Brady, I have been searching high and low over the internet to find great minded, incredible and influential individuals during the launch of my project and you certainly stood out from the crowd!
When you agreed to allow us to interview you I have to say I’ve been excited all day to get to know you more.
Rather than me introduce you Brady, please introduce yourself to our readers and give us a brief overview of what you’re about and what you’ve been getting up to please. Where are you based and what do you do?
My name is Brady Dale Morris. I’m 40 years old and I’m proud to live in Nashville, TN. I grew up in a little bitty country town located in Northeast Arkansas called Pocahontas (no, I’m not joking and yes, painting with all the colors of the wind is required to live there) and never dreamed as a kid growing up on a farm that my life would be as amazing as it is today.
As a music lover, Nashville has always been somewhere I have wanted to visit. I’ve heard it’s a very creative town! Your story in particular, touched me in a way where I just wanted to reach out to you and give you a hug. Not out of pity, or even sympathy, but your story really does warm my heart. It’s a prime example of making something brilliant out of something that could be considered devastating.
Before we delve in to that, I would like to ask what your views were towards HIV and HIV positive people before you were diagnosed. Were you educated about HIV? What was your overall perception?
I’m a child of the ’80’s and remember quite vividly the images I saw on TV. Knowing I was gay since I was just 4 or 5 years old (granted I didn’t understand everything that that meant, but I knew I wanted to play kiss chase with the boys rather than the girls) when Peter Jennings began talking about a mysterious cancer that was only affecting gay men, it caught my attention. It went from being a gay cancer, then they called it GRID, and eventually HIV and AIDS, but regardless of what they called it, I knew it would effect my life even then. I would read anything I could get my hands on about HIV and AIDS growing up and was more knowledgeable about the virus than most.
Since I had that understanding of the virus, I didn’t let it be a reason to not date a guy if he happened to be HIV+. (I also have the most AMAZING parents in the world and they raised me to not be an asshole so that played a part in that as well)
I recently saw a TV ad that was aired back in the 1980’s advertising a leaflet that was being sent out to implement fear in to people regarding the AIDS epidemic, it was equally as scary to see how this was all portrayed in the media. Born in 1989 myself, I thankfully didn’t experience this, but the stigma that still surrounds HIV, at least in my country I believe still stems from the scaremongering from the 80’s and that very same stigma unfortunately still lingers today.
Can you please tell share your story about your diagnosis and the struggles you faced following your diagnosis?
When HIV and AIDS first hit mainstream media, there was a legitimate reason for everyone to be afraid because there was nothing known about this virus other than it seemed to prefer gay men and if you got it, you died. Unfortunately, society’s mentality and understanding of the disease is still stuck in the ’80’s and didn’t evolve at the same pace as or along with the research.
When HIV became part of my everyday life in the summer of 2009, life stopped for me. It had been less than 2 months since my previous negative HIV test and I had even been more sexually responsible since moving to Nashville than I had in my late teens and 20’s. However, HIV doesn’t care about how much you know about it or how cautious you’ve been before. For me, all it took was a typical weekend night of dancing and a few drinks coupled with meeting the wrong guy who said all the right things. And I wasn’t just diagnosed as being HIV+ that day in my doctor’s office after the blood work had come in. She was visibly fighting back tears as she told me I had AIDS.
That sounds awful Brady. How were you feeling afterwards?
All that knowledge I had accumulated over the years about HIV and AIDS was apparently worthless. For the first time ever in my life, I began thinking about suicide and followed through on those thoughts. A year later, after experiencing HIV stigma first hand on a repeated basis as well as sexual rejection, I attempted to take my life again.
For me, it didn’t matter if anyone else was HIV+ because that wasn’t going to change how I interacted with them, but I, me, Brady Dale, just couldn’t be HIV+
After my second attempt, I was just going through the motions of life going to work, paying bills, and drinking and doing drugs to numb my pain. Then one day an acquaintance sent me a message that literally changed my life. He said that he had just been diagnosed as being HIV+ and I was the only person he knew who was HIV+ so he asked me for help in where he needed to go and who he needed to talk to about treatment. That was my “light bulb” moment as they call it. For some reason, his request for help flipped that switch in my brain and I saw that my life could have value and meaning again.
Please tell us how you changed your life going forward and how you have helped others with HIV?
I began volunteering and offering support to those who were newly diagnosed and that felt amazing. However, I was now a few years into my own diagnosis and the list of things that had slowly grown over those years as to what bothered me in regards to how those living with HIV were unfairly treated. The social stigma, the extreme lack of HIV knowledge by those in my community, HIV disclosure laws, disparities in accessing medical treatment, etc. The longer I saw these things go on and the longer I experienced them personally the more angry I’d feel when it happened.
It’s upsetting to hear that this sort of stigma still exists in these usual social settings. Tell us more about your work in Africa?
I was asked early on in 2016 by a newly licensed and locally founded 501(c)3 (non-profit organization) named Planet Nashville if I would be interested in going to Kenya, Africa through their organization. I had been wanting to go to Africa since I was a kid and that desire was amplified tenfold after my HIV diagnosis, so I quickly said YES. I stayed with a host family who lived in the slum area just outside of Nairobi to the west in an area called Lenana. My host family are the pastors of Joyland Ministries as well as the directors of a non-profit in Kenya named Joyland Transformation Centre.
I was there for ten days, but my whole outlook on life shifted within the first few hours after stepping off the plane. Seeing and hearing about extreme poverty did not adequately prepare me because my entire perception and understanding changed as smells and tastes began filling in the blank spaces of my perception I’d never considered. I toured two different schools while I was there. The children’s desire to learn was palpable at both locations. I was shocked to learn that the teachers who were all professionally dressed and visibly eager to teach, usually go unpaid due to the lack of money the schools have (the government gives schools no money). Despite the lack of pay, they still show up every day so they can further the children’s education which they hope provides those kids the opportunity to make it out of the slums. I also worked with an orphanage called “The Kings and Queens of Neehmaland.” The majority of my heart still remains there and I’ve got a project in the works that will hopefully benefit the orphanage a lot in the near future.
Finally, working with the HIV+ women’s group named “RWAMAS” which stands for “Reaching Women and Men Against Stigma” was the most personal. This group of women have come together on a nearly daily basis to work on beading necklaces, knitting purses, doing tailoring, and other similar craft work in order to pay for their children’s school fees, food, medications, etc. because they will not find gainful employment in Kenya being HIV+.
What has been the most fulfilling work you have done since your diagnosis?
I began my advocacy work because I wanted to try and help increase the quality of life for people living with HIV (PLWH). That said, any day made better for a PLWH due to something I’ve said or done becomes my favorite. I’ve not ever thought about my work in these terms before now, however, after doing so for a few minutes, I can say I’ve just never done any HIV Advocacy work and then thought about it in terms of “what fulfillment have I received from this.” The only thing that has ever mattered to me is “did what I do positively affect anyone’s life who’s currently living with HIV or not. If YES, then I try to make sure to keep that project going or repeat the event again in the future. If I were to get a NO, then I’d begin looking to see what or if any feasible, cost effective, or organizational changes could be made that would turn that NO into a YES.
Speaking on improving the quality of life for PLWH, we believe that spreading the word about what an undetectable viral load is can play a key role in eliminating HIV stigma, do you agree?
ABSOLUTELY! I have been following the research for a long time now and happened to come across the Facebook page of Bruce Richman just as he was getting the Prevention Access Campaign up and running. I was an immediate fan and supporter and am even more so today. So much of a fan in fact that I applied to and was accepted to be a part of the inaugural “See Something, Say Something or s4” group and I am looking forward to going through the training program Bruce et. al. have put together.
While I may have a lot of different tools in my HIV Advocacy Toolkit, there’s always room for more! I believe if someone says they have learned all they need to know about an issue or how to advocate for said issue, then that is precisely the day they should stop speaking about that issue. That holds especially true for HIV more so than most other causes because although we have learned so, SO much about HIV in the past 30+ years, we continue to learn more and more about it every day.
We always tailor our interview’s to our interviewee based on their own background, circumstances and influence, however, we do always ask every interviewee what their advice would be to the newly diagnosed? Your friend approached you who at the time was newly diagnosed, what advice did you give to him to reassure him that everything would be okay? Also, if another newly diagnosed person approached you today in search for some reassurance, what wise words would you have to offer them?
When anyone sends me a message or approaches me with advice on how to deal with having just learning they are HIV+, the very first thing I make sure I do is to thank them for sharing their HIV+ status with me. Then I immediately let them know how much I sincerely and deeply admire the extreme amount of courage and strength they just displayed by reaching out to me so soon after learning of their new HIV status. This has caught every single person off guard and their very next question 99.9% of the time is “What do you mean I have courage and strength because I messaged you? I’m scared and afraid.” I quickly explain that the very act of reaching out and asking for help takes an insane amount of courage. The shift in their tone is instant. I then make sure they know and understand they are not going to die.
I use my own story as an example. When they learn that I wasn’t just diagnosed as HIV+ in 2009. My viral load was over 500,000 and my CD4 was 52 which meant I had AIDS. However, by following my doctor’s orders and taking my ART every day, I’ve maintained an undetectable viral load for several years now and my last CD4 count was 1048 which is even better than most who don’t even have HIV.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Brady, I for one was very moved by your journey.
Finally, do you have anything else you would like to say to our readers?
If you don’t know your status, please get tested because that’s the first step in ending new HIV transmissions. The knowledge and the power to end new HIV transmissions exists TODAY, right now, and everyone needs to do their part to help make that a reality. If you learn you are HIV+, you’re going to be ok and you aren’t going to die early if you listen to your doctor (and keep looking both ways before crossing streets) And if you or someone you know is struggling with a recent HIV+ diagnosis, reach out and ask for help. If you don’t know who you can talk to, I’ll gladly and happily connect you to a peer living with HIV who will be more than happy to help.
Want to take part in our #STIGMAWARRIOR campaign? Have your say on HIV stigma and get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org