'People hear the letters H-I-V and they think ...'

“People hear the letters H-I-V and they think that's somebody who’s done something they shouldn't do and they got this disease they shouldn't have," John said, "and that's got to change or we're never going to get anywhere.”

Watch this story #LiveOnKVAL at 5 & 11 p.m. Wednesday, February 10

EUGENE, Ore. - If you flip through John's sketchbook, you will notice a theme.

Strong, masculine men - not unlike the typical comic book hero.

"Somewhere between in my head and the way it translates onto paper they come out a little more perfect than they actually are," he said.

On paper, "perfect" comes easy to John.

But when it comes to his own depiction, John is perhaps less forgiving.

John was diagnosed with HIV more than 20 years ago.

"It doesn't affect me as much as it used to but I still have terrible self-image issues because of the weight loss involved," he said.

He says weight loss was brought on by early antiretroviral therapy, a treatment for HIV.

Over the years, fatigue became a side effect, too.

Eventually, it rendered him incapable of working.

"It took a lot of soul searching and work with my then therapist, and we mutually decided that I should stop trying to fight it and just give in and retire," he said.

John has since found a new way to occupy his time.

He volunteers at the HIV Alliance, and at times, his art is front and center in his efforts.

"The basis for those top two pieces was something I did when I was feeling really vulnerable," he said. "So to take that and turn it around and make it into something that's empowering felt really good and I was glad I was able to use that in a more productive way than I'd originally drawn it."

Art and community service: they are just two elements of John's personality that determine how he will spend his day.

But there is one more which, defining or not, cannot be ignored.

"About 55 to 60 percent of clients are gay men, so that's still a large group of people impacted by HIV," said Renee Yandel, Executive Director of the HIV Alliance.

While HIV is particularly prevalent in the gay community, the HIV Alliance stresses it is a disease that can affect anyone from any demographic, and people must always take proper precautions.

"We have every year new female clients, new male clients who are not gay men," Yandel said. "It really does impact everybody. We see infections from youth to 60 year olds."

RELATED | 'I have HIV and I'm a mom'

In 2012, more than one million people in the United States were living with HIV. That's the most recent information from the center for disease control and prevention.

Today, HIV is not always as ostracizing as it once was.

John says he has been able to have serodiscordant relationships: in other words, a relationship with someone who is HIV negative.

"I've had several relationships with people that were negative, and it didn't have any effect on us at all, either physically, mentally or emotionally," said John.

"One of the most important things for someone living with HIV is to have a suppressed viral load," said Yandel. "That means they're taking the medications, the copies of HIV in their body have been suppressed by medication. When you do that, your risk of transmission is greatly reduced."

But even with taking medication and practicing safe sex, stigma can still be a real challenge for anyone with the illness.

"People hear the letters H-I-V and they think that's somebody who's done something they shouldn't do and they got this disease they shouldn't have," John said, "and that's got to change or we're never going to get anywhere."

"I feel hopeful. I think we know what we need to do," said Yandel. "I think we just need to rally around doing it."

For John, it's committing his time, and his heroic characters

But if art imitates life, perhaps the hero is the artist himself.

The HIV alliance urges the public to get tested, and to practice safe sex. You can help the fight too, by volunteering, donating and just getting educated.

This series continues Wednesday, February 17, at 5 p.m. #LiveOnKVAL

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