Eddie Wiley: ‘HIV saved my life’
In 2014 Eddie Wiley became a different man. As he stared at the results of the rapid HIV test he took only to comfort a friend who was apprehensive about getting tested, he knew that his life would never be the same again. He now knew he was HIV positive.
The then-24-year-old was crushed, and over the next several months, a gamut of emotions—denial, anger and despair—washed over Wiley, who had already been prone to bouts of depression before the diagnosis. But another emotion that plagued him was shame. He felt like a hypocrite and a fraud.
For several years the Memphis, Tenn., native had been working in HIV/AIDS as an advocate and passionately fighting against the disease. He began his career as a volunteer in Memphis in 2005, talking to the community about the importance of condoms and HIV testing. In 2006 he’d moved to Little Rock, Ark., to become a youth-service specialist at the Jefferson Comprehensive Care System Inc., where he facilitated conversations for young Black MSM, helped them reduce their risk of contracting HIV and normalized HIV/AIDS testing.
In 2012 he worked as a service specialist at ARcare, a primary care provider, where he handled Ryan White case management and enrolled new clients into the medical services. A year later, he’d moved back to Memphis to serve as a link-age-to-care coordinator for the Community Health and Well-Being section of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and then as an outreach supervisor. His responsibilities included connecting people newly diagnosed with HIV to medical care and counseling MSM like himself a-bout the disease. He was at Le Bonheur when he found out he was HIV positive.
“I was embarrassed because I worked so hard to keep other people safe,” says Wiley. “But then I realized it wasn’t only the fact that I was HIV positive; it was the fact that I wasn’t telling them not to get positive—I was only telling them to try to not get positive.”
Because he was devastated by his status and still mourning the loss of his father, who had died the year before, it took several months for Wiley to see a doctor, and when he finally did, he dropped out of care shortly thereafter. “I felt like a disappointment. Here I was, the person who links everyone to care, going to medical appointments with them, giving them coping mechanisms, but I wasn’t even going to my own appointments.”
Wiley finally decided it was time to come to grips with his disease and get his life together. Through counseling, the help of family and friends, and a lot of prayer, he was able to pull himself out of depression and get back into care.
“I am a natural helper—I help other people—but I didn’t know how to help myself. I had to let other people help. I got into counseling and I started doing the affirmations, got back into yoga and took a holistic health approach to my physical health,” he says. “I say I pulled myself out of it, but I can’t give myself that much credit. It was through other people’s encouragement and support. If it weren’t for prayers and my faith, I wouldn’t be here now. I probably would have driven off a bridge.”
Even though he became at peace with his status, it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that Wiley felt comfortable enough to start telling his clients he was HIV positive. “At first I would let it slip out here and there. I may have told two or three of my clients, but then my client load increased and I started to tell more of them because some of them were struggling so deeply,” he says. “I knew that my story would help me have a better connection with them. I used that as leverage to give myself the courage to talk to them. And after I told them, I felt empowered.”
Today Wiley, 28, also serves as the prevention services man-ager at Friends for Life Corp. (FFL), an AIDS service organization, where he over-sees various HIV prevention grants for testing, advocacy, linkage to care, substance abuse and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). FFL also serves as a center for Black same-gender-loving men.
Wiley recently started the Maverick Movement on Face-book, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, where people can talk about HIV, depression, body shaming, domestic violence and mental health. The response has been amazing.
“HIV actually saved my life,” Wiley admits. “It forced me to take myself serious. When I was giving a lot to my clients, my co-workers and my agency, I wasn’t giving enough to myself. Being able to say that I am living with HIV and I’m living with depression, I’ve become a better person. I thank HIV for giving me the opportunity to stop and become present in my life.”
LaShieka Hunter is a freelance writer and editor based on Long Island, N.Y.