There are no pills against discrimination

When Kirsten Zielke's neighbour in the village of Sörup, Schleswig-Holstein, spread the news that she was HIV-positive, she suddenly found she had to fear for her living. But she's not a woman easily defeated, and she went on the offensive. Today she has solid ground under her feet again.

Kirsten Zielke survived plenty of lows during the course of her life. At the worst times, she didn't even have her own place to live. She was diagnosed with HIV 12 years ago when she was sent to prison for a drug-related crime. But since then the 42-year-old has shown her steel - for her, giving up is not an option. She has managed not only to rid herself of her addiction, now she stands on her own two feet again.

Giving up is not an option

She joined the community of Sörup a few years ago, together with her partner. Her health was better than it had been for a long time. Her HIV medication was successfully suppressing the spread of the virus, and her blood showed no more traces of it. Zielke set up her own nail care studio - a small, but promising business.

Then suddenly her regulars stopped coming, and people in the village of 4,200 souls began to talk behind her back. Her neighbour made sure they had something to gossip about: "You're going to an Aids patient to get your nails done? Aren't you scared you'll catch something?" he told Zielke's customers outside her house.

Everything she'd built up over the years was threatening to collapse overnight. "I really had no choice but to move away," Zielke remembers. But simply beating a retreat without putting up a fight - there was no way she was doing that. With the support of Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe in the nearby city of Kiel, she decided to tackle the problem head on.

She knew that her ostracism from the community was really just a sign of people's fear. And the best antidote to fear his information. With the help of the local paper, she announced she was setting up an info-stand outside the local supermarket to talk to people directly about HIV and Aids. Soon other media outlets, like the "Flensburger Tageblatt" newspaper and the TV station NDR, picked up the story and reported on both the bullying that Zielke had been subjected to and her courage she had found to face it down.

Beating a retreat was out of the question

It's now been a year since her spectacular stunt. Zielke has received plenty of positive feedback and props - but her customers haven't come back, and she says that some of her friends and acquaintances have also broken off contact. "You develop an acute sense of what people think about you, even if no-one says it directly or out loud," Zielke says, describing this oppressive atmosphere.

Tough as she is, the situation was more of a strain on her than she was prepared to admit. She struggled with depression and grew more and more withdrawn. Her health suffered too. She had to endure a bout of pneumonia, which meant that the number of helper cells in her blood - after years of healthy levels - dropped drastically.

"Then I gave myself a kick in the backside"

Once again, Kirsten considered moving out of Sörup. But again she wasn't going to allow herself to be driven out easily. The important thing for her was, as it still is, to have a partner at her side, and to know that his family is behind her too. "And then I gave myself a kick in the backside," she says with a laugh. She pursues her hobbies again, paints and reads a lot, meets friends - though she has deliberately cut off some of her other social contacts - out of self-protection. Her co-workers have also supported her return to life. "They think it's great how I've elbowed my own way through life," she says.  

And her gossiping neighbour? "He got divorced and moved away," Zielke says, though she doesn't take any satisfaction out of it anymore. "I got that already," she says, beaming. Once, she bumped into him in the street, and shaking his hand, she looked him in the eye and said, in an honest, friendly tone, "I wanted to thank you - it was because of your idiocy that I met so many nice people." Then she left the bewildered man standing there.

Axel Schock

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