After months of planning, preparing, and fundraising, the Emotional Health Retreat for Women Living with HIV in Nicaragua finally took place. We shared stories, laughs, tears, dances, and many words of advice and encouragement. It was a meaningful experience that I know will stay with me for a long time.
The weekend of the retreat, I travelled to Matagalpa, located in the mountains of Northern Nicaragua, with four of my Peace Corps friends and colleagues. We organized to hold the retreat in Selva Negra, a very fancy hotel, farm, and coffee plantation originally founded by Germans in the 1800s. The grounds, cabins, and rooms of the hotel are calm and beautiful: the perfect setting for a retreat focused on emotional health.
The first night, we allowed the women time to write out timelines of their lives, beginning and ending at wherever they saw fit and including the events of their choice. We opened the floor up to anyone who wished to share their timeline, and soon the environment became somber. Many women shared stories of being raped, finding out about their diagnosis later, and sometimes even learning that their children also had HIV. Many also spoke of the mistreatment they received because of the negative stigma attached to their diagnosis. One woman, Maria, started her story: “I was a poor girl. People used to make fun of us for not having food and clothes.” Many wept as they told about the hardships they had faced in their lives, and I found myself crying freely as well. Tears for women who had to endure sexual violence. Tears for the abuse and discrimination faced by women, just for living with a disease. Tears for the injustice of having to live with an illness acquired through violence, through no fault of one’s own. Though the room felt heavy with grief, I was glad the women felt safe and comfortable enough to express their feelings and connect with each other.
We tried to maintain positive energy during the rest of the weekend, always allowing the women to express themselves. We discussed what it means to have internalized stigma, when one is so used to experiencing discrimination and mistreatment that she begins to consider herself a lesser human, often unconsciously. We talked about how sex can be a pleasurable experience that a woman can experience with or without a partner in a variety of ways, emphasizing, of course, the indispensability of condoms and other contraceptives. We brainstormed ways to share one’s diagnosis comfortably and understandably. We demonstrated healthy relationships and identified the positive qualities in ourselves that we can bring to our relationships. We practiced yoga and breathing exercises. We drew and colored to express our personalities and experiences. We made personal care plans and promised to adhere to practices for healthier lives.
On the last night of the retreat, we held a little party to congratulate and celebrate each woman’s presence and participation in the retreat. Women danced down an aisle lined with balloons to receive her certificate from one of her fellow participants. It was touching just to see how women who had arrived quiet and shy were now feeling free (at least in that space) to dance and laugh together.
Each woman also received a letter written especially for her by a woman living with HIV in the U.S. A few participants could not read, so I crouched next to one of them, Jasmina, to read her letter out loud to her. “You have to be strong and continue to move forward,” the woman in the U.S. told Jasmina. “Remember that you are not alone.” As I neared the end of the letter, I looked down to see Jasmina’s face filled with tears. “No one’s ever told me that,” she said. “I am not alone.”
During our final activity, we each made an individual promise to the group: to adhere to our medication routine, to exercise more, to eat healthier, to stay in touch with each other. As we said our promise, we pressed our painted hands into a sign that read: ¡Vivimos positivamente en solidaridad! (We live positively in solidarity). I promised the women I would continue to educate myself about HIV. You are not alone, as one woman living with HIV reminded another on the other side of the world. “Yo vivo con ustedes en solidaridad.”