Outside of My Comfort Zone
Finding Strength in Being Uncomfortable
by Asha Molock

Photo by Shawn Theodore

It was eleven o’clock in the morning on September 6, 2001; that was the day and time that I started living in another world. It was a world of being constantly uncomfortable. I was just diagnosed with HIV at fifty years old. Oh, I’ve been uncomfortable before in my life, but nothing in my earlier life could have ever prepared me for being so far out of my comfort zone. I was immensely uncomfortable, ashamed and scared. Afraid of being judged, I concealed my status for ten years. I felt powerless, isolated and embarrassed. I thought people would make value-based assumptions on my life, as if I had done something wrong to contract HIV. And as a school teacher, I thought people would say, “You’re older and a teacher; you should have known better.” I definitely didn’t want any of my colleagues at the school where I taught to know about my HIV status. I remember how heartbreaking it was when another teacher was gossiped about and treated like biohazard after his HIV status was known. Witnessing that stigma made me extremely fearful that my family and friends would disown me. Sadly, I lived in this altered state of discomfited thoughts until the age of sixty. I allowed my feelings of being apprehensive about living with HIV to limit me and put me in a dark place. I didn’t want to live my life that way anymore.

It was time to live a different life. But, what kind of life could I live with HIV? I had no idea, but there had to be something better than living a stagnant life in fear. After some careful thought and conversations with my therapist, I decided to start revealing my HIV status to a few family members and then I disclosed my status publicly in a Philadelphia newspaper. Let me tell you…. talk about being uncomfortable…. bravery and strength was desperately needed after that article hit the press! Unfortunately, I learned a lot about people and their ignorant, stigmatizing viewpoints about HIV. Some of my quiet, uncomfortable thoughts were being verbalized by people. I cringed at the comments and questions, which some thought were supportive but actually made my spirit heavy. “I’m so glad you’re still alive. Who’s going to take care of your son after you’re gone?” “How did you get infected; was he gay?” I could also sense that some people felt awkward around me and were viewing me in a negative way. At one point, I thought that I had made a mistake by disclosing my HIV status, but later I discovered that it was the best decision for me. Eventually, it was empowering to turn those irritating moments into teachable moments, as I answered people with the correct information about HIV. Although disclosure was uncomfortable, I learned that being uncomfortable is not always a terrible place to be. In that place, I grew stronger, more resilient and self-assured, and the more discomfort I could handle, the more comfortable I became.

I promised myself that I would never shy away from any challenging situation in my life; doing so would prevent me from having the experiences that I needed and would also block an opportunity for me to have a lesson in courage.

So, contracting HIV and being uncomfortable helped me to realize my true strength and capabilities, which was the beginning of living the life that I deserved.

Now, I embrace discomfort and challenge myself to try new things, which builds my confidence and makes me even stronger. Especially things that have always frightened me, such as: public speaking, writing and telling my story, learning to swim, zip lining, and my latest challenge, pole fitness at the age of sixty-eight. I’m the oldest person in the class, clearly out of my comfort zone but loving it!

I think as long as I’m living with HIV there may always be something for me to feel uncomfortable about: HIV stigma, discrimination, criminalization and the rejection from those who are afraid to date me because of my HIV status.

But, I can deal with that because there is no other place that I would rather be than uncomfortable, for I know that being comfortable is not enough. It’s too safe and there are no lessons to learn and no growth to measure. Living with HIV has certainly taught me that whenever I encounter something that makes me feel uneasy, instead of being afraid, to face it, roll up my sleeves, handle my business, then live my life!

Asha Molock is a retired Philadelphia School District teacher and award-winning author of two books, Gaining Strength From Weakness and The Underground Woman: From Prisoner to Freedom. Visit her blog at https://undergroundwomanblog.com