POZ I AM Provides Support Group and Radio for PLWHAs
When Robert Breining, the founder of the POZ I AM social network and POZ I AM Internet radio, first learned he was diagnosed with HIV in 2001, he kept it a secret. But soon, he realized that going the course alone was not the best strategy.
"It was something I kept under the rug. My mom told me, 'You don't have to tell anybody, just keep it between us,' and it was fine... because I was scared. I didn't know any better," said Breining.
At a time in his life when he was fighting addiction and dealing with his father's battle with cancer, finding out that he had also contracted HIV could have proved especially difficult. Instead of focusing on his serostatus, he chose instead to educate himself and seek out others who were also coping with their diagnoses. Robert talked candidly about his search to find others living with HIV.
"When I was joining certain social networking sites searching out people with HIV, it was becoming more of a dating site and that wasn't what I was looking for," said Breining. "I wanted to find and learn about other people's experiences living with HIV. I wasn't looking to hook-up; I was looking for support. I wanted to know how I was going to live through it, how I was going to get through it, find out how people dealt with disclosure [of their HIV status] and I wasn't really able to find it."
He recognized the need for information, the need to connect and the need for others to find stories similar to their own. That's when he came up with the idea for POZ I AM.
Breining knew first-hand the feeling of isolation and fear that many have when they first find out their serostatus, because for more than four years he lived in the closet about his own status. Wanting to confront that fear head-on and help others realize that they do not have to live through anxiety and trepidation, he created POZ I AM.
Founded in 2007, it is now five years old and going strong. POZ I AM is a social networking site for those affected by HIV now serving over 2,000 users from more than 40 different countries. Incorporating a social media platform along with groups, blogs and an online chat room, POZ I AM is a place for those wanting to find a safe space to be open about their status with the privacy and protection of a private network.
"I was on MySpace...when I first started finding support and other people living with HIV," said Breining. "I realized that there are a lot more people who are not on MySpace and are living with HIV and because they don't want to put it out there, don't want people to know that they are positive. I wanted to provide a space for people where they can be comfortable, be themselves, not feel like they have to impress anybody or have to have a hot photo of themselves, and kind of share their own story at their own will."
One of the most popular aspects of POZ I AM is their weekly broadcast, POZ I AM radio. Co-hosting the show with Breining are fellow HIV activists Jeromy Dunn and Jack Mackenroth (of "Project Runway" fame). Covering topics ranging from HIV-positive fathers (since Father's Day is just around the corner) to HIV criminalization to the stories of day-to-day life living with HIV, POZ I AM radio brings topics of relevance to both the HIV-positive and -negative communities with guests, including reality-show celebrities, athletes and non-celebrities alike.
Broadcasting on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. EST, Robert says most of his listeners download the show to listen at a later time. "[Sunday nights] are usually a difficult time because every awards show is on at that time... and so is 'Desperate Housewives'...but we manage to draw a big audience," said Breining.
"I felt really alone, like no one knew what I was going through," recalled Timothy Reardon, a POZ I AM radio listener. "It's just nice to hear a voice, like someone out there is living whatever it is you're going through."
Downloading from the archives a couple of times a month has been a great comfort to Reardon. Living in rural America has been difficult and POZ I AM radio has given him the kind of social connection he has craved.
"I don't know anyone who is HIV-positive and I thought for a long time I never would. Now I do...and I hope one day to have the courage to share my own story with the world," said Reardon. "Maybe not right now, but someday I will have that courage."
Whenever that day arrives for Reardon, there will be a wonderful community waiting to welcome him.
"These people are absolutely my family and I love the support that they give," says Breining. "The other day I put [on my status update] that my viral load was undetectable and I had 96 people 'like' that I was undetectable. It's those things...that us know that others care about us."
For more info on POZ I AM, visit their website at www.poziam.org. There you can join their network or find a link to POZ I AM radio. Archives of the show are also available online or for free on iTunes.