I sat down with Eli for a brief interview to hear about his time and role at the Boston Living Center as he prepares to move on from the BLC. I have paraphrased some of Eli’s answers below, while the portions in quotations are Eli’s own words. While I cannot truly speak for his experience, Eli’s voice shines through as we get a glimpse into who he is at the BLC. The following is what transpired from our brief encounter:
How long have you been at the BLC? Has the BLC changed since you’ve been here?
I’ve been at the BLC for 1 year and 9 months. I came in after the merger [with Victory Programs] so there were a lot of changes that happened before I arrived.
What makes the BLC special?
It’s a unique place that has its own culture. A big part of the BLC is the meals; people come for the meals and it’s a big part of what we do here. The BLC is also a safe place for many people. They don’t have to worry about their status and can talk to people in a friendly environment. It can serve as kind of a second home for many people.
If you are willing to share, would you like to tell me your HIV story?
Well, I was diagnosed June 23, 2008. I had gotten very sick with a persistent cough and was losing a little bit of weight. I had waited – putting off getting tested because in the back of my mind I kind of already knew. I was scared and thinking that it might be HIV, but was too afraid and avoided finding out. When I finally went to the doctor, I was at the beginning stages of pneumonia. My t-cells were also at 172, so technically, I was diagnosed with AIDS. When I heard the diagnosis, it was the weirdest feeling that I still remember to this day – it felt like the life was literally sucked out of me. All throughout my body it was like I could feel the life leaving me.
In what ways has your life changed since your diagnosis?
“Yeah, it changes. It changes you mentally, it changes you physically, it changes you sexually… You kind of step back a little bit and you don’t really get yourself out there like you were before.
I think that everybody goes through different stages, you know? The stage that I’m going through now is something that someone who’s been positive for 20 years has been through….You go through finding yourself, finding your niche and saying, ‘now this happened, where am I going with this?’”
Do you think that there is stigma within the BLC community?
“Oh yeah… there’s always stigma.”
Where do you think it comes from? How does it form?
“I mean, there’s specific stigma from each of us, but it comes from a bigger spectrum… we are just a little part of what we were taught in our families, what we see in TV, what we hear on radio, what we hear in the bus, in our community, in our group of friends, and all we learn – not only here – we are that kind of species. Everything we do and say we learn it, and so we just take it with us.
And we do it, even people who say they don’t stigmatize, we sometimes do it. I’m not saying purposefully, or maliciously, but we sometimes do it. It comes out! And you know, if you catch it that’s the best part because you’re like…’why am I stigmatizing that person?’“
What will you miss most about the BLC?
My Latino group.
What is it about your Latino group that you’ll miss?
Well I kind of helped create, or fostered, the group. I identify with them most and we have a lot of shared experiences that we can talk about. We’ve created a place here for each other.
A special thanks to Eli for being so candid, and taking the time out of his day to take part in the interview!