Venita's Kilimanjaro Project - When I climb we all climb!
My Journey
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PROJECT KILIMANJARO: Mom at 15, Overcomes Addiction and HIV Diagnosis
Venita Ray was raised by a single mom who became an alcoholic and emotionally unavailable to her children. Venita repeated what she knew and became a mother at 15, a high-school drop out on welfare, a...
May 27, 2011
It's been a long journey since April 2, 2003. It's felt like a lifetime. I usually refer to my life into two parts; before HIV and after HIV. What I have come to understand is that everything before HIV was not perfect. It was just different. I viewed life and me differently. From now until the climb, I will do my best to share my journey in this blog. This will be the first time I have written about that time in my life. It's time.
May 31, 2011
I guess I need to start at the beginning. On April 2, 2003, I got to work late because I had a hair appointment early that morning. When I got there, I had a message from my doctor. I had asked my doctor to do an HIV test during a physical because I had not had a test in some time. I was a little anxious when I asked but I knew it was the right thing to do. Like everybody else, I had endured a number of sleepless nights and anxiety in the past waiting for HIV test results. Each time I told myself that I would never put myself in that position again. Yet, here I was again. Somehow, I had forgotten about the test until I got the message to call my doctor. When I got my doctor on the phone, she asked me to come to the office to discuss my test results. I asked her which test. She said that she would rather I came to her office to discuss it. I asked her if it was the HIV test and she said yes.
I remember looking out the window in my office while I was on the phone and noticed that it was a beautiful bright and sunny day. The moment my doctor answered my question, the sun instantly disappeared and my world went black. The lights went out. My light went out. I remember hearing her say that it was very important that I come to the office and I agreed. I hung up the phone, turned off my computer, walked out of my office, and walked home. I did not speak to anyone. My house was about a 30-45 minute walk from my office. Even now, the memory of that day brings tears to my eyes when I remember that walk home. I did not go back to work for the next month.
When I got home, I think I made three phone calls, but it may have been two. I called my sister, Faith, one of my best friends, Sequita and my sponsor, Josie. I can't remember who I actually talked to. I think one of them was my sister, Faith. I told them that I just found out that I was HIV positive and then I laid down and began to cry uncontrollably. I was overcome with grief, despair, sadness, self pity, shame, guilt, and remorse. I do not know how many days I stayed that way. I did not leave my house until my sister arrived and I had to pick her up at the airport.
Over the next several weeks, my sister, Sequita, and Josie all came to DC to check on me. I know now that they staggered their visits to avoid leaving me by myself for too long. My sister was with me when I had to have my first series of lab work done to determine the levels of the virus in my body. Josie was with me for my first appointment with my infectious disease doctor. I remember one night during Josie's visit, I became so hysterical after watching an episode of Girlfriends on HIV that she had to put me to bed like a baby. Sequita was there when I had to have a colonoscopy within a month or so of my diagnosis.
I had to go on meds right away because my T-cells were 285 and my viral load was around 100,000. I cried all the time when I was alone or just sat staring in space. I rarely answered my phone. When I went back to work, I asked for projects that allowed me to work alone because I didn't want to have to interact with other people if possible. I told my supervisor I had some sort of blood disease. The first month on meds I felt nauseous most of the time. I drank alot of ginger ale and tried to keep food on my stomach. I went to work everyday and went home and died every night. One of my biggest concerns was how I would tell my daughter.
Some time in May (I think), another one of my best friend's, Cupcake, came to visit unexpectantly. I pretended to be ok while she was there. But while we were at the airport waiting for her flight back to California, I broke down and told her I had HIV. Cupcake immediately changed her flight and stayed with me for several more days.
I was still trying to decide how I would tell my daughter (Monique) when she too arrived unexpectantly the weekend of the 4th of July. Again, I pulled myself together because I knew I had to tell her and if she saw me fall apart, she would fall apart too. I felt ashamed because I felt that I had not only brought pain in my life but I had also brought pain to my family and friends as well. I finally got the courage to tell Monique and did it without falling apart. We made the best of her visit and it ended well because she had no idea how depressed I really was.
Over the next several months, Faith, Monique, Sequita, Josie, and Cupcake began to realize that I was extremely depressed and suicidal. Looking back, I know that it was no coincidence that they all showed up to be with me in those first months following my diagnosis. I knew they loved me but I had already started to retreat inside myself and over time rarely talked to anyone beyond work. At first I refused to talk to anyone else about my illness. But my family was so worried about me being in DC all alone, they convinced me to tell someone who lived in DC and could keep an eye on me. So l shared my diagnosis with my friend Karina Ricks. She tried her best to reach out and support me.
In August, Karina and I went to Jamaica and in December we went to New York. The Jamaica trip had been planned before my diagnosis and I told Karina that I had always wanted to see a Broadway show so Karina decided we would see Rent. Neither one of us knew that Rent was about HIV. I was a wreck and Karina felt horrible. As I think back today, those trips were not much fun for Karina but I am so thankful for her kindness in going with me.
I am forever grateful to these women. They all wanted to rescue me from the darkness I had retreated to but I refused to let them. They all wanted me to get better but I couldn't or wouldn't. So it became easier to not talk to them than to hear the disappointment and pain in their voice because I did not want to get better. I felt my life was over. I did not want to live with HIV. I knew it didn't have to be a death sentence but I felt like it was. I was angry at myself for not protecting myself. I felt that I had had enough disappointments in life and refused to accept another one. I was full of self pity.
The next four years were the lowest in my life. I gave up a job I loved, sold my house and moved to Houston to be with my daughter and sister. At the time, I thought I was moving to Houston to die. I don't know if I thought HIV would kill me or I would just will myself to die. In the next installment, I will do my best to share how I made a decision to live and emerged from the darkness.
June 20, 2011
My daughter read the May 31st blog and said everything was right except that our visit did not go that well. She said that we did shed some tears. I told her that that was still a good visit considering how it could have went and how I was really feeling inside. I held myself together for her. I didn't want her to hurt because of me. No parent wants to see their child in pain. And no parent wants to be the source of the pain.
Before I can continue with my journey, I need to explain what I have now come to understand were some of the reasons behind my darkness.
My childhood was difficult. Or should I say, the lack of a childhood was difficult. I was forced to grow up fast. I was the oldest girl of 4 and had to help take care of my brothers, sister and my mom, who was alcoholic. I remember being a little girl and thinking to myself, "I never had a chance." I was always good in school. I was a tomboy and never really liked to do girly things. I didn't have nice clothes and I was always skinny. A lot of the kids, especially the girls, used to make fun of how skinny I was, my acne, and how I dressed. I got along better with the boys and I loved sports. But I never really felt like I fit with any group. I was never sassy or what everybody called "fast." But at home, I was the little mama and had to act much older than I was. One thought that kept coming back to me after my diagnosis was how I felt after getting pregnant at 14 and giving birth to my daughter 11 days after my 15th birthday.
When I got pregnant, I felt like everybody looked at me like I was a bad or fast girl. I felt different and separate from peers. I was the only one of the kids I went to school with that I knew who had a baby. When people saw me, they used to say, "a baby with a baby." My family was not overjoyed with the news. I felt like I had let everybody down. Although I loved my daughter very much and never regretted having her, I did not feel that there was anyplace I really belonged. I felt like an outcast.
All of these feelings resurfaced when I was diagnosed with HIV. I felt different from my peers again. I was the only one I knew among my friends who had HIV. I felt that the world immediately looked at me different like I had done something wrong. I was living yet another first. The first one pregnant and now the first one with HIV. I felt stigmatized, stereotyped, and outcast again.
Another source of difficulty I had letting go of the darkness was the belief that i was no longer blessed by God or worthy of God's love. I had no problem telling others that God loved them unconditionally. But I didn't believe it for myself. When I had negative HIV tests results in the past, I would always say it was a blessing from God. But if a negative test is a blessing, what did a positive test mean? A positive test can't be a blessing from God, right? Did being diagnosed with HIV mean that God didn't love me?
It took me some time to come to terms with the fact that a positive test result was just a positive test result. I was still loved by God and my life was a blessing. I had to learn to thank God even when I didn't get the result I wanted. I still had family and friends who loved me. And, more importantly, I still had a life worth living.
July 11, 2011
I want to thank everyone for coming to the website and following me on Facebook. The response has been good. This is not something I ever thought I would be doing. The website has been up for almost 3 months and I have finally started to relax. Going public was not easy for me. But I know I was ready. Writing this blog has not been pain free but it has not been painful. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like I have just taken my clothes off in public or like I'm riding in a car that I can't control where it goes. My daughter, Monique, text me after reading my last blog and said "kudos on the blog!! How reflective and honest and courageous!! I love u mother!" Thank you daughter. I love you too.
The more I speak, the less shame I feel. And I have wanted to be free of the cloak of secrecy and shame surrounding HIV for a long time. But let's be real --- it was not my greatest achievement in life for my daughter to have to tell my 13 year old grandson that his Grandmama Venita has HIV. I could have lived a lifetime without that. I have gained a measure of peace with it all with the hope that because of me, my daughter, sister, nieces, brothers, grandsons, and friends might not have to go through this. I am forever grateful and humbled by the courage of the thousands of men and women who walked this path before me.
Another blessing has been that my disclosure has resulted in opportunities for teaching moments. A lot of people believe that because HIV has been around for 30 years and there is so much information about HIV that everybody is in the know. That is far from the truth. In 2011, ignorance and stigma still exists. I believe it exists because many still believe that HIV happens to "those people." I too lived in denial. And I knew better. I worked in the HIV field from 1990-1992. I knew the facts about HIV.
I am going to detour from my journey again because I feel compelled to share a little bit about living with HIV today from my perspective. I only write when I have something to say. I have to write what's on my heart.
First, having HIV does not mean I have AIDS. Sounds basic but I hear it all the time. Let me say that I could have AIDS and still be healthy and feeI great. An AIDS diagnosis does not mean that the person is sick or dying. I am a very very healthy energetic 52 year old woman. I feel great most of the time. In fact, I feel better than most of my friends who do not have HIV. HIV has taught me to not take my good health for granted. I am grateful for that lesson. My biggest health complaints are allergies and menopause. Most who know me know that I am a little bit of a health and fitness nut. Living a healthy and fit lifestyle is one of the ways I reclaimed the power in my life.
I normally practice yoga 3-4 times per week, try to eat 4-6 small healthy meals per day, get plenty of rest, and meditate as often as I am willing. Oh yeah...every little cough, sneeze, ache or pain is NOT HIV related. I have the normal biological changes and issues just like everybody else. I never thought I would date again but I do. So, yes, life goes on.
I have been asked whether my health affects my ability to climb Kilimanjaro. My answer is only to the extent I let it. I have never been sick from HIV that I am aware and will not acknowledge or accept limitations based on my HIV status or age. I had some health issues several years ago that the doctors determined were non-HIV related. I am the healthiest I have been in my life. My immune system is strong. My recent labs showed my T-cells over 900 and my viral load has been undetectable since late 2003. I have to admit that my labs did not show dramatic improvement until I began to heal spiritually and emotionally.
A T-cell or CD4 count in a person without HIV could range from 500 to 1,200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Since I do not have a baseline, I do not know my pre-HIV CD4 count. An "undetectable" viral load does not mean that I am cured. My understanding is that an undetectable viral load means that the level of HIV in the blood is below the threshold needed for detection. In other words, the level of virus in my blood is extremely low. This means that HIV is not actively reproducing and that the risk of disease progression is low. So my prognosis is good.
The HIV regiment that I am on is called mono-therapy. It is somewhat experimental, I think, because it involves taking only one type of medication, a protease inhibitor called Kaletra. Typically anti-retroviral therapy or HAART (Highly Active Antiretoviral Therapy) involves what is referred to as a "cocktail," of at least 3 types of drugs. So I take one type of HIV medication twice a day. I am fortunate that the only side effect I sometimes experience is insomnia.
Another consequence of going public, for me, is that I will never sit silent in a room again while people make negative comments about HIV or HIV positive people. I will never sit in silent shame again. In the past, I have been stunned by the comments. At times, it felt like someone slapped me in the face. I know that disclosure is a very personal and individual decision. And at the time, I was not ready to disclose. But I also know that the more of us who go public and are no longer invisible the more that we can educate others and humanize the disease by putting a familiar face on it.
We are your brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters, nieces, fathers, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, next door neighbor, co-worker, doctor, lawyer, bus driver, Senator, actor, musician, preacher, teacher, nurse, police officer, and friend. If you have a question or if there is something you do not understand, just ask. Ignorance ends when education begins.
I really will try to continue sharing about my journey out of the darkness on the next installment. But I go where my heart leads me.
July 25, 2011
As I shared before, my descent into darkness began on April 2, 2003. Some call it depression. I call it darkness because I literally felt enveloped by darkness. I knew I was severely depressed but I felt I deserved to feel that way. I was consumed with thoughts of suicide and death.
The only place I functioned with any type of normalcy was work. I typically worked 6 days a week and I loved my job. I worked for the Attorney General's Office for the District of Columbia. Work allowed me to immerse myself in something other than HIV, self pity, and death. I would go to work everyday and go home and die every night. At the time, my job probably saved me. I felt no passion for anything else. I also knew I had to support myself.
Before my diagnosis, one of my passions was doing volunteer work in the community. I quit everything after my diagnosis. I used to facilitate a group for teen moms for about 3 years. The moms ranged in age from 13-21. I really loved the young ladies in this group because I could relate to their struggle. I always preached safe sex to them. After my diagnosis I was too ashamed to face them. I felt that I had let them down and just disappeared on them.
It was like one day I existed and the next day I didn't. I no longer interacted with my friends. I just dropped off the face of the earth. I didn't know how to interact with them and tell them I had HIV. I didn't want their pity or support. I made a decision that I would never be happy again. To be happy meant that I would have to accept HIV. And I refused to accept HIV.
I remember taking a road trip to St. Helena, South Carolina to visit the Penn Center in November 2003. The Penn Center was one of the first schools for freed slaves and the area is home to the Gullah people. In the back of my mind, I was not planning on coming back. My doctor had prescribed me the anti-depressant, Zoloft. I filled the prescription but refused to take the medicine. I wanted a cure for HIV not my depression. I planned to take all of the pills and just not return.
Remembering that time in my life still brings me to tears. I tell people today that I don't know if I am still here out of fear of dying or courage to live. I was so consumed with thoughts of death, I couldn't watch anything on TV that talked about suicide without becoming hysterical. I understood the hopelessness they had to feel to end their life. My friends used to say that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Well, HIV was not temporary. It was permanent.
At first my doctor used to say that the depression would pass and I would get back to normal soon. Eventually he began to see that I was not moving on and began to say," let's just focus on keeping you healthy." I was blessed with a wonderful infectious disease doctor for that first year and a half. His name was David Parenti. He knew that I would become emotional every time he saw me. So he would come in, sit down at eye level with me, and just talk to me before we discussed anything medical. Thank you Dr. Parenti. You were exactly what I needed.
In early 2004, I made the decision to leave DC. It was another step in my desire to give up on life. I sold my house and moved in with a friend from law school, Latoya Burley, and her husband. I lived with them for months and never told them about my HIV. I have since shared my diagnosis with Latoya and her husband and they have continued to love and support me. I value their friendship very much.
Even as I planned my move to Houston for what I thought would be the end, I didn't realize that there was a part of me that wanted to get better. You see, I had started to exercise again. Before my diagnosis I exercised regularly. I know today that I must have started to believe in living again to begin exercising again. If you want to die, there is no reason to exercise. Today, I think of exercise as the first step in my journey from the darkness. I just didn't know it at the time. Exercise represents light and power to me. Sickness and illness have no place in my consciousness when I exercise.
As I think back today, I know my decisions and actions were full of contradictions. I didn't know what to do or how to act. Should I live or die? My actions were definitely not those of a sane person. I made life changing decisions in the midst of the darkness that I regret. But I have come to believe that all of those decisions were necessary to get me to this place.
I decided to buy a house in Houston before I left DC. Thinking back I have to laugh because I didn't just buy any house. I bought (what I considered) a huge house that resembled my dream house. I really loved that house. I would later refer to it as the death house. Ironically, it was in this house that I made a conscious decision to live and began my journey back. I vividly remember my thought that day. I said to myself, "either kill yourself or move on." It would still be some time before life changed and I felt better. I had no idea of what to do or where to begin. I had tried therapy twice since being diagnosed and refused to go back.
In early 2006, my niece, Monique, and I went to my first yoga class at the YMCA. My thinking, at the time, was that I needed to stretch. I had no idea that that yoga class would be the turning point in my journey back. Over the next year, yoga would become my lifeline. With the support of my family, sponsor, friends (those who knew), and eventually the HIV community, I began my slow steady climb out of darkness.
August 24, 2011
We begin climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in less than 20 days. I can hardly believe this is really happening. I have visualized us all at the summit. My last blog entry left off with me beginning the slow steady climb out of darkness. I feel like climbing Kilimanjaro is a continuation of that climb. The entire recovery process, that began for me in 2007, has been a journey out of darkness and into the light. Light represents life.
The time I spent in the yellow house (or the death house as I called it) was bittersweet. I felt sad and hopeless most of the time. Yet, I was surrounded by people who loved me. My sister, Faith, and her 2 daughters (Monet and Monique)moved in with me. My daughter and grandsons visited often. There was no way I could sit and be miserable when my grandsons and nieces were around me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't resist the urge to play. They didn't know I had HIV. All they knew was that I was Grandmama Venita or Auntie.
I had been with my daughter in the delivery room when my oldest grandson, Trey, was born. It was such a blessing to witness the miracle of his birth and be there to support my daughter. After my diagnosis, my daughter wanted me in the delivery room with her again for the birth of my youngest grandson, Malik. But I could not bring myself to be there. Intellectually, I knew that I was not a threat to his safety. But I allowed HIV to keep me from being there. So when Malik wanted me to play, run, and wrestle with him, I had to say yes.
During this time, I felt like I was waking up from a real long sleep. I remember thinking one day, "what the hell am I doing in Houston?" I had never wanted to live in Houston. It is hard for me to describe how I felt when the realization of what I had done sunk in. I had quit a job I loved, sold my house and moved to Houston! I knew I did it. I remembered doing it. But there was a part of me that kept thinking, how did I get here? I knew that I had come here to die and yet, here I was alive and Houston!
As my head began to clear, all of my thoughts were focused on getting back to DC. I was still full of shame, guilt, despair, and self-pity. But now the solution seemed to be to get back to DC. I felt like I had made a terrible mistake moving to Houston and given up any hopes of having a career. I wanted my life back! But I had no idea how to get it back. I knew there was no going back. I just did not know how to go forward.
It was during this time I had another epiphany. It occurred to me that maybe I needed to be still so that I could heal and being in Houston was no accident. From somewhere deep inside I began to understand that I needed to stay in Houston to get better. I stopped trying to get back to DC and focused on staying in Houston. I found an HIV support group. And for the first time I was willing to go. Yoga became a healing practice for me and continues to be a healing practice in my life today. I went to my first AA meeting in almost 4 years.
I got a job and have worked hard to pull myself back together again. In DC, I had pride and confidence in my work. I have not felt that same level of confidence since I left DC. Words cannot describe how difficult this has been. The only thing that held me together after my diagnosis was my job. Since moving to Houston, I have had a hard time experiencing that same level of pride and confidence.
In 2007, I began to experience some physical symptoms that my doctor, Joseph Gathe, determined were non-HIV related. I was still struggling with the depression and now began to suffer physically. I went to numerous specialists that were unable to determine what was wrong with me. By November of 2007, I was taking 6 different types of drugs including steroids and a medication given to cancer patients that would make me physically sick. I became so frustrated that I sought advice from Fred Taylor at the Houston Buyers Club. Fred was unfamiliar with my symptoms but suggested that I meet a personal trainer, Shana Ross, who had helped him in the past.
I contacted Shana through her website and went to meet with her. I shared some of my story with her and she indicated that she believed that she could help me. I trained at Shana Ross Fitness for the next 3 months and it changed my life. I had always believed in fitness. But I had never really focused on the importance of nutrition. Shana taught me how to eat. As I began to eat properly, I began to feel better. I met with Dr. Gathe and told him that I would no longer take all of the drugs I had been taking. He understood and suggested I try something called monotherapy and I agreed. I went from taking 6 drugs to one.
My progress since that time has been miraculous. I attribute it to taking the power back in my life. Instead of being passive in my health care, I took charge. I used fitness and nutrition as a way to exercise power over the things in my life that I could control. I could not cure myself of HIV. But I could control what I ate, how much I rested, my exercise, and my spiritual growth. By February 2008, my labs reflected my changed lifestyle. My CD4 count had almost doubled. More importantly, I began to feel better. I began to have hope.
In 2008,I sold the yellow house and experienced another level of freedom. Although I loved the house, it was a symbol of death. Selling that house allowed me to let go more of the darkness. In 2008, I think I felt joy for the first time since 2003. My daughter and I went on a 7 day cruise that year! It was my first cruise.
In 2009, I made the decision to go to therapy at the Montrose Counseling Center. I had come a long way but finally accepted that I needed professional help. I spent a little over a year in therapy. My therapist, Andrea Washington, was wonderful. She was just what I needed. She was knowledgeable about HIV and the substance abuse recovery process. Therapy ended when Andrea told me that she thought I had accomplished what I came to therapy to do. She told me that she felt that the rest of my journey would be a spiritual journey rather than a therapeutic one. She encouraged me to continue practicing and living the yogi lifestyle that was unfolding for me. I am truly grateful to everything I learned from Andrea and think of her often. I still experience bumps in the road called life. But I refuse to return to the darkness. Today, I experience profound joy living in the light and the moment.
October 17, 2011
After finishing my August 24th blog entry, I felt that I had finally come full circle. I no longer live in darkness and experience profound joy living in the light. I have shared that part of my journey to the best of my ability. It is now time to focus on my life today. It's time to move on.
It has been a month since we returned from Mt. Kilimanjaro. I am finally feeling fully recovered. I was not only physically exhausted from the climb, I injured myself as well. The process to Kilimanjaro and the actual climb has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. Thank you all for the love, support and encouragement. I want you all to know that I did not climb that mountain alone. And I could not have done this by myself. I carried all of you in my heart and spirit. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it took a village to get me up that mountain.
In addition to the love and support I received from all of you , I need to express my gratitude to the women I joined on the climb. I call them my Kili Dadas (Swahili for sisters). If you have not met the other Project Kilimanjaro climbers, I invite you to meet this incredible group of ladies on the Project Kilimanjaro website at I am so proud of all of my Kili Dadas. It was my honor and privilege to be part of this group of ladies. I don't have words to express how I feel. I love them all! And they all did an amazing job on the climb. Thank you all of my Kili Dadas: Shana, Mary Beth, Pat, Pam, Becky, Deb, Sherri, Jackie, Susie, Melanie, Terri, Cynthia, Lois, and Andrea. I also send out appreciation to honorary Kili Dadas, Macon and Balthazar.
I learned so much from this experience and spent the last month reflecting on the lessons and insights. As I said before, I do not write until I have something to say. And I have to share what's in my heart. Here are some insights and lessons I shared on Venita's Kilimanjaro Project Facebook page.
Other than child birth, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was one of the toughest things I have ever done. I summitted at about 16,500. Kili's summit is 19,341. Congrats to ALL my Kili Dadas who made it! Altitude sickness and the bitter cold was rough. This was the trip of a lifetime. Asante sane (Swahili for thank you very much) to my Kili brothers and sisters. I could not have made it without all of you! (9/24/2011)
It's amazing how much the whole Kili experience has changed my life. One of the life lessons I experienced was truly living in the moment. I lost track of day and time while on Kili. It was a great opportunity to really practice living in the moment. Each day I was forced to focus on taking a breath and taking a step. In a manner of speaking, it was true freedom. (10/12/2011)
Another interesting lesson I experienced before the climb even started was about surrendering to the situation and letting go. I am used to things being pretty predictable. From the moment I arrived in Tanzania everything changed. For example, the electricity went out a couple hours after my arrival and would continue to go out every night. At first, every night the lights would go out everyone ch...eered but me and I refused to take a cold shower. Before even reaching Kili, I too learned to celebrate the darkness and take cold showers. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of the lessons on surrender I would need for the climb. I would go through 6 nights of total darkness and no bath. It wasn't so bad....haha. (10/13/2011)
Stay tuned....
October 31, 2011
This next lesson/insight I experienced on Kilimanjaro deals with ego.
We all started off feeling pretty charged up on the first day of the climb. I started off hiking with the ladies who gravitated to the front of our 17 member group. It should have been a pretty easy climb through the rain forest. But by the time we made it to camp about 4 hours later, I was feeling a little short of breath. Before setting out on day 2, I knew that I would need to hike at a slower pace.
Day 2 was the most difficult day of the climb for me. The climb was steeper and very rocky. I began to experience nausea from the altitude, had difficulty breathing and hurt my chest and knee. Before climbing Kilimanjaro I considered myself physically fit. I loved the training and looked forward to the challenge of the climb. I could not believe I was having a hard time and it was only the second day. And to make matters worse, everyone could see that I was having a hard time. By the time I went to my tent for the night, I could not put any weight on my right knee. I was afraid that I would not be able to continue. I rubbed my knee down with Arnica rub and wrapped it with an ace bandage. I went to sleep praying that it would be better in the morning. The next morning I was able to continue in spite of the pain.
For the rest of the climb, I had to let go of the image of myself as this fit person and just focus on taking a step and taking a breath. I was determined not to quit. The damage to my ego was worse that the pain to my body. I was nauseous all the time and could not take a deep breath because of the pain in my chest. I would later learn that I had a torn pec muscle and had injured my sciatica. I did not talk much on the climb nor did I take many pictures. I did not have the energy. I refused to share how I was feeling with the rest of the group. I tried to be gentle with myself and just accept that I was having a hard time.
By the time we reached Kibo on day 4, the final camp before summit, I knew I was out of gas. Kibo is 15,500 feet above sea level. I wanted to tell everyone that I was unable to go on but I could not say the words. The same determination that kept me going would not let me give up now. I went to my tent and prayed. I decided I was going to try to summit. I was still feeling nauseous, unable to eat and in pain. I put on my summit clothes and laid there until it was time to go. I joined the most "poley poley" (Swahili for slowly slowly) group and started climbing. My right leg and glutes burned every time I took a step. And I was freezing. I climbed until my legs refused to go any further. I finally had to admit I could not continue and had to be taken down.
I insisted on walking down on my own but kept falling. Freddie, my guide, finally just took control and half carried me down. I cried for some time after reaching my tent angry at my body for failing me. For months, I had visualized myself at the summit arm in arm with the other ladies. I felt that the entire climb had been a failure.
It would be several days before I would realize that I had in fact summited. I had reached MY summit. It was just not Kili's summit. I had given 150%. I had endured three and a half days of pain, altitude sickness and had not given up. Even though I still hurt physically, I realized that the greatest bruise had been to my ego. I needed to be proud of myself and recognize that the whole trip and process to Kilimanjaro had not been a failure. My summit was still my summit. I was very happy for all of my Kili Dadas for reaching their summits. My lesson was to let go of my ego and focus on what I had accomplished. I had come a long way. I learned later that I climbed to about 16,500 feet. Today, I am damn proud of that!
November 19, 2011
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Project Kilimanjaro: The Climb - September 12-17, 2011
Seven Women, Six Days, One Mountain. In September 2011, I organized a group of seven women to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. These are no ordinary women. They are surviving, living with an...
This is a video of my visit to the Kilimanjaro Orphanage. I still get emotional thinking about that day.
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Venita Visits the Kilimanjaro Orphanage
We Choose To Climb trekker Venita Ray was diagnosed HIV+ in 2003. She struggled for many years to come to terms with the diagnosis. Once she did, she began a remarkable journey to win back her health ...
January 2, 2012
Happy New Year! I still can't believe that it's 2012 and I am still here. Wow! 2011 was a great year and I expect 2012 to be even better. I have come to understand that my HIV diagnosis did not just affect me. It also affected my family and friends. I have also come to understand that as I have recovered so has my family and friends recovered.
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