Loss is the price we pay for love

Sarah Jackson, Culture Editor

Warning: This story contains information that may be disturbing to some readers.

The number of young people infected with HIV in Canada may be increasing, according to a report published by CATIE (the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange). The report claims that the number of youth, aged 15 to 29, reporting HIV infections in Canada represented over 26% of all cases leading up to 2008. This combined with ongoing reductions of HIV education in northern British Columbia has led some people involved in HIV work to express fears that the number of youth infected with the disease will increase in years to come. This matters to anyone who attends UNBC because the vast majority of the student population (at UNBC) are within this age bracket, and because those who are not inevitability are aware of people who are. This matters to me because I am a youth and because the HIV movement began shaping my life both personally and professionally since before I was even born.

My uncle Chris died with AIDS in April 1993, four months after I was born. I spent my first months of life in his hospital room having my diapers changed on his sheets and sleeping in his sister’s (my mother’s) arms. After he died I grew up listening to stories about him: how he loved to carve and make art, how his feet were always so cold, and how his smile was always so bright.

My uncle’s death, and the deaths of so many other young men in the Ontario hospital where my mother worked as a nurse during the 1980s and early 1990s, led her to apply for a volunteer position at the Prince George AIDS Society after moving to British Columbia in 1995. The volunteer position never panned out; instead of volunteering, she was offered a full time job as an educator. She has been facilitating education about health and HIV in and around Prince George ever since.

I was hired to work for Northern HIV and Health Education Society in 2011. The non-profit society was founded by my mom, Mary Jackson, in 2007, to provide education on HIV, hepatitis C, and general health in order to prevent the spread of these and other blood-borne diseases. At first I just took the job because it paid better than Tim Hortons… but I slowly grew to love it. The stories people shared helped me to understand how complex,  beautiful, and terrible the world can be. I have learned more about love and life and courage from people (that some) label as sex workers, drug addicts, and criminals, than I could ever have hoped to teach them.

I have learned that the roots of HIV prevention go much deeper than just convincing people to wear condoms. By examining the history of the disease, we can see that time after time it has affected the most marginalized components of our society: first gay men, then IV drug users, Aboriginal people, seniors and, according to the most recent statistics, now youth. While these trends can most clearly be attributed to the behaviors of those infected, specifically sexual practises and sharing of drug equipment, on a deeper level they result from our society’s failure to respond to this epidemic and to protect and care for these groups of people. Our failures as a society have resulted in the persistence of factors that put so many marginalized people at risk for this disease. These risk factors include a lack of education regarding HIV, a lack of access to services such as food and housing, and, all too often, discrimination, isolation, and stigmatization.

I remember going to one of my professors in my second year at UNBC and asking how all the theories we learned made sense when I went out into the community, and heard all of these heart-breaking stories. To me, there seemed to be a huge disconnect between the theories I was learning and the stories I was hearing. He told me that university focuses on matters of the mind. It teaches us about intellectual matters that are only the tip of the iceberg of human experience. The vast majority of the things which make us human, such as spiritual experiences, compassion, empathy, and love, exist within the lower part of that iceberg, hidden beneath the surface, and are not what contemporary universities concentrates on.

If we really want to eradicate HIV in Canada and around the world, we need to see what is below the tip of that iceberg. We need to take a hard look at our own society and at the root causes of addiction, social isolation, and lack of access to a high standard of education. As individuals we need to look at our own lives, at our own choices, and figure out how we fit into this pattern.

AIDS Vancouver created a video campaign this summer to mark 30 years of service to their community. They released one video for every year that the organization had been in existence. The videos marked the “remarkable loss and remarkable progress” that has been achieved by many people who have been involved in the HIV movement in the last thirty years. My mom was interviewed for one, and we went down to Vancouver to attend a gala where the last video was unveiled. It was powerful, just as the others had been. The interviewees discussed what they had learned from HIV and, one woman’s words stuck in my head. This woman, Micheal Vonn, is a lawyer who has been involved in HIV work for many years, remarked in the final video that the disease has taught her that “loss is the price we pay for love.”

It made me think of when we talk about grief and loss in workshops. We share a quote that says “grief exists because you have the ability to love others; grief fades because you have the ability to love others and to love yourself”. I believe as individuals what we are truly missing is the ability to love ourselves.

As the future leaders in our society, we share the responsibility of creating a world in which the circumstances are in place for ourselves to learn to love themselves and others. Future generations need to change the circumstances so that we can create a healthy cycle of love. We can do this through our future and current roles, professionally and personally, and through our own actions today: by challenging our own assumptions and striving for a better, kinder world. I personally believe that in a world where everyone can consistently present that, HIV would be eradicated.