Today is 19 years we are together. This is also the year I turn fifty. My life has been defined by you, there is no denying it. You have pushed me in so many directions. The highest and the lowest. I never felt so lonely and damaged like 19 years ago. But today you connect me to an amazing community of people that in spite of fear, suffering, illness and stigma, have risen, resisted and flourished.
As you know, when I give interviews the question that most angers me is: how did you get HIV? It angers me because I know that journalists most times don’t want to know the real reason ‘why’ I got it, they want to get a saucy story and represent me either as some kind of victim, or reckless slut.
But asking why things happen in our lives is important. I grew up in Italy in the 70’s and 80’s in a middle class family: my dad a teacher, my mother an archaeologist. They were progressive and educated people, very involved with the Italian Communist party, and they gave me an unshakable believe of the necessity and moral imperative of seeking justice, and to this day I am incredibly grateful for this.
However they weren’t great parents. Not because they didn’t try or they didn’t love me. They were just not equipped emotionally to give the nurturing and emotional stability a child needed. I don’t think it was a personal shortcoming of their individual personality. I believe that as many people of their generation they had been traumatised and deeply damaged by growing up during the war. My mother lost her mother when she was 9 years old, during the American bombings on civilians, which were part of the ‘liberation’, in 1945, few days before the war ended. My father hardly saw his father until he was 16, as my granddad was in the army, and after the war finished,spent several year as a prisoner of war. When I was a child they spoke a lot of what it was like to grow up under fascism, during Nazi occupation and the war: the fear, the oppressive silence, the black shirts, the hunger, the terror and confusion at the disappearance of their Jewish friends.
Once the war was over, they finished university and they quickly got married. But both of them struggled with mental health issues: crippling depression and anxiety. Especially my mother was put through the 60’s and 70’s psychiatric system, she was sectioned, electroshocked, medicated into mental dullness. I think the psychiatric system was especially harsh against my mother because she was a woman who was not conforming to gender norms. As children my brother and I managed as we could. My parents weren’t bad people, but they weren’t equipped to protect us, guide us and connect with us as children.
It is not a surprise that as I grew up I struggled with depression insecurity, low self esteem, and started experimenting with hard drugs and sex barely a teen.
I am not telling this story in a bout of self pity. I am just trying to put what happened to me, and many others, maybe in different ways, in an historical context. To be a young girl with depression and low self esteem, in a country as deeply sexist as Italy of the 80’s was a recipe for disaster. As a young woman you were meant to be liberated and sexually available. But the power balance was against you. If you proposed a condom at best you were a fun spoiler, at worst a slut. You couldn’t win. I am not sure it is much better now.
I have been thinking about these circumstances quite a lot lately. Fascism is in the air, it is manifesting as, ‘austerity’ measures against the poor, hostility against refugee, war mongering in Syria, and it eructs in episodes such as the bloody battles in Dover last weekend. I cannot help thinking of the enduring trauma of all the refugees that continue to flee wars, poverty, violence, and how ill equipped we still are to support the healing. I also think how the trauma can run from one generation to another.
I continue to struggle with my mental health, keeping at bay waves of depression, and a voice within that sees the futility and impossibility of it all.
But dear HIV, somehow you have also been the mirror of my strength and resilience. By facing mortality and fragility I had to grow the solidity I couldn’t get from my family. I found strength in the connections with a global community of resistance. What I am learning now is that we cannot address HIV in isolation. Many young people continue being vulnerable to HIV because they are depressed and unable to cope. Sex can be such an easy comfort. As much as I feel we need all the tools we can have in HIV prevention, including PrEP, I also think that mental health, and drug use among young people, especially LGBTQ youth, but not exclusively, are still profoundly unaddressed.
Last week I co-facilitated a group with women living with HIV around mental health and access to services. What I witnessed was a web of sexual violence, HIV, mental health issues, poverty. The web is so tight, that I am not sure how we can start to untangle it. It is not just about access to HIV medication, health services, or an undetectable viral load. It is about creating peace, safety and justice. It means housing, a welfare system that works supporting those who are vulnerable. A world with kindness and compassion, which will not allow fascism to raise again.