Rurally invisible and living with HIV

In the months after my diagnosis life was unsure with my head everywhere, the doctor said it was a “pretty bad, prolonged seroconversion”, I’v only had the one so just take her word for it but it meant work was not an option for a time, activities I usually took part in were halted (honestly not talking about the sexual kind) and the natural concern of what might happen next was a constant reminder that although I couldn’t see it or no doctor could show it to me on a scan, there was a condition inside me that could potentially lead to a lot of harm. My first concerns were, will the treatment work or do I have a resistant strain, right next to, did I unknowingly transmit it to anyone. That was a big concern, fortunately due to regular screening I was able to track down everyone who needed to be tested and this was not the case. Suggesting that I get support, my physician referred me to Positive Life, the only drop in support service in Northern Ireland dedicated to helping people living with HIV.

The support I received was amazing from counselling to free massage, you name it they have it, group support, workshops, advice on rights, anything a person living with HIV might need. In the first eight weeks this service, especially the counselling which truly was helping, became a lifeline, one that was needed far beyond those eight weeks however, living 14 miles from the only centre we have in N.I. and using public transport it was a 2hr 40min round trip, traffic permitting.

After a couple of months, traveling for such a length became unrealistic, the cost of a return ticket was then roughly £9 return, for someone who was unemployed and could not fit their appointments around the time that allows discount travel with a pass, £9 becomes a lot of money over time. Also during seroconversion my bones, as well as muscles would ache a lot which was made worse by the prolonged sitting.

When this support ceased I felt lost for quite a long time before setting up Positive Moving On, my way to support myself. I can’t explain how isolating it was to live in a house alone, with nobody in the vicinity who could relate to what I was feeling and thinking or have any form of professional support at hand. Then for a brief period funding was available to pay a peer support worker to conduct home visits, finally I felt a sense of there being a HIV community and support out there but unfortunately his contract was unable to be renewed by Positive Life, so at present for anyone living outside Belfast and in my case, the only option if I needed to see someone is to travel for several hours.

People in rural areas need support and to be part of the community as much as people in cities or urban areas but currently that cannot happen due to cut after cut to funding for sexual health services, as well as rural area funding that has had particular influence on our hospitals. Never someone to blame politicians for everything and having met quite a few in my time including a couple who are closely related, it is with great respect that I express how let down I feel by my government. Rural areas have been decimated with austerity, austerity we were told would not touch HIV services but has effectively ended them in many areas, it has sent a generation packing to other parts of the country and the world, away from people they love because there is very little to no opportunity left in rural United Kingdom and Ireland.

We have taking our fair share, the sexual health sector and rural areas have both taking there fair share, it is time to find the money elsewhere along with giving some back to us. Northern Ireland need to advance the services on offer here, with diagnoses rates rising sharply we need them, badly. Positive Life need more funding so they can reinstate and conduct more home visits than they were previously. People living with HIV in rural areas need opportunity, for housing, for employment or education, for support from family who live close by, not hundreds or thousands of miles away.
This is not just a problem for People in rural areas, currently people in several urban areas face the loss of their lifeline, but out here, we don’t even have one to begin with. Think of us as a bunch of farmers or fishermen if you like and by area to area we are few, but we are humans with needs and rights.

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