To the Editor:
With the recent suicide of actor Robin Williams, it has brought much talk and discussion, about a subject that has long been ignored for the most part. Suicide, and the impact on those left behind, who try to understand, and come to grips with such a horrible loss, should no longer be considered a shameful thing.
As the brother of one who committed suicide at 19, some 35 years ago, I know firsthand, the stigma attached to it. It, along with other subjects no one wants to hear or talk about, because it is shameful, or sinful in the eyes of many, must no longer be hidden and placed in the shadows.
These things need to be talked about openly, and in a manner that educates us all, to act, to prevent and to use our voices to bring about change in a positive and helpful manner. We must not be afraid to let our voices be heard, for in remaining silent, it allows the stigma to continue, and therefore leaves us open to more of the same, and allows the cycle of silence continue.
One of the other subjects that many wish to ignore is HIV/AIDS. That, too, is something that I know firsthand about, in that I am a 25 year survivor of the disease. Suicide and HIV/AIDS, in the past have, in many cases, gone hand in hand. I have known many who have lived with HIV/AIDS, who decided to end their lives on their own terms rather than to face the ravages of the disease, and the stigma attached by those who are uneducated, and offer the advice that those who have HIV/AIDS deserve death. It is this, along with a sometimes fragile situation, that pushes one to take his or her life.
I took steps in my own life to try and speak, be seen and thrive, as one living with HIV and as one who considered suicide in the early days of my diagnosis.
A question I am often asked when I participate in an educational program or public speaking engagement, is, “Why did you feel the need to announce you have HIV/AIDS, and to become an advocate for education and awareness?”
There is no simple answer, but there are many reasons. First and foremost, I did not make my decision lightly. I thought a lot about the impact it would have on my family and others who were close to me. Having lived my whole life in an area where most everyone knew everyone else, to announce in the early 1990s that I was infected with HIV could turn out to be a huge thing. I recalled the news at that time regarding Ryan White, who initially was not allowed to go to school, and all the negative things he and his family had to endure. Although the details of our stories were different, what we shared was that we both went public, and our stories made the news.
After getting the approval of my family, and following the death of a very good friend in my Circle Of Friends HIV/AIDS support group, I knew I would take the giant step. I put my face, my story, and my life on public display, to not only be a voice for myself, but also for all those who could not do it for fear of retaliation, judgment and scrutiny. Someone had to show folks in the small, rural areas that HIV/AIDS was a part of their communities. Small-town families had kept secrets about the real truth behind the sickness and deaths of their sons, daughters, and other relatives living with and affected by a disease that so many of us felt was a disease of only the big cities.
Once I’d announced that I was infected with HIV, I felt relieved. The truth was very freeing for me. No more trying to hide things. No longer was I making excuses for frequent doctor visits. I think it was an eye-opening time for my small part of the world. HIV/AIDS had come home, and someone was brave enough, or as some said, “crazy enough,” to put a spotlight on living with HIV/AIDS. My announcement put my personal life on display. I became the “talk of the town,” but at least what was being said about me was the truth I had presented about myself.
Since I was the only local person who I’m aware of to be so public with my HIV positive status, I became the go-to person, not only for others living with HIV, but, in some cases, for the health care professionals, as well. Being “out” with my diagnosis allowed others to become more open to HIV/AIDS education. I was given access to speak to teenagers in school settings, and even clergymen tried to educate themselves by letting me share my story. Then various other groups and organizations invited me to speak. That’s when I knew I had made the right decision to be the voice for so many, including myself.
I have come to understand that not everyone can, be so public with their HIV status as I am, even though I feel that the more people who choose to live openly, the greater the impact. Living openly allows others to see us as real, normal, everyday people, who happen to be dealing with something that still infects and affects so many. As with those who feel suicide as the only way out, it must no longer be a subject we are afraid to approach and discuss.
Living publicly with HIV/AIDS takes a certain kind of person. Honestly, before my diagnosis, I had never considered myself to be such a person. As a young child and teenager, I was shy, quiet, and voiceless. I was too afraid to speak up, and now find it amazing that I have become who I am. I guess my voice was always there just waiting to be heard.
I hope I do not come across as arrogant, for I certainly am not. Rather, I see myself as someone who wants to make a difference, to make an impact on the lives of others. I know there have been, and probably always will be, people who will never overcome their fear and judgment of those of us who are living with HIV/AIDS. They will invariably find some fault, or express disgust with me, for being myself, and for being a voice for HIV/AIDS awareness and education. They are another reason I decided to make my announcement about my HIV status two decades ago. As the list of reasons has grown over the years, I expect other reasons to follow as I go forward. I have grown as a person for sure, and have realized strengths I never knew I had. What a journey it continues to be.
So, my message is, there are those who deal with depression, addictions, and/or mental illness. There are those of us who face stigma, in many forms, myself included. But, the time is long overdue that we bring these things into the forefront of discussion, to make changes to erase the shame attached, and to open up a dialogue for change. For those who have taken their lives, for whatever reason, to not be just a number. For those of us who can stand and be a voice, the time has come.
This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt has become one, in which I try to apply to myself. “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot.”
Harold “Scottie” Scott