The Positive Side

Winter 2008 

Road to Hope

David Nelson of Edmonton has often travelled the road of HIV and depression. But each time he grows more adept at letting his experiences and his friends guide him back to a stronger place.

By Jennifer O’Connor

IT BEGINS WITH WANTING TO CLOSE THE CURTAINS, to sleep all day. The feeling that he can’t take control like he’s “supposed” to, can’t think about anything positive at all. Having dealt with depression since he was a teenager, David Nelson can tell when those feelings are coming on again.

On Sept 20, 1996, when he was 31, he found out he was HIV positive. “It changed depression for me,” he says. “At first, I allowed myself to fall into that hopelessness. But since then I have done my best to address these emotions.”

These days, Nelson speaks publicly, but his AIDS activism began organically back in 1982 when he was 17. He was a runaway living near Washington, DC, and he and some friends found a newspaper article that described the symptoms of AIDS. That article inspired him to action, and he began warning friends and acquaintances to choose their sexual partners carefully. He wasn’t afraid to take a public stance either, pointedly hugging someone who was being shunned in church one day for being HIV positive.

Eventually, in 1989–90 when he had gone on to study social work, he co-founded Feather of Hope — an organization in Edmonton for Aboriginal people with HIV — along with two nursing students and a mutual friend living with HIV. Nelson was only 24 at the time: “It was so hard and overwhelming, because I didn’t have the background, but I saw the need was there,” he recalls. Feather of Hope went on to operate for more than 10 years. During the same period, Nelson was also the first Aboriginal outreach worker at the AIDS Network of Edmonton.

Learning to cope

All of these experiences would later serve to help Nelson with the depression he sank into after his diagnosis in 1996. He drew on the strength and hopefulness of the many positive role models he’d met: “I asked myself, ‘What did they do to cope with those feelings?’ ”

Other supports have proved useful, too, such as the 12-step programs he had attended when he was in his twenties. Back then he wasn’t willing to give up alcohol and drugs, but after the tailspin following his diagnosis, the perspectives he had gained in the program re-surfaced to help him realize that “drinking and drugging” weren’t helping — instead they were feeding the depression.

More recently, he tried bodymapping, a form of art therapy, to refocus himself after a difficult bout with hepatitis C medication side effects. “When I’m lost, rather than letting it go into a depression, I intentionally look for things like bodymapping or a retreat of some kind to go to and reconnect spiritually — anything that might be useful toward helping my spirit.” As well, Nelson takes part in a peer support group where he has met people who have reinforced his belief that you can get through the rough times. Of course, having an understanding partner helps, and there’s also his cat, Spice, who is a source of unconditional love.

Despite all the hard-earned self-awareness and support, there are still times when Nelson feels down: when his arthritis acts up and he has to stay inside, for instance, or when one of the people he counts on for health care is rude. Acknowledging the feelings helps — he tries to allow himself to feel bad for about half an hour, and then move on. “The further I let myself go down the road of depression,” he says, “the longer it takes me to get back.”

Nelson’s journey has taken him to a healthier space within himself. “I’ve stuck around,” he says. “I waited for the miracle that would lift my depression even when I felt I was in hell… and because I hung in there I get to be here today. The world is not a better place. I’ve changed inside myself.”

Photograph: Curtis Trent