My name is Vasilios Papapitsios. I became HIV-positive when I was 19, in North Carolina, through barebacking. The first five years I lived with HIV, it’s like I was stuck in a vacuum. I couldn’t breathe.
In 2011, three months after my diagnosis, I was expelled from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under homophobic claims that I was the center of the local HIV outbreak. This was simply not true.
The school told me I was a threat to campus and banned me from stepping foot on the grounds. This caused me serious mental health issues which forced me into a dark place for many years. I even went to the ACLU for assistance, but decided not to put up a fight, because that meant disclosing to the public and to my family.
I didn’t get on antiretroviral treatment because I had little accessibility to care and stigma made me fear taking my next steps. I got really sick. At one point, I was reduced to 104 pounds and 6 CD4 or immune cells. I should have had thousands of those little warriors. My doctors told me I had one to three months left to live, if left untreated.
There I was. staring death in the face. But I made a new start, through spirituality, medicine, and art.
I did an exercise in transmutation with my mentor, Sharon Jeffers. She’s the grandmother I never had growing up and a true mystic. On pieces of paper, she laid down the words “fear” and “love” in front of me. She had me stand on fear and feel with every particle of my being what that felt like. I saw HIV — the virus, as well as the stigma associated with it — as lead in my body: dense, dark, and heavy.
She then asked me to step forward onto love, and to begin visualizing what loving my HIV would look like. Love was only two feet in front of me, but getting there felt like pushing through a wall of cement.
I thought to myself, “I can love HIV.”
As I moved from fear into love, I visualized darkness turning into something full of light, sparkly and golden, pumping life through my once ‘polluted’ tunnels, now made into a magical network of veins transmitting healing forgiveness inside of me. I made the intention to let go, to breathe, and to finally begin to heal and feel pleasure, to experience joy, and be more fully me, by embracing HIV.
Finally I was ready to start my journey towards a more holistic health. It felt like I was taking a deep breath for the first time in a while.
You might wonder why I avoided treatment for five years, especially when doctors tell us how important it is to start treatment as soon as we test positive. I don’t have an easy answer for you, except to say that lots of bad things happened to me during those five years, and I couldn’t cope.
For starters, I was so poorly educated that I didn’t think things would get as bad as they did. Then there was my struggle to get good medical care in North Carolina after they had defunded the AIDS Drug Assistance Program in 2012, not to mention the ugly layers of stigma and self-stigma.
The important thing is that, shortly after I accepted the virus and stepped out of fear, I was ready to take my meds. Within three months, I had gained 30 pounds and my CD4 cells returned to near normal. My body felt better than it had in years. And I was breathing again.
Which brings me around to the role of art in transforming my life. I am an artist. I make digital art and soft sculptures. Disclosure is one of the most important aspects of fighting HIV stigma, preventing the spread of the virus, and gaining a healthy sense of self.
One day I had this idea. I thought, what if I could use art to disclose my status and help others to disclose theirs? And what if it was light-hearted and cute, not heavy and scary?
I began to embroider weathered jocks and underwear I’d lived in since I contracted HIV. I call this series of artworks “Intimacy Issues.” They are like my magical protective garments and have titles like Love AIDS, I’m Poz, and my personal fave, Poz4pleasure.
I began embroidering my underwear as art therapy, and with each stitch, I felt empowered. Through this work, my fear started to dissipate and I could see myself having an intimate relationship again.
I believe there are blessings and hidden blessings in everything, including HIV. As the great Sufi poet Rumi said, “The wound is where the light enters you.” HIV is but one of many wounds I have, but for me it is where the most light pours through.