Durban - Meet Sameshni Moodley, at 36 the face of HIV in the Indian community.
She has a powerful message for the community.
She says: “I was raised in an Indian household with a mentality that HIV would not affect me. The reality is that it does not discriminate.
"It affects us all, irrespective of age, gender, race, sexual preference or affluence.”
Moodley, a corporate insurance manager from Johannesburg, learnt she was HIV positive at the age of 27.
She is now on a mission to educate people and remove the stigma, especially in the Indian community.
Moodley is among the 21% of women living with HIV in South Africa but one of the few brave enough to speak openly about it.
“When I learnt of my HIV status, I felt lost, confused, alone and scared,” she told POST. “I worried about what people would say.
"I felt like an outcast and thought life as I knew it was over. I thought getting married and having children would be nothing more than a dream.”
But she later realised - after drug and alcohol addiction - that she could turn her life around because being HIV-positive was not a death sentence.
“We can live healthy, long lives with the current treatment available.”
Moodley was in a committed relationship and had never questioned her partner’s faithfulness before she found out her status.
“During a routine Wellness Day in October 2008 at my office in Johannesburg, I did an HIV test as part of the regular set of health screenings. I didn’t give the test or the results a second thought as I was sure of my negative status.
“When the first and second verification tests revealed a positive result, I was shocked. “
The first person she confided in was her sister, who hugged her tightly and never judged her.
“She said she loved me and would be there for me no matter what. Months later, I disclosed my status to friends and a few years later I gathered the courage to tell my parents.
“My mother’s primary reaction was very cold. She was in shock at my status. She accused me of being a party girl and promiscuous. It was only after education that she accepted my status, over time.”
Despite having the support of her family and friends, Moodley battled to accept her situation and turned to drugs and alcohol for solace.
The most hurtful misconception she faced, she added, was when she re-entered the dating scene and disclosed her status.
“I was treated as though I did not matter and was not worthy of someone’s love. I was told (by men), ‘My family will never accept I am dating a girl like you.’
"I started drinking excessively and experimenting with drugs to cover up my feelings and to forget. I drank until I was numb.”
She said she had become depressed and shut out her family, only befriending those who encouraged her destructive habits.
“I slept and often thought of not waking up.”
The turning point, added Moodley, was when she was alone in her darkened bedroom after the high had worn off. A voice inside her told her not to give up on life.
“I knew I could not do this alone and needed help. I made an appointment with my doctor and told him everything. During the consultation, he found my immune system, CD4 count, was lower than 350 and this showed the virus was taking over my body. It wasn’t a surprise.”
The decision to take antiretroviral treatment felt as if she was taking back her life.
“For the first time I felt empowered. I was in charge. I then made an appointment with a therapist and a dietitian to get professional emotional support.”
As the once heavy drinker began to fill her days with yoga, weight training, cardio, spinning classes, functional training and healthy eating, she was empowered.
“Physically I have no limitations living with HIV, but I do get emotional when I go for regular blood tests because that is the only reminder I have of the virus.
“I take one pill daily at 9pm without even thinking of the ‘why’. Continued self-healing and self-improvement are what get me through.”
Two years ago, Moodley completed the Old Mutual Soweto Marathon and she says she now has a healthy mind, body and soul.
She is working on becoming a beacon of hope for others, especially Indians who are HIV-positive.
“Everyone recovers and overcomes challenges in different ways. You have to find what works best for you. I want to ensure that others who face the same struggles do not feel alone and go through what I did.
“I want to take my experience and share my knowledge. I live to inspire and motivate those affected and infected.”
Over the past three years, Moodley has found love again and is in a committed relationship.
“My success is owed to the love and support I received from my boyfriend, friends, family and circle of health professionals as well as the correct treatment and a healthy lifestyle.”