The 1st December marked World AIDS Day. A day which remembers all those who have lost their lives and a day when activists and compassionate human beings unite to educate people even further about HIV and AIDS, working to end the stigma that emotionally cripples so many.
This year, it was also an important day for my good friend, Nathaniel Hall. It was the final performance (for now at least) of his one man show - First Time - at Waterside in Sale, Greater Manchester. I was lucky enough to grab a ticket for the sold out show and watch this inspirational man share his story about living with HIV.
With a lavishly camp backdrop as his stage, Nathaniel, now 32, told us about how he was diagnosed with HIV just two weeks after his 17th birthday. He contracted the virus after his first time having sex. In one heartbreaking recollection after another, we heard about Nathaniel’s journey from the initial diagnosis, his experiences of substance abuse, shame, and “the fucking mess” (his words) his life had become as a consequence.
Nathaniel kept his HIV status secret from his family for almost 14 years, before finally acknowledging that shame was in the driving seat of his life and the route it was taking was no scenic tour. He found himself using substances as a way of numbing out his emotional pain and after a series of incidents, which Nathaniel himself describes as self-harming, he decided it was time to speak out.
Nathaniel told his family a year ago that he was HIV positive. He knew all along that his family would be supportive, and they were exactly that. They were actually in the audience at the show I attended and their admiration and support for him was palpable. But the question remained why it took him so long to speak out. He wanted to tell them, but the words kept getting stuck in his throat. One word cycled back again and again - shame.
Shame keeps people silent. It tells us that we’re not enough and convinces us that without doubt, we’ll be abandoned if we ever disclose what is eating us up inside. Nathaniel’s show is not only relatable to those living with HIV, it’s a show that speaks to anyone who’s ever carried a secret because they feared how people might judge them if they were to speak out.
Everyone who identifies as part of the LGBT+ community knows shame. Every victim of abuse knows shame. And as Nathaniel highlighted powerfully in his show, anyone living with HIV knows shame like the back of their hand. It seems like shame is everywhere, so what’s the cure?
Compassion and education. Education to end stigma and prevent further shame, and compassion to neutralise shame that already exists. Why? Because shame erodes self-esteem and is a breeding ground for mental health challenges.
Nathaniel has taken a bold step to heal his own shame by bringing it into the light. Shame’s worst enemy is your own voice - when you speak out and give words to your shame, it loses its power. When you speak out with compassion the way Nathaniel has, you find other people who feel the same as you. Shame’s other enemy is meaningful human connection. Healing happens in communities and Nathaniel is growing his community every day, whilst simultaneously doing the same for everyone who hears his story.
Nathaniel’s show takes the audience on a journey that I might imagine reflects his own personal experience of life - hilarious at times, devastating at others and woven with lessons that will empower him and his audiences to live a life with more self-compassion, far less shame and much more optimism.
It doesn’t take an army to start a revolution. It takes one person, brave enough to speak their truth. Nathaniel did this in his play and knowing him as I do, I’m sure it’s the start of his own personal revolution, which will positively (pun fully intended) change the lives of many.
The show is set to tour next year with Dibby Theatre Productions. You can follow Nathaniel on Twitter & Instagram @nathanieljhall to keep up to date.
Photo credit: Lee Baxter
You can also find out ways to support by following this link: https://www.hiv.gov/events/awareness-days