ACRIA Update, Spring 2002 - Vol. 11, No. 2
If I had been asked in the months following my diagnosis whether
what I ate and whether I exercised could somehow control the HIV
in my body I would have said, "No." Looking back, though, my
behavior suggested a different answer.
Almost overnight I stopped caffeine and sugar, started taking
vitamins and supplements with religious devotion, switched to
unprocessed organic foods, added more long-distance runs and
resistance work to my schedule and took up yoga. At the time, I
was doing what I believed necessary to manage my health. Looking
back, it seems pretty clear I was trying to outrun a train.
I started to realize things were out of hand when I visited an
acupuncturist during this time and she asked me to write down all
the supplements and vitamins I was taking. When she pointed to a
few specific items on the lengthy list and asked what they were
for, I heard myself say, "I don't remember." It wasn't that I had
been taking things without meticulously researching them; I just
couldn't keep them all straight.
Maybe in my head I knew "do everything perfectly" didn't equal
"control HIV," but my behavior came straight out of "I need to do
something or I'm gonna die." In the crisis of my diagnosis, I
suppose I needed something to control, as if my brain took on a
hobby while the rest of me was freaking out.
The irony of all this self-care was that it threatened whatever
pleasure was in my life at the time. My runs were no longer the
relaxing detours of my week but what I was supposed to do to
purge toxins and keep my cardiovascular system toned. Yoga class
felt less like a chance to practice meditation with my body and
more like an obligation. The chores just kept piling up. Even the
occasional six ounces of coffee acquired the taste of guilt.
Meanwhile, my viral load went up and my CD4s went down. When I
ultimately went on antiretroviral therapy - the thing I was
desperate to avoid - I found unexpected relief in what felt like
surrender. As my viral load went to undetectable and my CD4s
climbed above 1,000, I relaxed into the knowledge that I wasn't
going to die next week. I started to believe I was in it for the
long haul and I began to behave that way.
To be honest, I somewhat resented drug therapy. I hadn't taken an
antibiotic in over ten years, let alone the three medications my
regimen required every day. While HIV had never shown me a
symptom, the diarrhea caused by Viracept was very real.
Strangely, though, I think this helped me start to see how diet
and exercise fit into the picture. Some research and
experimentation led me, for example, to the discovery that
glutamine and calcium supplements could completely resolve my
intestinal upset. I began to focus on supporting my body to
tolerate the medications and reduce their potentially toxic
Six years later, I have what I would call a recovered attitude
about the role of diet and exercise in managing my HIV disease. I
have a better understanding of all the tools of wellness and I've
had some time to get adjusted to what it means to live with HIV.
The pleasure is back in my running. That cup of coffee tastes
I don't look at my diet and exercise habits as ways to knock down
the virus; I eat well and I exercise because it's really good for
my body, and it feels that way. I try to keep it simple. The two
things that I've always felt were most important for long-term
strength and survival - gut health and muscle mass - are the two
things I try to support with what I eat and what I do.
By anyone's standards, I eat well - organic vegetables and
fruits, whole grains, plenty of protein and water. I'm a
vegetarian, which probably helps me avoid some of the more
unhealthy foods, but forces me to pay more attention to what I
eat to be sure I get all the nutrients I need.
These days I exercise with realistic goals, a commitment to do
the work, and forgiveness. Last year I trained successfully for a
half-marathon but had to pull out a few days before the race when
I got a hypersensitivity reaction during a drug switch. I was
disappointed, but I took great satisfaction in knowing I could go
the distance and committed myself to finding another race. For
someone perpetually at risk of death-by-perfectionism, learning
how to say "Oh, well�" - and meaning it - is as important to a
successful exercise regimen as being disciplined about putting in
the time every week.
These days my life feels too short to fill with "shoulds" and too
long to opt out of investing in it. I've discovered a vast, sort
of unruly world that exists beyond the pre-diagnosis denial that
I would ever die and those first post-diagnosis months of being
consumed by the idea of my death.
I engage in a fairly constant process of negotiating what I am
willing and able to contribute on any given day to feeling
healthy and strong. No one makes me find creative ways to eat
broccoli (not my favorite) or get myself out the door for a run
on a dreary day. Sometimes, though, these simple choices about
what to put into my body and how to keep it strong remind me that
I'm also choosing to participate fully in my life�and that feels
Heidi M. Nass is a community advocate based in Madison,