“Never in a million years did I think that I would be part of that statistic.”
Jennifer Vaughan, a native Californian, says that growing up on the West Coast in the 80s, she had always heard about the HIV crisis, but never imagined that she’d be personally impacted by it.
Today, she wants to change the way you think about being Poz.
In fact, the mother, college grad, teacher and avid surfer shares pieces of her life and insight into breaking down misconceptions about HIV on her YouTube channel, where she amasses millions of views. Her insight on living a positive life — pun intended — aims to show people that HIV isn’t what many assume it is.
Jennifer received her positive diagnosis in 2016, the day after Valentine’s Day. “I had been really sick for weeks on end, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on, it was getting worse, and we needed answers,” she said. “My white cells and red cells were off, my sugar was off, and [the forms] just said ‘abnormal,’ and I needed to come back. They sent me to an infectious disease doctor, who tested me for everything — including HIV. But it didn’t cross my mind that it could actually be that.”
“I had been surfing, and so I was positive it was a parasite from the ocean,” she explains.
At the specialist, Jennifer requested to call her as soon as any results were available. Three or four hours later, she got the call that would change everything.
“‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’ve tested positive for HIV,'” she recalls the doctor sharing. “My reaction was absolute shock. I remember looking at [my partner], and it was like everything I knew in that moment was going to be gone. It was an incredibly scary feeling, sort of like nobody can do anything to help you. This is in your body, and you don’t even know how this happened. So many things hit me at once. Surreal, but super dark.”
Her first assumptions about her diagnosis were that her life would be shorter, and at the minimum, severely impacted by the medication she’d have to take.
“I thought I had to accept that,” she said. “It felt, to me, like the punishment for this happening to me. I sort of felt like I deserved it.”
Today, Jennifer realizes just how wrong she was.
“I got stronger mentally as I got stronger physically, and then all of a sudden, I felt like myself again,” she says. “I thought, for sure, I’m going to feel sick, especially from the medicine. The medication was working, I got to a point of complete homeostasis, I felt completely normal again. I was just taking a pill a day. I almost felt guilty that I felt so normal, or like I did prior to ever having this. This was a big surprise to me, going back to normal life.”
“As I got better, the shame that I felt melted away.”
As for the stigma she wants to shift, Jennifer says that being Poz is still something that’s mostly just misunderstood.
“There’s just general stigma from society, it’s not something you want to shout from the rooftops. It’s considered a dirty virus, and that you’ve done something wrong, and that you’ve clearly not taken all the right precautions os you deserve it. This keeps people from living out loud with it, because people don’t understand it. They don’t understand how it’s transmitted — like sharing utensils or a drink or sharing a bathroom — to this day, there’s so much misinformation about HIV out there, and I don’t think schools are doing a good enough job in helping people understand what HIV truly is.”
If she could speak with her younger self, Jennifer says that she’d tell herself that she’ll get through it all.
“There is light on the other side of these things you don’t understand in the moment… they’re scary and horrible and you feel like it’s not fair, but you will learn from them, and you may even be able to help somebody out in the future who is going through the same thing.”
“It’s a very powerful thing, to go through something that’s hard on you, and then come out and help someone else who has had that same experience,” she says. “I find that to be incredibly powerful.”