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Personal Story

Grope, Dope, and HIV

It Took Me Years to Realize That My Drug Use and HIV Diagnosis Were Linked to Childhood Sexual Abuse. But Once I Made the Connection, Change Began.

January 11, 2018

Sherri Lewis

Sherri Lewis

In November, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, my Uncle Kenny -- my mother's baby brother -- died at the age of 75. The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter ran his obituary, noting that he'd been a successful child television actor who later wrote, produced, and starred in The Groove Tube, a groundbreaking film satire that foreshadowed the comedy style of Saturday Night Live.

The timing of his death, just as countless women (and some men) worldwide were speaking out against their (sometimes long-ago) rapists and sexual harassers, was ironic. When I was younger, my uncle sexually harassed me for years, causing trauma that, I believe, contributed to my drug abuse and my eventual HIV diagnosis in 1987.

It started when I was a braces-wearing 14-year-old virgin. At a family gathering in New York, as I made my way to the bathroom, my uncle followed, pushed me up against a wall, pressed his body into mine, and tried to kiss me. I struggled to get away, thrashing my head side to side to avoid his lips.

"I just want to know what it's like to kiss a girl with braces," he said.

Afterwards, we returned to the holiday dinner table, surrounded by family, and acted as if nothing happened. I wish I could say that was the first and last time he harassed me, but it wasn't. He pursued me for the next 25 years.

When I was 16, I had a nervous breakdown after my parents separated. My mother, who had given up her 16-year habit of diet pills, went on an emotional rollercoaster, with violent mood swings and crying binges.

No longer able to stand living in her house, I took a bus to New York to stay with my uncle in the West Village. In denial about what had happened a few years earlier, I was desperate and had nowhere else to go. Once I got there, he told me a family secret: He and my mother had different mothers, so he and I weren't really related. In other words, it was perfectly fine for us to have sex.

Dumbfounded, I sat on the couch, and we proceeded to smoke a joint.

"You love me, don't you?" he asked.

"Well, yes," I said hesitantly. "But you're my uncle."

"Not really."

"But you're still my uncle!"

Frustrated that his manipulation wasn't working, he pounced on me and tried to rape me. We fought. I kept kicking him. He was very mad and put me up against the wall, clutching my throat. "If you ever tell anyone, I'll kill you!" he threatened. I left without being raped -- that time.

I was terrified and in shock. I made my way to the Port Authority to get a bus back to my mother's home in New Jersey. Right there and then, I decided that I was going to bury this secret for the rest of my life.

Uncle Kenny

Lewis' Uncle Kenny as a boy with his mother (Courtesy of Sherri Lewis)


Years of Trauma

Instead, I acted out my trauma. I started having sex, smoking pot, doing speed, and experimenting with shooting heroin. "What is happening to me?" I thought. Before this, I was going to dance class, as I had done since I was five.

I spent long hours in my bedroom losing my mind. It was all too much to handle. My mother called her parents and my aunt and uncle -- my mother's older brother -- for support. They showed up just as I started babbling out the truth about what my uncle had done. I was spinning out of control and hysterical.

Then the questions came racing toward me like fastballs I couldn't hit. "What happened to you in New York?" "Did he touch you?"

"Yes! Yes!" I cried. Tears and snot were dripping down my face as I tried to catch my breath. My family fell silent except my father, the outsider, who went to get a drink, then came back, raging that he was going to kill my uncle.

Of course he didn't, but I knew that at least I had someone on my side. My grandmother, on the other hand, a stout four foot, 11 inches, hands on hips, stood strong in defense of her golden boy, demanding to know of me, "What did you do to him?"

She made me feel that I must have done something wrong to provoke him. And that was the end of the issue for my family.

But not for me. I was admitted into a psychiatric ward where I was given sodium pentothal, the so-called truth serum. After a few weeks, I was discharged with prescription drugs and a letter from the psychiatrist permitting me to be home-schooled for 11th and 12th grades.

Sherri Lewis

Sherri Lewis at 16 years old (Credit: Eric Wagman)

That was the beginning of a period of isolation and desperate loneliness, my first life-threatening illness -- hepatitis -- and my first abusive boyfriend. Because of the hepatitis, I didn't drink or do drugs for a year, on doctor's orders. But my mother was indifferent to me. She made it known I was too difficult for her.

Sitting at her kitchen table with a coffeepot and a tutor next to me for two years, I took my tests and graduated high school, alone. I auditioned and was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and moved to New York to aim for my dreams.

Committed to my career above all else, I found my way into the music business as a signed recording artist, and I had a brief moment of fame as a pop star. But no matter what success I achieved, I was overwhelmed by guilt and a feeling that I didn't deserve it. Eventually, I was diagnosed with non-A, non-B hepatitis, which was later identified as hepatitis C.

I had no idea how my history of sexual abuse was sabotaging my life. After all, it was the only life I knew.

As for my uncle, he would track me down from time to time in New York. Unexpectedly, he would call and I'd hear that familiar voice: "Hello, Sherri." A bone-chilling feeling ran through me, frozen in fear and filled with rage.

"How did you get my number?" I would demand, infuriated.

He laughed. "You'll never guess. Your mother!"


The Turnaround

I decided to get clean and sober in a 12-step program in 1985, only to learn in 1987 that I had HIV. Thankfully, I've been in recovery ever since, which has helped keep me alive, and today my HIV is well controlled with medications. My hepatitis C has also been cured.

In all the years since, being in recovery has helped me peel back the layers of my past and understand that my uncle's harassment triggered my self-destructive behaviors. After 12 years of therapy, I came to see that what had happened to me wasn't "my imagination," as I was often told by my mother. I came to understand that I chose abusive boyfriends and female friends who were untrustworthy, like my mother. I always settled for less because I felt damaged. Learning that information about myself was the beginning of consciousness and change for me.

Sherri Lewis

The author in 2016 (Credit: Peitor Angell)

It takes a lot of work for damaged children to live as healthy adults -- but it is possible. Inside every adult lives their inner child, holding emotional memory and longing for love and forgiveness. As for me, by forgiving those who harmed me, including myself, I wasn't condoning the behaviors, but it helped me let go of what had happened for my own peace of mind.

As for my Uncle Kenny, I knew that he was also abused as a child -- by his mother, my grandmother. He told me horrific stories of things she would do to him, such as exposing herself to him and sleeping with him nightly, calling him "my little man" while my grandfather slept in his own bedroom. He was deeply damaged and full of rage. He and my mother had different biological mothers, yes, but the same mentally ill woman raised them.

When I heard that my uncle had died, after a long battle with a cancer that he actually nicknamed after his mother, I felt nauseous, deeply saddened, and relieved. Like me, he, too, was once just an adorable little child who wanted to be loved. His torture in this world was over, and he could finally rest in peace.

My story reflects the research of Gail Wyatt, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavoral sciences at the UCLA Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, who studies the connection between substance use and HIV infection. In a 2013 interview, Wyatt noted that "Sexual abuse before age 18 increases a woman's risk for becoming HIV-positive more than any other factor. This finding crossed all racial and ethnic groups."

"Sexual abuse will alter the course of anyone's life," she continues. "The after-effects don't go away by themselves. Most of these women didn't get help after they were abused. We can't expect people to change their risky sexual behavior until they understand how the violence has affected them."

For many years, that was my story. Using drugs was my solution to the pain, I felt -- until it became the problem. My choices for sexual relationships were not healthy. When I got clean, they improved dramatically.

If I've learned anything from this experience that I can share with you, it's this: Forgive yourself. Forgive everyone and everything. Life is too short to stop yourself from living your best life. Know that you did the best you could for whatever stage of life you were in at any given time. Know that you are good.


Sexual Abuse and Assault Resources

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