While adolescence alone can pose challenges, Paige Rawl held an even heavier burden growing up: a positive HIV diagnosis. Having acquired HIV at birth, Paige grew up unaware that her daily medication or frequent doctor’s visits were a result of her positive status. She was also unaware that her father’s death in March 2001 was due to AIDS-related complications. Even when Paige learned her status from her mother in 5th grade, she could not comprehend the social implications of being HIV positive until her middle school years.
After confiding in her best friend, Paige became the target for overwhelming stigma and discrimination throughout her school. Classmates began bullying and threatening Paige, telling others not to talk to her, and even creating cruel nicknames such as “PAIDS.” The school administration did little to protect Paige from this bullying. She even recalls a middle school guidance counselor advising her to refrain from publicly discussing her status instead of punishing the kids who were making fun of her. “It can be hard to go to school every day when you are a teenager,” Paige said, “and it is even harder when you are afraid someone is going to say something to you or post something mean on your locker.”
Speaking and helping other youth has been my most effective coping mechanism.
After leaving middle school, Paige sought to channel her experience into service—through public speaking, providing support to other HIV-positive youth and victims of bullying, and eventually helping pass a 2013 Anti-Bullying law in her home state of Indiana. Paige explains that, beyond its outward impact, this work has mental health benefits: “speaking and helping other youth has been my most effective coping mechanism.”
In her memoir Positive, released in 2014, Paige tells her story and preaches the importance of focusing more public health efforts and resources on youth and the overarching stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. “We need to find new ways to end stigma and bring these topics up with adolescents. People don’t realize that their mental health and wellbeing can actually affect their CD4 counts.” Paige elaborates, referring to human immune systems, and their specific vulnerability to psychosocial strain. Her youth-based work is also demonstrated through her time volunteering as a counselor at Camp Kindle, a summer camp dedicated to serving children and adolescents who are infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
In addition to her work as an EGPAF Ambassador, Paige continues to speak publicly about HIV and bullying, participate in conferences, and contribute to advocacy projects in and beyond Indiana. She hopes that her continued work in this field can help change the way her generation thinks and talks about HIV/AIDS and bullying. To all HIV-positive youth, Paige consistently affirms, “You are living with HIV, but HIV is not who you are.”
“You are living with HIV, but HIV is not who you are.”