When I was an adolescent, I had days where I felt like
absolutely everything was wrong with me. I also had days where I
felt like I was right and everybody else around me was wrong.
I remember having both sets of feelings - and many more - all on
the same day. This all served as the perfect fuel for
door-slamming, huffing, and furious scribbling of cringe-worthy
emotional outbursts in secret journals.
Even though I like caring for adolescents as they work through
establishing autonomy and all these emotionally charged
developmental stages, I would not want to be a teenager again.
Adolescents in Kenya go through the very same processes as
adolescents anywhere in the world (albeit they seem to do less
door-slamming and journal scribbling than I did). The challenges of
transforming into an adult become even more complicated, though,
when you are HIV-infected and no one has told you this important
This is what 15-year-old Dinah told me in clinic as we talked
about what it was like before she knew that she had HIV: "You
wonder what is wrong with you that no one will talk about. You
worry that you are going to die or that your mother is going to die
or that your sister is going to die. You learn to keep secret after
secret after secret."
And then when Dinah found out that her mother had not been
telling her the truth for all of these years - that 9 years of
medicines for a "chest problem" were really for HIV, that HIV had
killed her father, that HIV was inside of Dinah's blood and her
mother's too - she had even more muddled, raging, confusing
emotions. Fear and anger and despair.
"I just thought I would die," admitted Dinah.
But time and counseling and processing and love can heal many
wounds. Dinah has been counseled monthly by an experienced nurse in
our pediatric HIV clinic at the referral hospital, and her mother
stuck with her through the accusations and difficult questions, and
Dinah has come to "accept this HIV", to accept the diagnosis and
make strides towards facing her future with this virus. She's doing
great in school, and she speaks aloud at the adolescents' support
group with quite, firm determination about what it means to "live
positively." She takes her medicines every day, and you would never
know that Dinah has HIV.
We're trying to figure out how to bring this kind of helpful
counseling and a better curriculum to help more adolescents through
this tricky process in Kenya and other poor places. Here's to a
healthy transition through the door-slamming years!