My name is Ashley Rose Murphy and I’m in my third year of university. I’m just like most young women my age. I have a boyfriend, my little brother can be a pain sometimes, and I love music and movies. But trust me, just like you, I have my own struggles. There is one thing about me that you couldn’t guess just by looking at me. I’m HIV positive.
I’m HIV positive.
Let me explain. I had a rough start in life. I was born to a mother who was an alcoholic, a heavy drug user, and often violent at times. We lived in one of the roughest public housing blocks in Toronto. When I was only a couple weeks old, I was taken from her and put into a foster home. Two weeks later I was at Sick Kids hospital in respiratory distress. I was hooked up to a respirator, put into a coma and blood work was done. The blood tests showed that I contracted HIV from my birth mother. I stayed in that coma for three and a half months.
My first brush with HIV stigma came at only four weeks old when my first foster mom didn’t want anything to do with me. She abandoned me in that hospital.
When I was six months old, Sick Kids and Children’s Aid started looking for a palliative care home for me. They told prospective foster parents that I was only going to live another month, but clearly I had other plans.
They called over two hundred foster parents – all said no. But being persistent is an important life lesson, because persistence led me to my parents, Don and Kari Murphy, who said “Yes!” Even though they already had five other kids with special needs, they knew they had room in their hearts for me. Their positivity and support helped me keep improving, getting stronger, and reaching milestones. I didn’t walk until I was two, and I couldn’t gain weight either, so I had a feeding tube inserted in my abdomen. I also had permanent catheters in my neck and heart. As I grew stronger, all my tubes and wires were disconnected. I finally had the feeding tube removed just before I turned ten, so now I’m rocking what appears to be two belly buttons.
There were a lot of hurdles to overcome. I was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, microcephaly, and failure to thrive; later on, I was diagnosed with learning disabilities, osteoporosis, hair loss, anxiety, nerve pain, and tingling in my hands and feet. Doctors set low expectations for me, but my parents and I had high expectations. Because of our hard work and shared positivity I’m here today.
When I was seven years old, my parents sat me down and told me that I have HIV. They also told me not to tell anyone. “Some people don’t understand HIV, so they might be mean to you,” they said. I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I didn’t understand why I had to keep it a secret. So naturally I told EVERYONE. Kids at school, at the park, cashiers… and the list goes on. You name it and they knew. And yes, some people were mean. There were neighbours who wouldn’t allow me on their property and kids who weren’t allowed to play with me. One mom even tried to get another parent to withdraw the only invitation I ever got to a birthday party – but that parent refused and I had an amazing time. You can’t contract HIV from sharing food or drinks, or kissing and hugging.
The social isolation was made easier because of my huge family; they were always there to talk to, play with, and depend on. There are ten kids in my adoptive family, most with special needs, and also eight more biological siblings. The Murphys adopted me officially when I was about four, so I get to continue seeing all of my biological family.
Being a part of such a big supportive family meant that when we went to school we were stronger together. Yes, we all have special needs, but we always stuck up for one another; if you wanted to pick on one of us, you were going to have to fight your way through a lot of wheelchairs and walkers. While we advocated for each other in the community, we were still very normal kids: if you wanted that last cookie, you had to speak up and act fast. We learned the value of inclusion and the pain of exclusion early, becoming our own biggest advocates.
One of the most important lessons our parents taught us was to help others in need. No matter what your situation is, there’s someone out there who would gladly switch places with you. So, from as far back as I can remember, we volunteered. Some of our favourite memories are volunteering together. When you help someone else, you put out good energy and that good energy is like a boomerang – it always comes back to you.
At ten I started speaking at HIV conferences, at twelve I filmed a documentary that aired across North America, and at sixteen I spoke at my first WE DAY. I’ve done 23 since then and have shared my message with hundreds of thousands of youth. It was at one of these WE Days that Silken Laumann and I met, and I was struck by her courage and perseverance. She inspired me to reach higher and work harder.
You need to find out what you’re made of and what inspires you. See how you can use those interests to make positive changes in our world. And you know what? Little things matter. Hold the door open for others, or smile and say hello! You can change someone’s day just by being friendly. Find yourself. What makes you, you?
Then you have to find your community. It doesn’t have to be a big family like I have, it can be friends at camp, your sports team, or your church youth group.
I’ve been forever changed by a volunteer trip to Kenya. So much so, that I came home with a new mission I would donate every dollar I earned until I raised enough to build a school. It took me three years, but last year I managed to write a cheque for $10,000, and they finally got their school. I returned to Kenya once more to help lay the bricks for a second school. It was hard work, but so rewarding to know that I made a difference that I could see, smell, and touch. Since then I’ve helped build a school in Ecuador and with my brother in Ethiopia – the home country of his parents.
Once you’ve found yourself and your community, you need to find your voice. Even if you start out with a whisper that’s okay, because the more you use it, the bigger the impact. I was pretty nervous that first time I spoke publicly about growing up with HIV, but the more I did it, the more empowered I became. People would come up to me and thank me for speaking up, because they were too afraid to. In addition to WE Day I’ve also spoken at the UN General Assembly in New York, at UNAIDS in Geneva Switzerland, and just recently in correctional facilities.
Let me tell you, my knees were shaking while I went through security. And walking into a room with all those inmates sitting, arms crossed and leaning back in their seats? Terrifying. They weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say, but I talked anyways. I told them my story, what I’ve gone through, and where I’m heading. And you know what happened? Every single one relaxed their arms, started leaning forward, listening, and asking questions. Our voices are powerful.
Use your voice to connect to the people around you. Your voice, your story – they matter. Show people the real you and be gracious enough to accept them as THEY are too. Everybody has issues, and everybody is dealing with hidden pain. We’ve all got pieces of our identities we wish we could change, but that’s a part of who we are. And it’s okay.
Find yourself. Look for the different pieces of your identity. Get comfortable with them and figure out what makes you you.
Find your community. Connect with people who appreciate your wonderful self, and tolerate your awful self (because trust me, we all have that side). Find people who will have your back, no matter what.
Find your voice. Stand up and share your story or your passions with others. Shine your light out into the darkness so others can find their way.
Most of all, use your time, your hands, and your words to do something good every single day.