Fourteen years ago, I couldn’t understand why I was losing tons of weight, felt constantly fatigued, and generally just felt bad. I went to the doctor, who told me after a test that I was HIV positive and my levels of infection-fighting cells (called T cells) were dangerously low. In other words, my immune system was severely compromised. Shocked and terrified, I could barely keep myself together after the diagnosis. I cried and cried, taking several months off work to cope with my new reality. Since that dark period in my life, it’s been a long road to get where I am now. But the lifestyle changes I’ve made have prevented my virus from progressing to AIDS. For me, learning to live a healthy life with HIV was more psychological than physical. When I first found out I would be living with a chronic illness for the rest of my life, I felt too ashamed to tell anyone, not even my family. My initial reaction was to hide what I was going through. The guilt and secrets I bore alone alienated me from getting support and pushed me deep into depression. The decision to confide in a support group ultimately helped me heal emotionally and take control of my HIV. Meeting with a group of people that were living with same chronic disease was freeing. I also started working to reset my whole outlook on my life and my identity. I listened to a lot of self-development CDs while driving and researched positive-thinking tools and resources. This exploration of wholesome, healthy-thinking strategies, along with the support group, helped me come to terms with my HIV, forgive myself for my role in contracting the disease, and taught me to love who I am. Another instrumental lifestyle change I made was exercising. Before learning I had HIV, I wasn’t in the habit of exercising at all. Not only can HIV destroy your body, but it can also produce harmful, negative thought patterns in your mind. I’ve found that exercising is a key way to maintain a positive attitude and outlook on life, as well as to keep my energy up. Developing a consistent work out routine was a tough process, but the difference it’s made in my physical and mental well-being was worth the effort. Exercise helps me give my body its best chance of fighting off infections with HIV, and so does eating right. I’ve cut back on fatty and processed foods, dairy products, and alcohol since my diagnosis. What you put into your body either hinders your immune system or helps it, so I try to do the best I can with that knowledge and my doctor’s recommendations. That kind of education has given me more power over my HIV. Learning to distinguish myth from fact about transmitting the disease and about hygiene in general has also made a big difference. I remember when I was growing up, my best friend had HIV and I was afraid to use her soap in the shower. Now, I know the only way I can transmit the virus, aside from unprotected sex, is through my blood. So I’m not really a risk to others’ health; instead, they’re a greater risk to my health. It’s important I avoid contracting other people’s colds, flu or viruses, so I wash my hands often–every time I’m in the bathroom, before I leave the gym, and any time I’m working with food. Since I’ve become more diligent with handwashing, I haven’t been significantly ill. But although I’m vigilant, I refuse to obsess over hygiene or let the risk of infection possess me. Stress weakens the immune system too, so I do all I can to remove as much stress as possible from my life. Living in fear is not a path I walk on, and peace of mind is essential to me as I stay in control of my HIV. Despite making big life changes like taking medication every day, learning positive thinking techniques, exercising, eating better, and having a stricter hygiene regimen, dating was the hardest part of those early years with HIV. I had always wanted to get married, and at first I thought there was no way this would happen. I did eventually start dating again, but was afraid to tell people I got close to that I was HIV positive. Rediscovering my value and my worth gave me the strength to disclose my illness to others. Eventually, I did meet a man that chose to see past my condition. After 8 years together in a wonderful marriage, he is still my best friend. My story is a testament that it can happen. HIV didn’t mean that my life was over–and over the years, my faith has played a big role in learning that truth. I can do the things I want to do, have deep relationships, and live a full life. My husband and I recently started a support group for people living with HIV in our town. We call it Community C.A.R.E., which stands for Community AIDS/HIV Response and Education. I recognized a gap in services for people with HIV outside of big cities, so we are working together to address that need. After years of struggling with this illness, I want to show others like me that they don’t have to live in shame and can live a fulfilling life. Mysti Outler lives in Locust Grove, Georgia with her husband, Eric.