’s important to note here that in those early years, as I was coming to grips with my diagnosis I held some pretty unhealthy thoughts and ideas about myself and my value which I was -- fortunately -- able to shift and move beyond over time.
One of the most destructive beliefs I held was that as someone who was Black, gay, AND overweight I was unlovable. Once my HIV diagnosis applied an added layer of complication , it pretty much left me to believe that I was completely damaged and unlovable. Thankfully, as I went about accepting my new reality, over time I was able to embrace more affirming thoughts about myself, my body, my worth, and my diagnosis.
Be Ready for Burnout
It would be great if I could put a pretty bow on my story and say from that point on everything was smooth sailing, but that would be wildly inaccurate. By the time the first 2 years of being positive passed, I had also taken on a lot more on top of my usual life/work activities.
By the end of 2006, I found myself in what felt like a never-ending loop of work, working out, artistic activity, and always being busy with all of the additional work I’d unknowingly signed up for by creating my arts organization, Brave Soul Collective.
Although I was well aware of the importance of avoiding stress, getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating right as they all related to the health of my immune system, none of that knowledge stopped me from burning the candle at both ends. Most of the time the only thing that would force me to slow my (then frenetic) pace would be getting sick.
I can recall one instance in particular (in January of 2007) when I thought I just had a simple cold, only to learn after an ER visit that I had walking pneumonia. As evidenced by that experience, back then there were still times I had to be forced to slow down. Fortunately since then I learned (over time) how to strike a balance and take much better care of myself.
Over the last 14 years, there have still been periodic hiccups that have sometimes meant not getting enough sleep, gym time, or slipping up when it came to my eating habits. But now I know managing to live a healthy lifestyle is about overall consistency and maintenance. The key is to learn what works for you, and then try to set realistic goals so that it becomes easier to implement as a daily practice. This is true for anyone, but especially for those of us living with HIV.
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