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Silence is deadly: My life with HIV, from diagnosis and shame to advocacy and pride

Courtesy of Shannon Houska
My name is Shannon Houska. I am 32 years old. I almost died keeping my deadly secret.

Silence is deadly. My name is Shannon Houska. I am 32 years old. I almost died keeping my deadly secret. I remained silent about a matter of my life and death for nearly a decade. I remained silent about my HIV diagnosis and hid my status in public until recently. A few weeks ago I went public with my HIV status. I hope breaking my silence encourages more people living with painful secrets to speak up without shame.

I was diagnosed when I was 23. It was earth-shattering news for me. I suspected that I was sick, but the final confirmation was unbearable. I remember being at The Red Door Clinic when they gave me the news. I let just two tears fall from my eyes; I held the rest in because I was embarrassed and ashamed to be seen crying. I did not want strangers in the waiting room to figure out what my diagnosis was. So I held my devastation inside and walked out of the clinic pretending that nothing had changed for me.

In reality everything had changed. I was 23, and my dream of becoming a wife and mother one day had been the dream that had kept me going during tough times. The day I received my HIV diagnosis, I gave up on that dream and all of my other dreams as well. I did not tell my family or friends what was going on with me. I did not let anyone in my life know that I was scared to death and hurting with grief. I didn’t tell anyone that I was sick or suffering.

I was too embarrassed and ashamed of myself to ask anyone for support or guidance. I kept the secret of my diagnosis from my mother, sister and best friends. I stopped visiting all of my loved ones, and I ignored their phone calls.

I started thinking day and night about a way out of my shame and my illness, forever. I decided that ending my life would be the best way out. I collected pills and stockpiled them; I set a date and wrote goodbye letters to leave behind. 

Demanded the truth

One person in my life sensed that something was very wrong with me. She showed up at my door and demanded that I tell her the truth about what was going on with me. I told her everything. I told her about my HIV diagnosis and plan to commit suicide. She saved my life by having me admitted into a psychiatric care unit for 24-hour supervision.

The staff at the ward took away the strings from my shoes so that I would not strangle myself with them. They refused to give me razors to shave my armpits, so that I would not slit my wrists. They held me and only released me when I seemed willing to reconsidering killing myself.

When they let me out of the hospital I was not a happy person, yet. I still had no hope for my future. I still wanted to die. Years passed; I searched everywhere to make meaning of what happened to me and found none. I looked for a reason to keep living in spite of my grief, and it was difficult to find.

Purpose in advocacy

After almost a decade, however, I began to find good purpose, hope and comfort in advocating for other silent and marginalized people in our community. I am not silent anymore. I am not hiding my HIV status from anyone, and I am not ashamed. I am HIV positive but my status does not define me. My purpose, hopes, aspirations and actions make me who I am.

This year I am co-leading a team of volunteer fundraisers for the 2014 Minnesota AIDS Walk. The walk is on Sunday, May 18. We named our team “Silence Is Deadly.” It can be deadly, but it never has to be again. 

To donate to or join our team, visit mnaidswalk.org and enter our team name.

Shannon Houska is a junior in the Communication Studies Department at St. Catherine University. She is an advocate for affordable housing and income equality. She lives in the Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 05/07/2014 - 05:27 pm.

    thank you – and You Go Girl!

    THANK YOU for your courageous path and for posting this important story. I just went online and donated to one of the people on your team. You Go Girls (and Guys)!!

  2. Submitted by naina khanna on 05/08/2014 - 06:24 am.

    thanks for your courage and sharing your story

    Sharon, your story is an inspiration for many women struggling with their diagnosis. In my experience too, getting involved in advocacy helps. I am part of a national organization for women with HIV: Positive Women’sNetwork-USA. We train women to be advocates and leaders and would love to connect with you. Our website is http://www.pwnusa.org

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