Paige Rawl has been HIV positive since birth…but growing up, she never felt like her illness defined her. It never prevented her from entering beauty pageants or playing soccer or making the honor role, until she shared her HIV status with a friend and suddenly became the victim of bullying. In her compelling and compulsively readable memoir, nineteen-year-old Paige Rawl shares how she overcame the ordeal to change her world for the better.
Positive has the most perfect title; you are HIV “positive,” and in spite of dealing with the disease and enduring bullying, the tone of your book is unrelentingly hopeful and “positive.” To what do you attribute your upbeat approach to life?
After everything I went through in middle school I decided that I wasn’t going to let this disease define who I was. I also decided that I was going to turn a bad situation into something good. I didn’t want to see anyone have to go through what I went through. So I decided to speak out and share my story and advocate against bullying and educate others on HIV/AIDS. In a weird way, the bullying I endured in middle school gave me the courage to show people that I am more than just someone with HIV. To show people that HIV does not hold me back from achieving my goals.
How have you managed to avoid letting HIV define who you are?
I believe that I have managed it by defying people’s perceptions—by doing all of things you wouldn’t expect from “sick” person—and more. Ever since I was a kid I have kept myself busy and gotten involved in as many activities and causes as possible. When my HIV status became known, I continued all of my extracurricular activities, and today I continue to stay constantly active, first because I enjoy it, but second as a way of showing people that I can do as much as a “normal” person, and then some.
Education, increased sensitivity and awareness have helped people get a better understanding of HIV than they had ten years ago, and you touch on that powerfully in your book. What do you want people to know about HIV going forward?
I want people to know that HIV is no longer a death sentence. HIV is something that people can now live with and live a normal life with. HIV is not something that can be passed through casual contact. Right now, HIV can be managed through proper diagnosis and medication. Diabetes is managed and treated. Asthma is managed and treated. In that way, HIV no different from those other illnesses. I also want people to know that HIV isn’t something to judge someone for. HIV doesn’t define who someone is. HIV doesn’t limit a person in what they are and what they can do.
You’ve not only managed living with this disease, but you’ve been a busy student, cheerleader, soccer player and pageant contestant. What drives you?
I think being busy is a part of my nature. I’ll be honest—the negative comments and the bullies are actually what drives me at times. I want to show them that I can do whatever I want despite my HIV status. But mostly, the victims of bullying or the kids/teens living with illnesses or anyone who could use a little inspiration are what keep me going. I want kids/teens to know that it’s okay to ask for help in any situation. I want them to know that if they believe that they have a story to tell, then they should tell it. There is always at least one person going through what you are who could use your help or advice. When I go and speak and share my story and I have someone contact me and tell me I have inspired them it shows me that what I am doing is right. It shows me that there are people out there who are benefitting from hearing my story. I love to hear that I have given someone else the courage to share their own story and help someone else by doing so.
You were victimized, but didn’t settle into the role of a victim. How do you explain your will to push beyond it?
In the beginning, I saw myself as a victim of bullying. But now that I look at it I would like to say that I am not a victim, I am a survivor! I learned to cope with what I had been through and decided that I was going to do something about the way I was treated. I found the will because I knew I could help those other victims of bullying or victims of chronic illnesses to become survivors as well!
Would you share with our readers what was going on in your life when you hit your lowest point emotionally? How did you respond and how did that help pull you out of it?
The lowest point in my life would have to be my freshman year of high school. Even though I was at a new school with an outstanding support system I was still struggling with the effects of the bullying that I had gone through in middle school. I had only told a few of my close friends in my high school about my HIV status. I knew I had an administration that would help me if any bullying occurred, but I still feared that if students at my new school found out about my status that they would judge me because of it and the cycle of abuse would start all over again. At times, I would sit and think about what did I to deserve the bullying I had gone through. Simultaneously, I was in the middle of a lawsuit with the school township and it wasn’t proceeding the way I expected. It felt like, all over again, the adults in my life who were supposed to stop what was happening to me—who were supposed to call it out and label it as wrong—weren’t helping. That all the systems that were supposed to protect me were failing me instead.
I wanted to escape from those bad feelings. I wanted to put it all past me and at the time I thought that taking 15 sleeping pills would help me escape from it all. So that’s what I did, I took those 15 sleeping pills. But soon after, I realized that that was just me giving up. That was something I knew was wrong and wouldn’t make anything any better for anyone. Getting help in a stress center for a few days was my way of pulling out of it. I realized that I need to be strong and keep going and not look back at the past. At the center, I learned coping skills to help me through the really rough times.
In middle school you were bullied by an ex-best friend who was a highly regarded, model student from an academic family, so the school turned a blind eye when you reported the bullying. Do you have any advice for readers who also have a hard time being heard?
Yes, my advice would be to keep telling someone. If the first person doesn’t do something, then tell someone else, and then someone else. Don’t stop until someone listens. My mistake was that I stopped reporting my incidents of bullying. I stopped reporting them because I began to be seen as the person causing the drama. Now I wish I had found other adults to inform.
You found a completely new school situation at Herron Charter School. To what do you attribute the tolerant and kinder environment?
I believe it can be directly attributed to the amazing administrators, teachers and faculty members I encountered. For me, and for so many others, Herron gave us a special place to be ourselves and not be judged for it. I was able to go to school and not hide anything about me. I believe that the adults at Herron had a compassion and care for the students that’s hard to find. The faculty actually wanted to know what was going on in the students’ lives and was always available to lend a hand or give support!
What do you think is the most powerful lesson you’ve learned? How do you think that would translate to other teens facing challenges like bullying, depression, illness or tough family situations?
The most powerful lesson that I have learned is to treat someone the way I want to be treated. It’s really that simple. I always grew up hearing this from my mother and from the teachers/staff at my elementary school. You hear it so much you don’t really think about it, you know? But it is really the key to everything. If kids don’t treat each other badly because of what they have or don’t have, what they look like or don’t look like, what they are struggling with or what they aren’t struggling with, maybe there isn’t a need for a book like mine. And isn’t that the kind of world we all want to live in?
How important was your experience at Camp Kindle?
My experience at Camp Kindle was and is life changing. My first summer at Camp Kindle I met kids/teens who were going through what I was going through. I met kids/teens who had HIV or who had family members with it. I was able to see other kids/teens my age deal with problems that I was also dealing with. I was able to talk and share my feelings with people I knew would understand. Camp Kindle also showed me that I need to be out there educating so that none of the campers will have to be afraid to go home and share with their friends that they are infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Camp Kindle gave me a second family!
You’ve had many powerful moments in your life in spite of your young age! Are there any that stand out as most transformative? If so, would you share a little about them and why they were so meaningful for you?
One powerful moment for me was the day that I decided to share with my entire high school my HIV status. It took me until the middle of my sophomore year of high school to stand up before my peers at Herron and let them hear from me that I was HIV positive. I shared with everyone that I was born positive and that I had struggled with bullying in middle school because of it and that I didn’t want to have to go through it there. The Head of School stood up and told the students they would no longer be a student at Herron if I was bullied because of my HIV status. This was the support that I had longed for. After I spoke, I had students come up and hug me and tell me it was okay. It wasn’t pity that I got. It was pure support and love and care that I received from the teachers and faculty and students at Herron. That was when I realized that there was hope! That people can change and educating others on the disease can and will help towards reducing the stigma towards HIV/AIDS.
What are your dreams for the future? My dreams for the future are to get a degree in Molecular Biology and become an HIV/AIDS medical research scientist. I also want to continue to dedicate my life to educating about HIV/AIDS to reduce the stigma, share my story and advocate against bullying.
Thanks to Paige for this interview and all the adorable personal photos! To read Paige’s full story, check out her inspiring memoir – POSITIVE!