This week's Positive People blog is by Rich Watkins, actor, HIV activist and dear friend and supporter of Wandsworth Oasis who always makes us smile even when communicating a serious message. 

We are living in a remarkable and challenging time. And I, like all of us, am trying my best to work out how best to get through it.

Back in 2016, not long after my HIV diagnosis, I began working as a Patient Representative at my local clinic. My role was to work collaboratively with members of our HIV community, to improve our shared experience of living with the condition.

And I have been a fierce advocate of peer support ever since – whether on courses for those recently diagnosed, through advocacy and press interviews or more indirectly through my work as an actor, most recently in the hit parody musical “Happily Ever Poofter”.

In all of my various roles, I have continuously tried my best to engage and encourage my community. To offer reassurance. Perhaps even inspiration.

Though to be quite honest, I find myself at a loss to do so right now. Being physically separated from each other doesn’t help, of course. But more than that – how can we support each other, when there is no precedent set on how to get through this entirely unique and challenging situation? When there is no example for us to follow? No rule book provided? No blueprint?

Of course, on a practical level we have the simple and lifesaving instruction: stay home. But as important as this direction is to protect our physical health, it offers little by way of mental health. And let’s be clear: the mental health implications of this period of isolation upon many of us will be significant. For many, they already are.

So what can we do? What can I write here to support my community? What can I say to anyone needing to be encouraged? Reassured? Inspired?

Well, the first rule of writing is to write what you know. So, perhaps I might call upon some of the same things I would say to my HIV community back when I worked at the clinic.

Firstly, our experience is entirely unique.

In the same way that one person’s HIV diagnosis can never be and will never be felt the same way as anyone else’s, so we all have our own individual experience of this lockdown. Some are working on the frontline; some are suddenly without any work at all. Some of us are entirely alone; others are surrounded by (or feeling rather suffocated by!) friends or family members. Some are exercising, vlog-ing, yoga-ing, showcasing their talents online every day; while many are struck down with debilitating anxiety, or even illness.

One person’s experience does not invalidate another’s. One person’s potential does not limit anyone else’s. Just like with diagnosis, we are all on our own unique path. We are all learning each and every day. We are all reacting. Remember, there is no rulebook. There is no blueprint.

Secondly, rely on that one single rule. In lockdown we are told again and again: stay home, save lives. And an HIV diagnosis will be met with a similarly simple instruction: take your medication, save lives.

Often the simplest instructions are the most difficult to follow. But for those of us who belong to the brilliant HIV community, we have first-hand experience that following a specific daily instruction will protect not just ourselves but those around us. And now all of us have a similar responsibility. It may be a challenge, but it is one we will meet head-on. Let our HIV community be a living, thriving testament to the fact that discipline, perseverance and following a simple instruction can and will pay off.

And finally there is the advice I give to myself, which I share with you today:

“Choose joy”

When I was diagnosed with HIV, I clearly remember feeling I had a choice. I could either choose to allow the fear, the worry and the stress to consume me; or I could choose resilience, strength and ultimately joy. And this was by no means a one-off choice (there are no quick fixes when it comes to matters of the heart and mind!) but rather an ongoing choice to thicken my own skin, listen to my inner optimist and hopefully – eventually – find the joy in life.

Because we don’t just choose joy once. We can choose it every single day. We don’t have to – we get to. And even in the darkest times of ill-health, loss and sorrow, it is the possibility of knowing that when joy returns, we can and will choose it again. Even if it’s just beyond our reach in that moment. And that, for me, feels extremely relevant right now.

Choosing joy can manifest itself in many ways. It might be a Marie Kondo-esque squeak of excitement at the beginning of every day. It could be finding a sense of calm, despite all the busy noise our media would have us listen to. It might be realising you have the capacity to forgive after a heated row. It might even be discovering and making peace with the fact that you, paradoxically, don’t currently feel joyful, and knowing that’s ok.

So until we can all be together again, I invite you to choose joy – however that looks for you.