Home Is Where The Head Is

By Martin Burns, HIV-neutral HIV Awareness Activist, Writer and Equality Advocate, Brigstow Researcher

Knowing that it’s Mental Health Awareness Week beginning the 10th of May has brought to light an aspect of the project I’m working on that’s far more poignant than I first thought. I am one of three researchers involved with ‘We Are Still Here’, which records the stories of people within the HIV-community. I am one of those, as well. Individuals are being photographed within their living spaces to demonstrate how they curate said spaces to benefit their mental wellbeing. Never has this been such a timely concept, as rarely have people had to spend so much time in their homes, be they living with HIV or not.

Before the first lockdown, I was embarking on a move from Bristol, UK to Lisbon, Portugal. A new life beckoned. A new pandemic put the brakes on everything and I was kept in England. All my life I have been a traveller, but I’m also an all-or-nothing sort of guy so I’ve either been on the road completely or at rest within my own sanctuary somewhere. A safe space is vital to me, mentally and emotionally. As it is for all. For the last fourteen months I’ve been stuck in an awkward sort of limbo: neither in my own home (though eternally grateful to the friends who’ve let me stay) but neither living the nomadicity I enjoy so much. Yes, I’ve made that word up to best describe a trait of mine that’s of utmost importance to me.

It wasn’t until we were (very kindly) awarded a research grant in October for ‘We Are Still Here’ by the Brigstow Institute and the Bristol Photo Festival, that I came to realise how much I was missing having a base that was really mine, not somebody else’s I was borrowing. Listening to our participants explain why home was so important to them became, at times, a little troubling for me. My HIV had part-caused the dissolution of my last relationship and that was someone who’d been my metaphorical home for years. I didn’t have him to fall back on. I was rebuilding myself and rediscovering the home that lies within my own dreams and wants and goals and hopes.

I could have felt stranded, but working on this project has made me realise that we all hanker after the same things, the same simple things. The HIV-community numbers just shy of 38 million and while our forthcoming exhibition won’t include that many participants (not yet, at least…) it has reminded me that even when we might be treading water a little, we’re never really doing it alone.

Of course, we all have our bugbears to live with, our roadblocks to overcome, our mental states to look after. HIV has been inextricably linked with all of those for me. I am proud to call myself HIV-neutral now, for the virus holds no power over me. It has merely left its autograph on my bloodstream. I have learnt to live – and thrive – with it. I have overcome the prejudice that others bring to it, now actively fighting against it. I have looked after my mental health by making sure I’m not alone, not stranded, and able to create my safe space wherever I am.

It’s a mindful thing, I suppose. It’s being mindful of checking-in with yourself, wherever and whenever and however you are. (Is there such a thing as a whyever?) You have to feel safe with yourself first. Easier said than done, but facing a challenge, accepting it, and then rising to it is something I’ve found just as beneficial to my mental health as finding a home is.

In a way, I am my own home. And I feel very blessed to have this project that a part of me can reside in, safely.