So you were really worried about that?
I was. And so that was another stress on me that I had a family secret. And, what is this going to do to me as an individual? So, as I educated myself by reading up about HIV, because honestly at this point, I'd thought that HIV was a gay man's disease.
So you never thought about HIV?
Did you even think you were at risk?
In the back of my mind, I thought it might have been possible. You know, you are listening to the news, so in that era after Magic Johnson, they were talking about protected sex, unprotected sex. But the era I come from, condoms were not really part of the equation. But I had a boyfriend. I was not a promiscuous person.
So whoever I dated, you know, I had a boyfriend. We were monogamous.
It was just you and your boo. That was it.
And I had no idea. I just never thought.
The person that infected me committed suicide without even telling me that he was positive. But because I know that I have a strong religious background, God is in my life. He won't give you any more than you can handle. And I've learned that through this journey.
But He was also able to give me closure. Because I found out who it was. One day after we had broken up, he came to my apartment. I think he wanted to tell me, but he couldn't.
And so years later, I am in the ER with my son -- it was one of those times when my lymph nodes were enlarged, and I always had to get a steroid shot. But we were sitting there reading the newspaper. And there was a murder-suicide. And I look down and see his name. And I knew the girl he dated was an ex-sister-in-law of a friend of mine.
So to make a long story short: When her mom died -- my girlfriend's mother died -- I went home to be mistress of ceremony at her funeral. And I asked her. Because I knew that that young lady and her mom were close. And I told my girlfriend "I'm going to call you when I get home." And when I got back to Baton Rouge I called her and I asked her, "Did she know whether or not her ex-sister-in-law was positive?"
And she said, "Yeah." She said, "And I called and told you when we found out." Because she knew I dated this guy.
I said, "What did I say?"
She said, "You said, 'Oh, really?'"
It still didn't even click that maybe that was something that you should be worried about?
No, because during this time I was actually being treated for Sheldon's syndrome. So in my mind I wasn't HIV positive
So, moving on, going through my family: I got my support. Then I branched out a little further, to uncles and it was all still within my family, but it's like once I told my family, a weight was lifted off my shoulders.
What made me go public was when I saw Magic Johnson in New Orleans at a conference. And he said, "Now that you know about HIV and what causes it, what are you going to do?"
And it just sort of lit my soul on fire. I came back to Baton Rouge and I told my pastor. I said, "You know, I know what I need to do now. I've got to be a part of the solution rather than the problem."
Because I knew at this point: OK, people know Magic, but they know me. You know, people are always talking about, "Magic has money. You know, he doesn't have HIV." But they know Cassandra. I'm someone you know, someone you grew up with, someone you work with.
But the first time I went public, I went to speak at a church during World AIDS Day.
What year was this?
I don't remember, but I was so scared because I'm walking into a building where somebody might know me. But once I told my story I felt better, because the reception I got was love. And I said, "Oh, well, that wasn't so hard."
But I got really involved in speaking out when I became a board member of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two (HAART). I did a public service announcement. When the lady asked me if I would do it, I was so comfortable, so I said, "Yeah."
She said, "Yeah?"
I said, "Yeah. I'll do it."
"You don't need to go talk to anybody?"
I said, "No."
"You don't have to talk to your family?"
I said, "No."
Because I was comfortable with my answer. I was at peace with that because I knew the direction where God was leading me was that I needed to tell my story so that what happened to me might not happen to somebody else. You know? I thought it would never happen to me.
So my circle started growing. I started with my friends at work. Because God kind of would allow me who I could tell, kind of tell me who I could tell. And I got with a group of girls, my coworkers at work; we had lunch. It was on my birthday. I think it was my 50th birthday. So I was so happy, you know, that God had allowed me to turn 50 -- or it may have been my 49th -- and I was getting ready to go public. And I told them.