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Where Was I When AIDS First Came on the Scene?

By Rusti Miller-Hill

June 3, 2011

I remember looking at the television thinking OMG this can't be ... I saw Ryan White and his mother and heard of their struggle just to be acknowledged for who they were as a family. I never thought that this would have an impact on my life other than hearing about it on the news. Magic Johnson and I found out around the same time!

I was diagnosed in January of 1991. The word on the street was that if you became infected you died almost immediately. I watched friends die, attended so many funerals. I spent the first year in deep denial. Not sharing my status with anyone, drugs had become my best friend. While in residence at a treatment facility I began to accept the depth of my diagnosis. I was devastated; here I was trying to put the pieces of my life back together and all I could think of was planning my funeral.

My mentor assisted in my process of acceptance of the virus, and changed the impact it would have on my life forever more. I was eventually released and wound up in the state correctional facility for women serving a two-to-four-year sentence. It was during that time I was introduced to Advocacy 101.

Living in an environment where secrets were the norm and pretending to be something that you're not was acceptable just to survive, telling the truth about one's health status was risky to say the least. I met the awesome women of ACE (AIDS Counseling and Education program at Bedford Hills) and became informed, educated and empowered. This empowerment propelled me to the next level. I became an AIDS counselor at Albion Correctional Facility, encouraging women to get tested and know their status. I was involved in a Class Action suit against the correctional facility to change the medical treatment and practices around HIV. I had in fact created a new line of employment for myself upon my return to the community, only to face discrimination and isolation from family and community. This experience taught me how to be tuff and stand strong, often standing alone.

I have revealed myself to the community, family and friends that there is life and love after HIV. Thirty years into the epidemic I am still imparting the same message to a different audience, striving for the prevention of new infections and educating the old. If we as a community want to end the devastation of AIDS, we must come together and work toward the prevention of new infections -- one community at a time.

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