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'I felt I had something to offer again'
13 June 2007

I am 54 and have been HIV positive for 20 years. I left full-time work for health reasons eight years ago. For a while afterwards, I felt a sense of relief.

Working full-time, feeling ill and having to comply with a complex drug regime is exhausting. However, finding myself with vast stretches of time to fill and a sudden loss of structure to daily life, I soon realised that lack of purpose could be as damaging as too much stress.

Even though I have many caring and understanding friends, I felt left out of things with nothing much to say. Social and cultural events and holidays became meaningless in a homogenised world which lacks the accomplishment associated with personal effort. Luckily my health, although very bad at times, has never been bad enough for me not to care about these issues.

My feelings at the time were of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, aimlessness, guilt and a sense of loss. I thought it far too soon to be retiring and losing all career prospects. And although I was receiving my own pension from my previous employers, I was also receiving some benefits, which made me feel unpleasantly dependent. I worried obsessively about money.

This cocktail of negativity all led to a general feeling of panic mixed with exaggerated morbid fears caused by having too much time on my hands. I found that by doing less, it became increasingly difficult to do anything. And I was getting little exercise, so I felt bad both mentally and physically.

I decided to take some action and was offered excellent support by my own doctor and by the mental health unit at Chelsea and Westminster hospital. Voluntary work and part-time education were suggested as possible ways to improve my mental health.

On a visit to Baltimore, a friend of mine showed me the vast range of work carried out by voluntary organisations over there. I saw people from all backgrounds, many suffering from health problems, cleaning up litter from city streets, helping the homeless and giving support to hospital services. Their enthusiasm and sense of purpose was infectious. I realised there were probably the same opportunities at home, and that volunteering could be my salvation.

Walking past the hospital one day I noticed the offices of the St Stephen's Volunteers and the Information Exchange. I walked in and applied for a role as an information volunteer. St Stephen's offers support for HIV-positive patients at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital. The Information Exchange, which is based in the outpatients' clinic at the hospital, provides information for patients and hospital staff about HIV and related issues.

At first I volunteered twice a week and the work was very light and uninvolved. That was enough for me at the time and it felt like a great achievement. I immediately benefited from the structure given to my week. I started feeling more integrated into society and slowly regained confidence and self-esteem.

Life seemed more balanced and enjoyable. Volunteering stimulated other interests. After endless complaints from friends that my garden looked like an overgrown wasteland, I finally started to do something about it. Unintentionally I was getting more exercise and developing an interest in horticulture.

I enrolled for a part-time horticulture course at my local college and, after two years, successfully completed it. Regular volunteering and a new interest that provided regular exercise were making a huge difference to my mental and physical health. I felt like I had something to offer the world again.

In time my involvement with the Information Exchange grew. I will always be grateful to the volunteer manager for the chance he gave me. Suddenly, momentum began to build and I started to enjoy the responsibility and challenge.

At that time, new HIV medications and an easier drug regime with fewer side effects were improving my general health. Mentally, I began to feel much more confident and no longer inferior to others. I tried to develop and promote the information service, which by now was well established. Through this work I realised how important it is to feel accepted and to be part of a team.

I no longer feel aimless. I have a sense of purpose and achievement and feel I am contributing to society. I am aware of my skills and recently found that they compare favourably to those required for a range of paid jobs. For me this is important to know. However, I also realise now, for the first time, that the value of work cannot be measured only by money.

Volunteering for the St Stephen's Volunteers has opened up so many possibilities for me and changed my life for the better. I feel lucky to be not only a patient at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital but also to have had a chance to contribute towards it.

Volunteering here has been an enlightening experience. Not only has it improved both my mental and physical wellbeing but I have learned a lot about myself and life in general.