For Esther Kim, processing an HIV diagnosis was as much about navigating the complexities of family and faith as it was about coming to terms with the virus itself.
“Growing up as a Korean American has its challenges,” she said. “I was born here, so I have the American influence of going to school and being part of American culture.” But at home, with her family, she grew up with a second perspective on that culture. “And because my family is Christian, incorporating religion, it was very conservative. And I think that a lot of times religion is understood through culture.”
That upbringing shaped who Kim became—and how she initially approached living with HIV, when the day of her diagnosis arrived in 2001. “The first six years of my diagnosis was a lonely time,” she recently told A&U magazine. She largely kept her HIV status to herself, telling virtually no one—including her parents and her son.
We each cope with trauma in our own way. Kim tried to close herself off for years, and it didn’t work. She realized she had to change tacks to survive. Gradually, she sought out therapy in several forms, including psychotherapy, reconnecting with HIV care and support, rediscovering her spirituality, and finding a sense of purpose in intense physical activity—specifically, running marathons and biking as part of AIDS Project Los Angeles’ (APLA) fundraising efforts.
Buoyed by her emotional and physical recovery, Kim eventually disclosed her status to her son and parents and became a media ambassador for AIDS/LifeCycle in 2017, hoping to help other people living with HIV to overcome the stigma she had internalized for so many years.
We interviewed Kim in 2018 as part of a project to document the voices of people living with HIV throughout the U.S. and ask them what advice they would give to their younger selves back when they were newly diagnosed. Here’s a transcript of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
TheBody: The day you found out you were HIV positive, can you describe what it was like hearing those words?
Esther Kim: When I first heard the words that my test came back positive, it was devastating. I don’t usually cry in front of people I don’t know, but I couldn’t help it. The tears just started rolling down—but my first thought was of my son, because I was a single mom. In my mind I thought, “Oh, my goodness. I’m not gonna see him grow up.” So, that was a hard time.
I would say, now that I’ve been living with HIV for 17 years, I’ve processed a lot of it, and the stigma doesn’t really affect me as much as it used to. And actually, because of my diagnosis and the struggle that I went through, coming to terms with it, I think it has made me a stronger person. I’ve actually accomplished things I never thought I would, because I was motivated to help other people who are going through the process.
I was able to run, first, a marathon—because I raised funds for AIDS Project Los Angeles. Then, through that, I was able to participate in AIDS/LifeCycle. And I never would have been able to do that; I wouldn’t have been motivated enough to do it on my own.
I was able to go to Tanzania and help with a medical group that supported people living with HIV. So, my life is full. It’s a lot better than I thought it would be.
TB: Can you describe something positive that you’ve learned through the process of being diagnosed?
EK: Through my diagnosis, I’ve learned that people are actually pretty resilient, that people are very kind and understanding—and actually, very accepting. That’s not something I knew when I was first diagnosed.
I was close to it, but through the years working on my diagnosis, and coming to terms with it and accepting it, I discovered different pockets of communities that actually work really hard to help people who are living with HIV/AIDS.
TB: If you could go back to that actual moment you were diagnosed with HIV and give yourself a piece of advice right then, what would it be?
EK: If I could go back to that moment when I was first diagnosed, I would tell myself that I’m not alone. That it’s devastating, yes. And it’s OK to be sad, and it’s OK to feel crushed. And that I deserve time to process the information. But to not let it overtake me, to not succumb to depression. Really seek out people who can support me.
I would tell myself that it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to feel the weight of it. But at the same time, to know that I don’t have to go through it alone.