September 04, 2020
Life is difficult. Even more difficult if you have an HIV or AIDS diagnosis. Layer on top of that a substance abuse disorder. Or unstable housing. Or food insecurity.
People in Indiana living with HIV/AIDS are fortunate that Damien Center helps with all of that. But navigating clients’ emotional support needs in particular is what MPower, a weekly group for HIV positive men, does best. “It’s a safe place for our most vulnerable” says Jeffrey Tuttle, Damien Center client for 18 years, and now a part time employee and MPower participant. “I was a hermit for four years, and a shell of anxiety. This was not me," says Jeffrey, waving his arm from head to toe as if presenting Jeffrey version 2.0. He looks healthy and is full of energy. It is difficult to picture him lying in bed in the fetal position so wracked by anxiety he couldn’t stop shaking. “But I forced myself to go to the MPower meetings, and it changed my life,” he said.
MPower’s Structure of Success
The group started at Damien Center about 15 years ago, and is rather informal. There is no set curriculum, no sign-ups, and no attendance taken. But don’t let the relaxed structure of this group fool you. It forms an important safety net of support for members. The program gets to the heart of what group support is all about: nurturing, consolation and encouragement.
But a good leader is also needed, and MPower is lucky to have just that. Nick Brown is a mental health and substance abuse counselor who has been at Damien Center for seven years. “Truthfully, it’s one of the favorite parts of my week,” he says. “The only prerequisite for joining is that they meet with me first. And people are welcome to join anytime. It’s not like the class resets after a few weeks. Some men come for a couple of months; some pop in once. We provide support for whatever they need.”
For the newly diagnosed, often this means providing a place to help them feel normal. Many participants have friends who have passed away and family who don’t support them. The MPower group becomes family for them.
“We’re all in different places,” says Jeffrey. “For those newly diagnosed, we can hug them and hold their hand.” A professional dancer, Jeffrey would love to start a group dance class at Damien Center. That’s a far cry from not even wanting to get out of bed. Jeffrey’s hard work, and the care coordination Damien Center provides have lent to his success. But the MPower sessions are there to fill in the gaps of his support network.
“The best healing for stigma,” says Nick “is to spend time with other people who are HIV positive. When you get to know others in the same situation, it’s hard to hate yourself. And it’s tricky with mental health. You can see a physical wound, but it’s hard to see a mental health disorder. In my experience, people do feel literal pain with severe mental health trauma. It's oppressive.”
Camaraderie: A Powerful Impact
Nick wants donors to know this: “One of the cool things about this program is that Damien Center believes in this group enough that they let me do it for free. I don’t have to squeeze progress out of my clients. I don’t need to ask things like ‘Did you sign this form? What are the barriers to your goals? Are you taking your meds?’ They can relax in this group.”
When donors support Damien Center with dollars that are unrestricted—meaning not earmarked for any one thing—a group like MPower can flourish. “It allows participants to reestablish support in other areas of their life too,” says Nick.
Jeffrey reflected on his first MPower session years ago. He didn’t think go to a second one. “But my inner voice told me to go back. I knew where I should be, but didn’t know how to get there.”
Through the healing power of camaraderie, now he does.