“HIV is just a silly little virus,” Raif Derrazi begins.
“It consists of tiny specks of organic matter trying to live just like any other kind of life. That’s it. It’s not good or bad. It doesn’t carry any meaning. Its presence in our body is not a reflection of our self-worth, or whether we deserve to be loved, or of our potential to live a happy, fulfilling life.”
Raif, who was diagnosed when he was 27-years-old, believes firmly that the stigma against HIV is manufactured in our minds. “It can be very freeing to let go of any negativity related to it,” he says. “I choose to regard HIV as my little friend and daily reminder of how precious life is and to never take it for granted.”
As powerful as that is, Raif didn’t begin with that mindset.
In fact, when he was confirmed not only HIV+ on his 27th birthday, but that he also had already developed AIDS, he thought it was his death sentence.
“Within minutes of finding out I had HIV, my mind immediately began preparing for the painful and dehumanizing death that awaited me in 2 to 3 years,” he shared. “I asked myself what I would do with the little time I had left. ‘Did it make sense to go work a job anymore? Should I backpack around the world? Is there a legacy I could possibly leave behind?’ Of course I was completely wrong; my life was far from over.”
“Ironically,” he shares, “In many ways, it was really just beginning.”
It wasn’t until a year after that diagnosis that he was stuck in bed with a broken ankle that he really began to do what he calls his “inner work.”
“I was confined to my bed for 5 months. During that time I did everything in my power to try to reclaim some control and power over my life. I read self-help books, motivational books, meditated regularly, engaged in conscious breathing exercises, created dream boards and vision boards, did free writing, gratitude journaling, recited affirmations aloud and on and on. I began to unravel years and years of unhealthy thinking and negative self-beliefs. I finally ended the relationship. I could barely walk again. I had no job, no money, my car was repossessed and I had to find somewhere to live. I was starting my entire life over… but this time on my terms. I knew I deserved better,” he shared.
Today, all of that work has paid off, as Raif leads an online community working to eliminate the stigma of HIV/AIDS, educate, inspire, and offer hope to those who have also been diagnosed.
Raif says that he became an HIV+ advocate because as he was looking for his own mentors, he was met with a “vacuum of silence.”
“If I couldn’t find it for myself, and I knew that people really needed that kind of representation, and I’m the sort of person who doesn’t mind being open and vulnerable… then wasn’t it my responsibility to do something about it?”
However, the decision to “go public,” so to say, wasn’t met without adversity.
In fact, Raif shares that upon learning of his plans to share his status, his family informed him that they would “disown” him. “If someone asked about me or my family name… they would insist no relation to me,” he said. “It was a heartbreaking moment but I’ve never allowed anyone to silence me, so I knew what I had to do: post my HIV coming out video to YouTube. The response was immense, immediate and overwhelmingly positive. From then on I was determined to continue using my personal life story as a medium of education, inspiration and community building.”
Today, Raif is working to share all of the advancements that have been made with HIV+ treatment through visibility and dialogue.
“Currently, I am cleared to live just as long as my fellow HIV negative friends. Thanks to the efforts of so many activists in the past, my healthcare is not something I have to worry about. In fact, it’s very good and I’m incredibly thankful to know that I am taken care of,” he says.
For the future, Raif is looking forward to continuing to create quality content, and to reach more and more people.
He would like to continue investing in his health and fitness, as well as exploring public speaking. Raif says he specifically aspires to travel to different countries where the understanding and tolerance for Poz individuals is particularly now.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m in the very beginning stages of my ambitions to grow and expand with my brand as a role model for our community, an advocate, a thought-leader and motivational figure,” he says.
“During a time when we’re largely confined to the square footage of our homes, social media has the potential to inspire an immeasurable amount of positive change and connect us all through our shared humanity.”