James May's world plunged into darkness nine years ago with a diagnosis many see as a death sentence. Today, he shares his journey into the light based on an integrated approach to healing.
The diagnosis of HIV/AIDS inspired me to embrace a life of personal and spiritual development like nothing else. I was oblivious to this potentiality prior to the diagnosis nine years ago. With limited understanding of health and spirituality, I was devastated by the news, which I processed as a death sentence. I am grateful for the messengers of healing I have encountered since and for the wisdom to confront the illness with an optimistic outlook.
If only I had this knowledge back then, even though it was the shock and sense of urgency that forced me to look deeper into myself. I recall spending years before the diagnosis resenting the world. I didn't want to be part of this ridiculous system with its focus on money, power and material gain. I felt oppressed by homophobia, gender roles and moral judgments. I had no idea how on earth I was supposed to fit in. I was surrounded by people who felt no affinity with working a regular job, living a traditional family lifestyle or aspiring to the middle class dream of life in suburbia. It was this sense of alienation that led to several years of rebellion and drug addiction.
Things have changed dramatically since and I would never have guessed that living with HIV/AIDS would be the greatest blessing in my life. I'd never have thought I'd be so grateful for the diagnosis which brought me to my knees those nine years ago. The truth is I'm excited by the amazing adventures it's brought into my world - travel, creative pursuits, mysterious meetings with gifted healers and mentors. I wouldn't have made it this far without the illness. Each year I've lived with HIV/AIDS has been five times as satisfying as each year prior to the diagnosis. There's no way I would have attained the quality of relationships, the depth of connection with my higher self or the creative inspiration that invigorates me every day.
My world was empty prior to the illness. In fact, HIV/AIDS brought me to life, even though the doctor seemed to hand me a death sentence that day. I can't describe the effect of a shock like that - I felt stripped of everything, not knowing where to go, who I was or who I could turn to. I imagine someone might feel the same losing a loved one without warning - a loneliness and despair that has no limits.
Any serious illness is a challenge, but HIV/AIDS packs the weight of society's moral judgment like no other. Its stigma is unparalleled. Things might have changed since the 1980s, but the disease is still shrouded in shame and ignorance. It's almost impossible for those of us who have it to disclose our status or communicate what it's like in the current social climate. Nothing can isolate a person so much or break down relationships with partners and families like HIV/AIDS. No other illness takes away dignity and a person's right to the kind of intimacy that people take for granted. No other illness can make one feel so utterly unlovable.
I try to raise awareness about the social and emotional consequences of HIV/AIDS because that is where I believe its power lies, the power to heal or destroy a person. Rather than waiting for miraculous drugs, we can improve quality of life by changing the perception of the illness and the way those affected process the experience. It's not the virus so much as the label "HIV/AIDS" that erodes self worth and enthusiasm for life. A mind overcome with fear and self sabotage can wipe out the immune system. It's like watching a computer program in self destruct.
I have seen HIV positive people slide into chronic illness, depression and drug addiction after being handed a pessimistic diagnosis by a physician with a purely scientific approach to healing. They succumb to negative programming, are reduced to a life of mere survival, swallowing pills, living on welfare and waiting to get sick because their self esteem has been ravaged by the stigma surrounding the condition.
I've often wondered how the newly diagnosed would fare if the label "HIV/AIDS" were removed and it was viewed as just the immune dysfunction it actually is. Many holistic practitioners believe the illnesses associated with AIDS are multifactorial, with causes including toxic emotional states, pharmaceutical and illegal drug misuse, a highly processed diet, polluted environment and exposure to chemicals. The manifestation of "AIDS" is more complex than merely an infection with a virus. HIV infection does not guarantee death from AIDS, nor a life of poor health and misery as is often portrayed.
Unfortunately, the medical model refuses to acknowledge the holistic perspective, or empower HIV positive people to heal themselves. They are left to believe they have no influence over their health and remain dependent on pharmaceuticals, which will never provide the ultimate healing they're searching for. True healing requires attention to emotional and spiritual needs and this cannot be found in a prescription.
From my experience, HIV is an incredible gift, a chance to heal physical, emotional and spiritual wounds. The demons brought to the surface need to be confronted, accepted and integrated as part of a healing routine which also includes diet and lifestyle changes, herbal and medical treatment. Thankfully, I was lucky to find an array of wonderful healers, and HIV/AIDS is no longer a progressive decline, but a path of self discovery and renewal. I discover new insights each day and my existence has taken on higher levels of meaning - it's like waking from a deep sleep and becoming aware of this truly incredible adventure.
It is an opportunity to heal relationships with loved ones and connect with everyone who crosses my path in profound, inspiring ways. I still find it hard to believe that what was once such an alienating diagnosis has now become the catalyst for the most intimate, fulfilling relationships I could imagine.
Living with HIV/AIDS does not have to be the terrible tale we were told. I sincerely believe it doesn't have to be this way. A diagnosis is an opportunity to change direction and seize the moment. It is motivation like no other to do what one has always dreamed - travel the world, write a book or fall in love. Each day is precious, and life has no guarantees.
HIV/AIDS is the key to a new dimension of thinking, perceiving, relating and existing. It's a tool of radical transformation.
An integrated approach to healing
HIV/AIDS remains, still, a fatal condition with no known cure. According to mainstream medical discourse, HIV infection leads to AIDS and Death, without question. It has only become "treatable" in recent years, thanks to a potent cocktail of experimental drugs known as HAART (Highly Active Antiviral Therapy).
Yet, throughout the history of the epidemic, many with HIV/AIDS worldwide have lived healthy, productive lives without pharmaceutical treatment. They discovered healing in alternative medicine and holistic approaches, even before drugs were readily available.
Non-pharmaceutical treatments are highly efficacious in restoring the immune system. But information about this is not readily available through medical support systems. Alternative therapies continue to be ridiculed and suppressed in favour of promoting pharmaceuticals as the most feasible treatment. A person's history, lifestyle and general wellbeing are rarely taken into account by doctors, many of whom still refuse to acknowledge the effect of diet and emotions on immune function. Antiviral drugs are promoted as the sole effective treatment and patients often comply without further investigation.
Personally, I delayed the use of antiviral drugs for as long as possible - even though doctors vehemently warned me I'd succumb to AIDS and death within two years. Despite the fear this instilled in me, I sought out holistic practitioners who offered an enlightened view of the illness, including how and why it had manifested in my life. These healers included naturopaths, Chinese herbalists, homeopaths and acupuncturists. They empowered me with information to take charge of the situation - I left their company knowing I could influence my health and the progression of the illness. The virus was no longer an all-powerful pathogen.
Healers suggested my health was compromised through years of emotional abuse, insufficient diet and drug and alcohol addiction. This diagnosis made sense - my health had collapsed after years of onslaught from many factors rather than a single virus. With this perspective, I relinquished a great deal of shame and guilt taken on by the medical model, which basically said I had been irresponsible with regards to my sexuality and lifestyle.
From that point on, I sought to restore my immune system on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. I took supplements - multivitamins, selenium, Co Enzyme Q10, Lipoic Acid and Glutamine. I learned the importance of healing the gut for the treatment of conditions such as candida, nutrient deficiency and leaky gut, so common with HIV/AIDS. I used Chinese herbal remedies for lethargy, anaemia, constipation, skin conditions and insomnia. This was in conjunction with radical dietary changes, acupuncture and counselling. Importantly, I realised that others experienced similar health complaints, regardless of HIV infection; immune disorders are a sign of the times. I learned to distinguish between HIV symptoms and the effects of an unbalanced diet and toxic emotions associated with the diagnosis, such as fear and shame. Internal reflection was a crucial part of the healing and produced amazing results - my health was more in balance than it was prior to HIV infection.
All of a sudden, HIV was a catalyst for health and emotional development rather than a degenerative disease. After seeing the effect of natural therapies on HIV/AIDS, I am a staunch advocate of holistic medicine, particularly in the early stages when doctors prematurely medicate. At the very least, this approach is a valid starting point on the path to recovery, rather than leaping into conventional treatment with its myriad side effects.
My healing journey introduced me to energy healers such as breath workers, Bowen therapists, Reiki and shamanic healers - all profoundly affected my health and wellbeing. I confronted inner demons that hadn't been resolved. Importantly, this enabled me to connect with others, participate in the community and form healthy relationships. I practised yoga, Qigong and meditation, as my immune system was restored to balance. Most of all, fear subsided as HIV became a treatable condition, in my view. Hope was restored. I had a future, not a death sentence.
In 2007, after a bout of pneumonia, I embraced conventional treatment for the first time. I am grateful for the support it provides and it's an ongoing part of my healing routine. I believe I have served my health by delaying using these medicines, when many are still highly toxic and experimental. This delay has also enabled me to wait until better quality drugs have become available.
Conventional medicine is no more important than the efforts I make with spiritual practice and alternative therapies. These therapies play a key role, particularly in managing side effects of pharmaceuticals. Together they form a partnership that allows me to enjoy the best health I've ever had. The integrated approach provides the most optimal outcome possible, as I learn to process the meaning of the illness and the lessons it has for me. I am hopeful that if I forge my way along this path, I will continue to enjoy a high standard of health.
I believe HIV/AIDS is a call to the human race to expand our healing repertoire; to embrace all modalities we have at our disposal; to cooperate in order to heal ourselves and each other.
Since the beginning of the epidemic, HIV/AIDS has compelled us to seek alternative healing as Western medicine struggled to find answers - partly due to the politics associated with the relationship between the medical establishment, drug companies and corporate enterprise. Viable methods of healing the immune system, relieving pain and ensuring longevity and quality of life have always been there. In future, I hope patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS will be more informed about non-pharmaceutical treatments available. I hope they won't have to feel their way through the dark as many before them have done.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and are intended as an informed contribution for people seeking holistic health and lifestyle. For specific medical advice, always be guided by your own healthcare professionals.