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This Positive Life: An Interview With Bernard Jackson

May 14, 2012

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Tell me a little bit about your background. What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? What was your family like?

I was born and raised here in Northern Virginia, in the city of Alexandria. I attended T.C. Williams High School. A lot of people "remember the Titans" from that school that were made very famous with the Denzel Washington movie. I grew up with very wise parents, who gave me an education, in addition to what the public school system could give me, about life, about respect and pride and morals.

It was a very large, close-knit family, of family reunions, many matriarchs and patriarchs in the family. My grandfather, my mom's dad, who was just an awesome man, who was actually born to slaves, was our patriarch in our family. We had family dinners there on Sundays. We celebrated his years -- he lived to be 100 -- and just celebrated his life. My mother had 11 brothers and sisters, so there was always a reason to celebrate something.

My mom and my family, as a whole, and my dad gave me a wonderful foundation to build on. That, too, along with my faith, has continued to give me a good outlook on life. I still have the same friends that I actually had as a child growing up. And in fact some of my friends have tested positive. So we've become a support system for each other.

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I think that when we have that foundation that's already been laid and set up for us, we can fall back on that at our weakest times and get encouraged. So I credit my family and my friends with where I am today. I grew up around a lot of wise people, and that information, to this day, still clicks in. Some of the things that I heard as a kid, today I still say, "Oh. Now I understand what my mom, or what my dad meant, or what the lady across the street meant, or what my grandfather meant, by certain things that they would say."

I had a pretty wonderful childhood. I have a lot of things to be thankful for, as far as my family life. Pretty much everybody's here in Virginia.

Who was the first person among your family that you told about your HIV diagnosis?

The second person that I told was actually my cousin. My cousin had been living with HIV for quite some time, and I knew that they were positive. I went to them after maybe about a month, and I shared with them that I, too, was positive. That was a lot of support that I had to rely on.

"I find that in a lot of families, especially in large families, when we don't openly talk about HIV, we find that there are other people right in your own family that are dealing with it in secret."

I find that in a lot of families, especially in large families, when we don't openly talk about HIV, we find that there are other people right in your own family that are dealing with it in secret. My cousin was open enough about their situation to have that for me to go to. My cousin, in fact, also passed away a couple of years ago from their complications due to the AIDS virus. And that was kind of devastating, but I learned so much. Because they had been positive for many, many years, and very healthy. That was encouraging, to have my cousin available to talk to.

I still, to this day, don't openly discuss HIV with a lot of my family. They don't have to say anything to me to let me know that they're aware. It's just that they continue to love me. They continue to be a part of my life. So there's a lot that's unsaid; it's just showing me through their actions that they have no problem with it, that they support me. If I'm not on the phone with one of them at least twice a week, they're calling to make sure that I'm OK. But we never openly discuss it as much.

I think that the way that I started feeling comfortable with talking about it was through the Face to Face program. A couple of my cousin's children were present in some of those presentations. So it kind of trickled down in the family, you know, about my status.

How do you decide whether to disclose your HIV status to someone new in your life? How do you decide whether it's something you want someone to know when you're outside of an educational context?

With anyone that I'm involved in a lengthy conversation with, it's almost normal for people to say, "What kind of work do you do?" When I say that I'm into HIV prevention and education, it automatically becomes a subject with most people that I come in contact with.

Every opportunity that I get to talk with someone who wants to hear it, I do. I have no problem with disclosure at this point, because I know how valuable the knowledge is to people who don't have it. I understand that there are so many people still functioning in society that aren't educated. If you like me well enough to sit here and hold a conversation with me, knowing that I'm positive, then maybe that will open up your heart to understand it with someone else. Because we still have so many people that don't get the opportunity to get educated about the virus; they still have some of these stigmas attached to it.

Here at NOVAM we do testing. We have a consultation moment. I'm not necessarily supposed to go into the fact that I'm positive; but there are certain people that you come in contact with that need to know that life goes on. People look at me and say, "But you look so healthy." But there are people walking around with cardiac problems; people walking around with high blood pressure and diabetes. Right now, we are just in the same category. We are treating our illness, and we want to be cared about, we want to be loved, we want to be included -- and we want to be a part of other things that go on in this world.

What's the best response you've gotten from telling someone that you're HIV positive in any context? What's the worst response?

The best response that I've gotten from telling someone that I'm HIV positive is they, in turn, disclosed their status to me. And they had been hiding this issue in their life for about four years. And just me saying to them about my status, they revealed to me that they had gotten an HIV diagnosis some years prior to us meeting. And I became sort of a support system for that person.

The worst response that I've ever gotten was someone asking me, "Well, how long are you going to live?" It just kind of struck me that so many people are so uneducated, still, about the virus. But that was the first question they asked: "Well, are you afraid of dying?" I'm, like, "Um, no. I'm afraid of walking out in front of a bus going about 50 miles an hour more than I'm afraid of the HIV virus." That was one of the things that kind of bothered me, is that people still connect HIV with death.

I won't say that was the worst response; I did get a person that didn't want to shake my hand after I disclosed to them. But I gave him enough education in that few minutes that I talked with him to make him really think about it. And they came back later and apologized.

On the subject of dating since you tested HIV positive: Are you in a romantic relationship or a partnership now?

No. Relationships to me have always been so difficult. I think that my marriage to my wife was one of the greatest experiences of love and togetherness and working together that I've ever had in my life. I think that was one of my blessings. And I'm just not sure if I'm ever going to find that again. And I know that that relationship was something that I prayed about, and something that came to me strictly for me. I believe God made that person, and that relationship, just for me. So right now I'm just into friendships.

I've found out that dating is so nice. It's a wonderful thing to have people that just like you for you, and not like you for what goes on behind closed doors.

So, right now, no. I'm not in a relationship. I don't want to be alone forever. I'm definitely looking. But right now, I'm just enjoying my work. I'm enjoying meeting wonderful people. And I have relationships with people that are just truly platonic relationships. It's a way of being in relationships and having many of them. I love dating. I love that. I like that part. So I'm content right now.

It's great to hear someone say that they've had good experiences with dating. Usually the consensus is: Oh, dating; it's so tough. How do you meet people for dating?

I'm a very outgoing person; I'm a people person, I guess. I've always been told that -- that community services are one of my assets. I love talking to people.

People tell me that I have a nice smile. People tell me that I have a nice personality. So it's never been a difficult thing for me to meet people. One of my gifts that I pride myself with is, I'm a vocalist. I love music. I've had the opportunity to sing at a number of social events, and private parties, and things like that. So that's always kind of like a door opening for people. Because you know, they always say, "All you've got to do is sing the right song, and somebody will like it." And so singing the right song now and then attracts the right person; we can connect on that. And then a friendship builds. And then we just get together from time to time.

So, social events, and even through different activities involved with HIV, I've met some wonderful, wonderful people with whom disclosure is not even an issue. We can just talk openly about our meds. We can talk about our side effects to the meds. We can talk about the latest HIV information that that other person may not know. So, just meeting people locally.

Some of them I've met through the Internet, just to converse with.

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This article was provided by TheBody.com.


 

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