This Positive Life: Marcia Finds Permanent Self-Love in a Temporary World
February 14, 2013
Marcia Dorsey had done everything expected of her growing up. She received a good education, got a good job, never drank or did drugs; and she stayed in one monogamous relationship for many years. After being diagnosed with HIV, she first asked herself, "Why me?" But then, after educating herself about the disease, she began to say, "Well, why not me?"
Part of a large family that goes back 14 generations in Howard County, Md., Marcia had to deal with disclosing her HIV status to her family -- including her mother, to whom she did not disclose for 10 years. Through the help of a local community organization, Acadiana Cares, and writing poetry, Marcia was able to deal with the loss of her very lucrative job and begin to live and be healthy again. In this truly moving, inspiring This Positive Life interview, Marcia reminds us that HIV has no look, and that it can enter your bedroom no matter what neighborhood you live in.
Tell me where you're living now, and where you're from.
Thank you for inviting me. I've got a lot to say. I want to be impactful with my statements. I want to be clear and concise. And I really want people, women, to understand what it's like to be HIV positive, what my life used to be like, and what it's currently like. So, just ask away.
Right now, I live in Lafayette, Louisiana, by way of Baltimore, Maryland. I like to tell everybody that I'm an original Dorsey from Howard County and Dorsey, Maryland, because we are 14 generations deep there. So I'm very proud of that.
I grew up, middle class family: father, mother both educators. I'm the second oldest, born during Hurricane Hazel. I was seven months, by two days, preemie. So I've always had that "hurry up and get there" type of attitude about things.
When were you diagnosed with HIV?
Well, it was on September 19, 1996. I had been dating -- in a live-in relationship, actually -- for about three years with a guy that I absolutely loved and adored. He got sick, mysteriously, one day. And I was working and put him on my health insurance.
So I think the biggest, the brightest thing about this whole scenario is that he and I wound up with the same doctors. So when he got sick and went to the hospital, and it was on a Friday; he had checked himself out of the hospital. So I said to my doctor, "Well, where did he go?"
He said, "Well, he checked himself out before the labs came back." Well, hell, I didn't know what he was talking about. So I said, "Oh, OK."
He said, "Marcia, did you hear me?"
I said, "Yes."
He said, "He checked himself out of the hospital before the labs came back."
I said, "OK, that sounds pretty stupid," and I started laughing.
He said, "Marcia, are you listening to me?"
So I said, "Yeah. You said he checked himself out before the labs came back. And you know, what can I do about that? Nothing." That was a Friday.
Sunday, I cooked my favorite Sunday meal: fried chicken wings; mashed potatoes and gravy; French-cut string beans. And I was washing the dishes, and I accidentally dropped a plate, and broke it. But when the plate hit the floor, I hit the floor. My knees went into all of the glass; and then I spread out on the floor on my knees, and started crying.
Because it had finally dawned on me what the doctor was telling me.
So the next day, I went and got an HIV test. About a week had passed and I was sitting in the office. And the doctor says to me, "Marcia, have a seat." Well, I knew I was in trouble because my doctor, who was crying, had told me to take a seat ... and I was already sitting down.
So then he says to me; he says, "Well, I have some bad news for you." So I said, "What's that?"
He says, "Well, the test came back positive." And I'm thinking to myself, "Well, that's great!" You understand? Because I was 41 years old. I was never promiscuous. Didn't smoke; didn't drink; didn't do any drugs. I had a monogamous relationship. So when he told me it was positive, I just figured that the coast was clear.
You thought positive meant good, basically?
Yes, absolutely. So I got to watching him, and he was in tears. And I said, "Well, Doctor, what's wrong?"
He said, "You don't understand, do you?" I said, "No."
He says, "You're HIV positive."
So I started to cry, and as one tear started driveling down my face, I was saying to him, "Well, how long do I have to live." He told me, "About 17 years."
So the tear dried up. I sat back in the chair. And then I just smiled at him. I said, "Well, hell, I could get hit by a bus in 17 years; die of natural causes." So I really don't know if I took it serious or not.
So they put me on AZT, and then, eventually, my friend died. When he died, everything died with him: the HIV died, the medicine died. Everything died. And then I took a position that required me to travel all the time. Because I really wasn't sure if this was something I needed to tell my family or not. And then, if I was dying, I didn't want to be dying in front of their faces. So I started traveling all over the country. I was a network technician. I made $150,000 a year; lived the life that I wanted to live; had no children; never been married; you know, more money than I could ever spend.
And then 9/11 came. I got stranded in Lafayette, Louisiana. My company went out of business, and forgot I was there. And the only reason why I found out they went out of business was because I had this extra money in my account, and I didn't want to get in trouble so I called them. The phone number was disconnected. The Web page was taken down. There was nobody for me to call.
But in between time, I had got me this little dog. And I promised him I was going to take care of him. So no matter how sick I got, I had to get up out of my bed at least twice a day to take him for a walk. And I couldn't even walk myself, OK? But I walked the dog -- which is amazing to me.
I finally had to come to terms with something. One morning I got up, and I sat at my computer, and I started writing poetry. By the time I finished, it was called HIV and Me in Prose and Poetry. One of the poems was "Risk: Realizing I Should Have Known." I wrote another one called "I Had to Die to Learn to Live." Which is true, simply because my old life -- the parties on Capitol Hill; going to New York; going to Texas; Niemann Marcus was just one of the ... one of the major things I ever wanted to do in life was to shop at a real Texas Niemann Marcus. I got to do everything that I wanted to do.
So the first person I told about it in my family was my youngest brother, because he and I were very close.
At this point, how long had it been since you'd been diagnosed?
Three years. And I guess the news was so devastating for him that he told his wife. But his wife was a control freak and, one day on the Internet, she sprang it on me that she knew. So I wrote her back. And my response to her in the e-mail was, "In order for me to care about what you think, I first have to care about you. And since I do not, it does not." So I just didn't care.
And at that point, I had, like, an epiphany. And then I realized that everybody I meet in this world is temporary. This is a temporary world, and the only person I had to carry with me everywhere I go was me. I couldn't leave me behind. I had to carry me everywhere. So I had to learn to love me, and accept what was going on with me. But it still was a trial.
But I was having a crisis about three years ago. And I had been already; I'd been 10 years with HIV. Three o'clock one morning, I just couldn't figure out why I couldn't tell my mother.
So at this point it had been 10 years, and you still hadn't told your mother?
I hadn't told my mother, no. And I didn't know why I didn't want to tell my mother -- or, I didn't tell my mother. But at three o'clock one morning, I couldn't ... You know, I was getting evicted. I didn't have any money; didn't have any finances; didn't have anything. I was on ... you know, Social Security hadn't come through yet. And my $150,000-a-year job was gone.
And you had lost it in 2001, around 9/11. So between 2001 and 2006, you had not worked, or found anything?
Not really. Because I got sick in 2002, and had quit my job. So, God bless me, with a hurricane -- now, mind, I told you I was born during Hurricane Hazel -- well, it was another hurricane that came through Louisiana that brought me to Acadiana Cares.
Was this Katrina?
No, it was 2000 ... it was one before that. It was in 2002, in October. We were signing up for emergency food stamps. And I didn't have a job anymore. I had just quit, because I just couldn't do it no more. And the lady asked me why I wasn't out working. And, you know, she was a Social Services lady. I told her, "Because I've got HIV."
Well, she gave me the number to our CBO, which is the community-based organization, Acadiana Cares. And the number she gave me turned to be a sex hotline. So I looked it up the best I could, in the phonebook; because I was new to Louisiana. I didn't know anybody. Had no family. Really had no friends. I'm dying and don't know who to confide in. And so I tried to find it as best I could.
So there was a knock came, knocking on my door. And it was a gentleman named Alton from Acadiana Cares. Acadiana Cares, back in 2002, took me on as a client, paid my rent and all my utilities, from December 2002 to April 2003. They provided me with food, transportation to get to my doctors' appointments. They made the Medical Center take me on as a patient. And they saved my life. From April of 2003 to October of 2003, they continued to pay my rent. I have nothing but love for them. They saved my life. That's why I'm here today.
Because every time they need someone to go out and advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS, I go. I go, because I can never give back to them what they gave me. They gave me back my life. They gave me back my dignity. They helped me feel like a woman again. They let me know that they cared, and that I mattered. They taught me not to be afraid. They taught me to take care of me, to love me, to look out for me. And they helped me learn to live.
Also, because having HIV and AIDS doesn't define who I am. It doesn't make me me. It's not my soul. It's not my heart. It's not the love that I care for people. It's just a disease that I didn't stand in line for -- it wasn't my turn -- that I got from a man that I loved with all my heart, who simply didn't know how to love me back. It happens. And God makes us soldiers in the fight.
Not all of us are brave enough to stand up. Not all of us are strong enough to speak out. Many of us hide in shame, as black American women, because we fear ridicule, and shame, and dishonor, and everything that the world thinks we should -- when it's not our fault. It's nobody's fault. It happens. So? It happens.
Your partner at the time, who it sounds like is the person that you acquired HIV from ...