Muggs was in his early 40s when he tested positive for HIV.
While visiting friends in Nashville, he knew something felt off. There had been a persistent fear, a worry in the back of his mind, for several months.
“Could this be HIV?” he’d thought.
It had been a year since he was last tested. Doctors would blame his symptoms on allergies or sinus pressure. He was told he was fine and not to worry. But something wasn’t right.
“By the time I came here, I decided I was going to find out.”
He did a quick Google search for basic HIV testing and found Nashville CARES, an organization that provides support for those at risk or living with the disease. From the moment he walked in the door at CARES, he says he could feel the warmth and concern from staff and volunteers.
When he was told his results—that he did have HIV—he said, shockingly, a weight was lifted.
“I finally knew where all these problems were coming from. I had answers,” Muggs says. “I could move forward.”
Staff members and other clients immediately came to him and began to share their experiences. About 30 percent of the staff at CARES are also living with HIV, so he was instantly surrounded by a community of people who were on a similar journey.
“I had so many people to help me process and answer the many, many questions I had concerning everything from medical and insurance navigation to how am I going to date someone while HIV positive,” he says. “This peer experience was the most encouraging and empowering aspect of my process as someone who was newly diagnosed.”
Just three days later, Muggs was admitted to the hospital for viral meningitis. He says he wouldn’t have survived that recovery process without his community at CARES.
He was able to connect with doctors at Vanderbilt University and received help understanding his new medical care. A case manager helped him to work through medical and social services appointments and connected him with another peer for support. He also enrolled in the Insurance Assistance Program which pays for medicine, co-pays and insurance premiums.
CARES became a place to help him transition into life with HIV, so he decided to move to Nashville permanently. He started volunteering at CARES and after four months of being a client and volunteer, he was offered a full-time position in client services and as a certified HIV and Hepatitis C tester. Now, when those who come to CARES with that same worry and weight resting heavily on them, Muggs can offer them the care and support that he was given four years ago.
He spends one day a week offering tests in a local hospital and the rest of the week is spent working in client services, referring clients to resources such as food, nutrition, transportation, emotional support or financial assistance.
“Sometimes a client can’t even put into words what they’re looking for so it’s really up to us in those situations to kind of figure that out and know by experience. It’s basically meeting the needs of our clients daily.”
According to the Southern AIDS Strategy Initiative, 16,190 Tennesseans are living with diagnosed HIV. While there’s no cure, medications have dramatically advanced to slow the progression of the disease and to improve the quality of life for those living with it.
“There is science backing that it’s easier these days, but it’s still hard,” he says. “But without that peer support, it would have been a different story. I just can’t imagine what it’s like to not have someone to help you through.”
Nashville CARES not only provides financial, nutritional and logistical support, but it’s really a community, a safe space, for those living with the disease to process and work through their diagnosis. Through Muggs’ experiences as an employee, volunteer and client at CARES, he works to advocate for those who are scared or haven’t yet found reconciliation in their diagnosis.
“When I think of Nashville CARES, I don’t just think of the staff, I also think of the community here in Middle Tennessee. I think of the people living with HIV who stand up and let themselves be seen, who are visible and speak for the positives, who may be reluctant to be identified or speak up for themselves. I was able to model myself after those very brave advocates and, I think, thrive.”
Muggs says the most difficult part of living with HIV is the judgement that often comes after he discloses his status.
“I’ve gotten to a place where I take the opportunity in those situations to educate those who have a dated understanding of HIV. Questions like, ‘How did you get HIV? Who gave you HIV?’ or, ‘You don’t look like you have it.’ These are steeped in judgment,” he says. “Remember that we’re a lot more alike than we are different. We define who we are—not HIV, not the perception of HIV. If you are struggling, reach out to your peers. If you are doing well and flourishing, share that energy with someone who needs it.”