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michelle-wessleyMy name is Michelle. I am someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s friend. I could be your neighbour. I am an ordinary woman on an extraordinary journey. My journey is wonderful, it’s tragic, and it is awesome in the way it shapes my life and touches my soul.

When I was in my early twenties I travelled to Europe. Little did I know the extent of the journey upon which I’d embarked. I got a job in Italy. I lived with a family and worked in their “Birreria”, (café/bar/restaurant). Northern Italy is a beautiful part of the world. I loved getting to know the place, the people and their culture. I made some good friends. What amazed me was the amount of my new friends who were using heroin! Having no concept of the risks involved, it wasn’t too long before curiosity got the better of me.

After two years in Italy I moved to England and got my act together. One year later, in 1989, I was totally shocked (that’s an understatement, but I don’t have a word for something even greater than shock to describe what I felt) to be diagnosed HIV positive.

“What’s HIV?”,

“Doesn’t that have something to do with AIDS?”

Yet on some level I had the feeling that those few words “You’re HIV positive” would have an enormous impact on my life. I wasn’t wrong. My doctor told I’d be lucky to have four more years to live. I was twenty-four years old!!

Imagine……. becoming infected with a previously unknown virus. Nobody understands it or knows what to do about it. There is no cure, there isn’t even any treatment. People are dying. It’s no wonder that the community was frightened. The end result was that people living with HIV were demonised as the source of this fear. I am more than the sum of people’s prejudice.

In those early days of HIV, before treatments, stigma was rife and the prognosis was grim. As an HIV positive woman I was a minority within a minority. I lived one day at a time. I fought to survive. I didn’t think about the future, let alone plan for it, yet I never gave up hoping.

In 1995, a breakthrough in treatments brought with it renewed hope. Finally I wasn’t sick all the time. You would think I’d celebrate, and believe me, I did, but- how do I support myself through the future I never thought I’d have?

I was a university student When I first decided to travel I  deferred completing my University Degree for twelve months. For many years, struggling with HIV, I thought I’d never ever be well enough to study again, let alone work. But I always hoped that things would work out.

HIV has sent me to the deepest depths of depression, yet also given me some of the most wonderful, incredible moments. You can’t enjoy joy without suffering sorrow.

Of course the “anti HIV” medications have played a pivotal role in my life, in that I believe I would have died without them.

As well as medication, the support and love from my family and the incredibly inspiring people living with HIV, with whom I’ve shared peer support, have been what’s kept me alive and forever hopeful.

Hope is a beautiful thing.

It’s now 2009. I have now lived with HIV for 21 years. I am employed as a support co-ordinator with Positive Women Victoria (A support information and advocacy organization for HIV positive women). My work brings me into contact with many HIV positive women from all walks of life, each living productive lives; studying, working, having children, achieving. Our futures look bright.