N.L. Holley Shares How He Transformed Shame Into Empowerment After Being Diagnosed With HIV

“I have always been very tuned into my body,” Nathaniel Holley, known to his readers as N.L. Holley, says of his HIV+ diagnosis. “Therefore, I knew something different was happening inside.”

It was a cool fall day in 2012 that he was officially informed of his status as Poz. After discovering that his face had broken out and he was experiencing migraines randomly, he stopped at an urgent care clinic for a workup. “After they took blood and samples, they sent me on my way and told me they would only call if there was something to discuss. About a week later, they called and told me they needed me to come in and would not disclose why over the phone,” he shared.

At the moment when his doctor shared the news, Nathaniel says he felt his “world implode,” and that there was nothing he could do to soothe himself. He went for a second consultation, and it was confirmed again. Nathaniel realized that there was no choice but to operate from a place of acceptance from that point forward.

Nathaniel says he experienced a heavy burden upon receiving his diagnosis, which is not an uncommon response.

“I began to imagine how others would see me if they found out I was positive,” he said. “I had vowed to never tell my family because I felt like they would be too disappointed to cope. Emotionally, I was not equipped to handle it and I attempted to resume life like nothing had happened. I subsequently started treatment and only shared my diagnosis with my best friend. I felt like I had let myself down, that I had thrown my future in the trash can, and had become a statistic.”

Nathaniel says he even reached a point where it was hard to look in the mirror. “I felt like I was smart enough not to be in this situation,” he said. “Those thoughts consumed me as I attempted to make sense of my life following diagnosis.”

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Things look much different for Nathaniel today, as he has taken steps to heal his mental and emotional health. “I sought help from a local community-based organization to get counseling services,” he said. “As my sessions progressed and I began to release the shame of being positive, I was empowered by the growth I had attained through moments of intentional self-reflection and intentional acts of self love.”

Gradually, Nathaniel began participating in some of the events that the organization hosted, and he gained perspective. Recognizing that he had so much going in his favor (he was employed, not house insecure, and so on) Nathaniel felt he had to give back. “One day, my counselor asked me if I would be comfortable sitting on a panel to discuss my HIV diagnosis and how I had gotten through my depression,” he said, and he accepted the opportunity.

It was after this that Nathaniel really started to step forward in his truth. “I thought about it for a few days and accepted the challenge and that same day I posted a long post on social media disclosing my status to the world,” he shared. 

“I did not want to continue living these two lives. I was holding on to others view of me, afraid that if they knew all of me it would shift their idea of me. When I realized that I could help bring visibility to HIV to help others who may not otherwise see someone they knew was positive helped me find purpose in my position and I was inclined to share it whenever and however I could.”

Later, Nathaniel went on to sit on the D.C. Regional Commission on Health and HIV after being appointed by the Mayor.

Today, Nathaniel says his prognosis is amazing, and that he “championed his health” with a combination of exercise, prayer, meditation, healthy eating, and connecting on forums to express his feelings and dreams. “My health is in a great place, as I have taken control of my life in a way I had not done prior. I don’t live in fear, I live in the now, which allows me to make the most of each day,” he says.

As for progress in the HIV+ community, Nathaniel has hope for the future. “Today, the resources are vastly better and more comprehensive, compared to 8 years ago when I was diagnosed,” he says. “Today, you can get an HIV test in the mail, through an app, or through the healthcare system. You can google HIV in most areas and typically find a connection that is useful. Technology has enhanced the mechanism by which care is delivered and obtained. This allows access to quality resources from the touch of a finger.”

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do.

“I think the biggest misconception about being HIV positive is that it has a look or that if you are HIV positive you will look a certain way,” Nathaniel shared. “There is no look to HIV and just like any other condition, with proper care and health considerations, you can continue to enjoy an amazing quality of life even after diagnosis. I have no problems maintaining my weight and my skin is relatively clear. We have these dark images still in our minds from the 80s and 90s and HIV doesn’t look like that anymore.”

Today, Nathaniel looks forward to writing a book that shares stories of enlightenment through hardship. “I believe we all have a story and each story is important and it gives tools and perspective that we all can benefit from,” he says. He is enrolled in a Master’s program in Legal Studies at American University, and intends to keep pushing the boundaries of what he believes is possible.

“HIV didn’t kill my dreams,” Nathaniel says.

“It made me stronger, because I know what I am capable of overcoming.”

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