Meet Paul. He’s been living with HIV since 2006. He first came to Waverley Care in 2011, not as a service user, but as a volunteer, supporting others as a peer mentor. We caught up with him to hear more about his role.
How long have you been living with HIV?
I was diagnosed in May 2006, started treatment in March 2007 and, as a result, am now uninfectious.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge of living with HIV?
Something everyone faces when they’re diagnosed is who to tell. When you disclose, you’re asking someone to share that part of your life and, sometimes, you have to guide them through it.
I’ve had some very good disclosures, where people were concerned for my health and how I was feeling. There’s been bad experiences too. Since my sister found out, our relationship has been really challenging. My ex-partner said I was diseased. And this was an educated gay man. Sometimes stigma and discrimination comes from the places you’d least expect it but, then again, so does the help.
I had some initial issues disclosing at work. I wanted to be upfront about my status, and found it quite empowering to be able to stand up for my rights and become an educator of sorts.
When did you first hear about Waverley Care?
I was going through a bout of depression a few years after my father passed away. A lot of the issues that people living with HIV face aren’t to do with the virus itself – it’s more about issues like depression, loneliness, isolation, growing old, all the other things that happen.
When I was seeing my psychologist there was always a Waverley Care leaflet sitting on his desk, and one day he said it might be a good idea to get some support. As it turned out, I never really used the services and threw myself into volunteering. In hindsight maybe I should have actually had a bit of support, but I felt I had something to offer.
I like to think that my experiences of HIV, good and bad, can actually be of benefit to others. Once I hooked up with Waverley Care I wondered, ‘where have you been all my life?’ I’ve never known a place like it – there’s a serenity that comes across you as soon as you walk through the door.
You act as a peer mentor. Can you tell us what that involves?
When people come in for peer support, they’ll be matched up with a mentor who maybe has that shared experience to help them with particular issues. That’s the great thing about peer support, you are equals. You’re in a neutral situation where nobody is ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It’s the sort of service I’d have liked when I was going through difficult times.
The sessions are quite structured. At the beginning, I’ll talk someone through the process, and about what they want to achieve. As it goes on, they are the ones doing the talking and I’m there to help them find their own path. That’s the value of peer support, it plants seeds in people’s heads and allows them to reassess their lives.
Often, the issues you think you’re there to talk about aren’t what’s going to crop up. So you have to be on your toes and keep an open mind. You see someone on their HIV life journey and realise you’re actually helping someone and making a difference to their life. It’s something that I’m really proud of.
You work full time and are involved in volunteering. How do you like to spend your free time?
I’ve got a staffy cross called Honey. Whenever I’ve been down, been hating the world, she’s always been there. You walk her, you feed her, and she loves you unconditionally. I love to take her walking out at Newhailes. There’s a woodland path round the estate. It’s peaceful and you can look out over Edinburgh. I also enjoy my garden. I moved house a few years ago and it was the first time I’d had a garden to look after. I went away and researched it and, after a couple of years I was like ‘you’ve done it, it looks beautiful!’ I’m very fortunate I’ve got an ideal life, but you look back to your dark days and say, thank God, you know?
Who inspires you?
I think it has to be the people who work at Waverley Care. They give a lot of their time to develop you and give you a voice. I couldn’t single it down to one person or they might not let me peer support anymore!