The more I told my story, the better I got at it and the lighter I felt...The more people I spoke to, the more I was met with appreciation and understanding, and that made my heart sing!
Content note: this story contains some references to addiction and substance use.
Most nights, I found myself walking the streets of downtown Ottawa late at night using and dealing opioids. I had a reputation that preceded me and was befriended by people who dealt drugs because I was good at getting people their money. I was both feared and fearless.
I was thrown out of this place or that—cast aside with nowhere else to go. I was estranged from my family, in and out of jail, and felt as though I didn’t have much to lose.
And so I wandered the streets at night. Aimlessly lurking like the shadows that clung to the dilapidated brick building walls.
I remember one night in particular when I was dope sick and was looking for a spot to go inject the meds I had just picked up. I thought about this one specific park along my usual route. As I headed in that direction, I could hear a faint call—a rhythmic murmur—in the distance. I walked in the direction of the sound and as I grew nearer, I recognized that this sound was a sort of song or chant. It sounded familiar to me.
“Yes, yes, I have heard this song before,” I thought to myself. It was a song that was sung at native ceremonies and gatherings. It went something like: Hay Yaaaaa Hooo Haaaay Yaaaa Hooo... As I continued towards the park, the chanting grew louder and louder.
It wasn’t long until I stumbled upon the producer—a man in his 40s with long black hair sitting on a blanket stretched out across the cool grass. His eyes were closed, chin titled slightly up to the starry sky, and his hands placed restfully in his lap. I noticed that it was "Brother,” as we called him on the streets.
As I came upon him I honoured his privacy and asked for permission to join him.
“Sure, sister, sit down,” he replied softly, with the corners of his mouth turned slightly skyward. “I was just singing to the ancestors and asking them for guidance on how to approach my family in sharing some news with them.”
“Do you care to share with me what you need to tell them?” I replied. “Maybe I can help.”
Chief continued to sing softly and I just sat there thinking about getting my fix ready. He then turned to me and said that he needed to find a way to tell his family that he is HIV positive.
I gaped at him–quickly shifting my gaze downward, not wanting to startle or offend him. I sat still for a moment, fixing my gaze on my hands in my lap. I could feel warm tears starting to roll down my cheeks. Keeping my gaze downward, I whispered, “I am HIV positive, too.”
At first I was unsure if he heard me, but what he did next proved that he did. He reached over and gave me a tight squeeze.
We sat in silence for a little while longer and during that time, I started to recognize a shift in the way I was feeling. I felt lighter than I had in months—years, even. I reassured him that telling people his news would be easier after tonight, as he did finally disclose to someone in his family: me, his sister.
We held each other and cried.
This truly spiritual encounter had opened my heart. And even though Chief would be the only person to hear that part of my story for a long time, the decision to share it with him felt right.
Dispensation and Dissolution
I always suspected how HIV was passed onto me and by whom, but I had never confronted the person. Until one day that person approached me. He told me that he was recently diagnosed with HIV and that he may have passed it on to me and that I should get tested.
My response to the situation still comes as a shock to me. Instead of feeling more anger towards this ex-lover of mine, any residual negative thoughts and feelings that I had previously held started to dissipate. Hearing his words helped reconcile past wounds and experiences, and helped give me strength. It was now as though I had loved this man more—for him finding the courage to disclose to me.
After 13 years of being separated from my family, I finally had the courage to reach out. I feared rejection, but in someway, I knew my life depended on it. I was in jail at the time—and many miles from my family in Winnipeg —but I picked up the phone and called my sister.
“Who is this?” my sister asked in a harsh tone, thinking it had to be some kind of joke.
“It’s me, Bubbles,” I replied insistently.
I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line, clearly speechless. She started to cry.
I was staggered. My own sister hadn’t recognized my voice, nor believed I would be calling. I had stayed away from my family for this long in order to protect them. I wanted to keep them from seeing just how far down the hole I had gone (with my substance use and homelessness), but in fact I was hurting them more by not being with them.
“Do you really want this for the rest of your life?” I later asked myself in the mirror. That teary phone call with my sister had woken me up. It had made me want to change and make my way back to my family.
I attended drug treatment court soon after and for the first time in my life, I surrendered myself to authority. I was a nervous wreck, constantly convulsing and being surrounded by drugs, but I precariously navigated this dark and unbridled new territory with the sole purpose of returning to my family once again.
After completing my program in Ottawa, I found myself on a train back to Winnipeg.
“How was I going to react to seeing my family again?” I thought. I didn’t know how to feel. I hadn’t seen my family in so long.
When I arrived at my family’s house the outside of the house was decorated with long yellow ribbons. My family stood together smiling and singing “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” because I was finally returning home.
With this reunion and fresh start, I didn’t want to delay disclosing my HIV status to my family. I felt that they needed to know.
After I said what I needed to say—to my surprise—they hugged me. I felt accepted. They had accepted me for who I was, not for what I had. Sure, they didn’t understand much about HIV at the time (nor did I), but I was grateful that they were willing to take the steps necessary to learn more about it with me.
The next step I took in coming to terms with my diagnosis was the day I walked through the front doors of HIV Edmonton. I was embarrassed and afraid and recently sober. Every emotion was new to me and it all felt very raw. Even the thought of joining a “HIV group” was inconceivable to me at the time.
But it wasn’t very long until I was sharing my story with a group of nurses, with the hope of shedding more light on the negative and defamatory experiences I faced as someone who was living with a stigmatized condition.
The more I told my story, the better I got at it and the lighter I continued to feel. The more people I spoke to, the more I was met with appreciation and understanding, and that made my heart sing!
When I think back to that late night encounter with Brother in the park, I think it was he who had helped me find my voice—probably without even knowing it—and helped set in motion the journey that eventually led me home—to my family and most importantly, myself.
Want to hear more from Ann?
As you learned from her story above, Ann finds both strength and solace in sharing her story. She was featured in a 2017 CBC news article written about her involvement in a World AIDS Day event and has contributed a written piece to CATIE’s The Positive Side Winter 2016 edition regarding her relationship with her HIV medication.
Do you have a story to share? Your story matters and sharing it can be a powerful way to help others.