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Living with HIV

On World Aids Day, Eyewitness News profiles one brave woman’s experience of living with HIV.

World Aids Day is held on 1 December each year.

"My doctor said I would die if I didn't take them." This is the explanation from Jackie Ruth Murray on why she started taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) despite some resistance to taking the medication.

Murray greets us at the gate of her farmstyle cottage where she lives with her two dogs and a sprawling farmland as her backyard. Inside her home is a display of fruit and vegetables and she offers us some freshly squeezed juice, made in her own juicer.

My colleague and I sit down for the interview in Murray's openplan kitchen. She tells us about her journey since she learned seven years ago that she is HIV-positive.

She says living a healthy lifestyle which includes exercise and following a predominantly raw food diet has kept her immune system strong and her CD4 count up, so it wasn't necessary to take ARVs until recently.

Murray started on a course of single dose ARV tablets almost a month ago and she feels her body is only becoming accustomed to the medication in the last week. Despite her own extensive research into the side effects and speaking to her doctor, she wasn't quite prepared for the effects of the tablets on her body, mind and emotions.

For the first three weeks the medication knocked her out; she struggled to get out of bed until late in the day and experienced stomach and muscle pain. She describes how she didn't feel prepared for the emotions that would coincide with the start of her course of ARVs. One Sunday in particular left her crying on her couch, feeling alone and desperate.

According to Murray having the virus and dealing with the some of the side effects of going onto ARV medication can be a quite lonely journey, even if one has a strong support group.

Murray says testing positive for HIV brought up many concerns for her: What would her lifespan be? What about relationships? How do I tell people? Where is my life going? How did this happen to me?".

Despite these fears she acknowledges there are positive aspects of her HIV status, such as reassessing who she is and "having more empathy for people with conditions, any condition".

While waiting to go onto the medication Murray filmed an eight-minute mini documentary about her fears, frustrations and the process of getting ready to go onto the life-giving, chronic medication. The film is called The Waiting and forms part of her Master's degree, which she is currently doing at the University of Stellenbosch on the photographic and video representations of HIV/Aids.

As a part-time lecturer and an academic Murray says she finds the packaging of her ARVs on daunting and is concerned that the accompanying leaflet is only in English and Afrikaans. She hopes this is because the doctors know she is an English-speaking patient. Murray unfolds the long list of side effects and says the pharmaceutical companies need to rethink the way they produce and package the medication.

Part of Murray's concern involves the idea that she must take ARVs for the rest of her live and find a way to 'make friends' with the medication.

Before we leave, Murray quickly chops up some carrots and oranges and presents us with a homemade juice. She explains she doesn't need to take extra vitamin supplements as she gets them all from the fresh food she eats. She says she's never been a pill popper which is one of the reasons she initially had trouble with the idea of going onto ARVs.

It was her doctor that finally convinced her to take the medication, saying she would die if she didn't do so. "Although death is not at the forefront of my mind, I have an enjoyable life and I don't want to die," Murray says.

When we leave and the image of Murray and her dogs gets smaller behind us as we exit the farm, there is silence in the car all the way to Cape Town. A silence I can only attribute to needing time to process her reality, bravery and positivity and having no words with which to neatly explain our experience of meeting an extraordinary individual.