Kris C. has been living with HIV since 1988. She's seen the ravages of the disease, and of the medications designed to treat the disease. As a woman living with HIV, she's in the minority in the Seattle area, but she does her part to make sure it is a vocal minority.
"When I first found out I was positive, the first thing I did was go to a STEP educational class. There was one other female there. I introduced myself, thinking 'I'm so glad she's here.' I said to her, 'Oh God, I can't even believe I have to be here. So, how did you find out?' She looked at me so strangely, and she said, really snotty, 'I'm a caregiver.' So I was the only positive female I knew for a long time." Since then, Kris has found support and camaraderie with other positive women, especially through the BABES Network in Seattle and Positive Women's Network in Snohomish.
"Now, there are more females out there, but often they're not talking. I'm not married and I don't have children. My heart goes out to the women who have to do all of that besides the full-time job of taking care of yourself and your body. I do have the house, the yard, the animal, but I still don't have kids. And when you've got children, they're your number one priority . . . and they should be. It could very well be that somebody 'up there' was saying, 'I'm gonna keep her alive because she's verbal, she's vocal, she's one of the few females. She'll be talking, because she doesn't have to worry about the ramifications, the persecution, because she doesn't have kids.'"
Kris understands that this is a relatively new disease; that very little is actually known about HIV and its treatments. She participated in some of the early trials of anti-HIV medications and knows, first-hand, the ups and downs of HIV treatment and research.
"When you first start out with this disease, if you're not educated and proactive and an advocate for yourself, you're at the mercy of the medical community. And there are so few studies, they're not that long, they just don't know that much."
Some days, it seems like there is not a lot about this disease that is under anyone's control. Most days, however, Kris works very hard, using her energy and influence to improve the lives of people, especially women, living with HIV and AIDS.
Shortly before her 50th birthday, Kris retired from her job in sales. The transition from full-time work to disability was abrupt.
"The first six months were joyous, it's like vacation, but then the reality sets in -- I have nothing to do! Since I own a house, a lot of the time was spent on gardening. I'd go out for eight hours at a time and weed. I would just sit there, there was no reason to rush; one day was the same as the next.
"I was spending a lot of time sitting at home, when a girl from Positive Women's Network said, 'Oh Kris, you should do something.' So I started volunteering. I joined the Region 3 Planning Council, thinking 'Oh, you can really make a difference. ' And I'd never been politically active, except maybe during the Vietnam War, but if you're not doing anything, and you've got the time, it takes you out of yourself. You don't start thinking about your neuropathy, or how tired you are, or the possibility that you may not be around tomorrow. All those things are put on the back burner. It helps you live for the day, instead of worrying about what may be."
Kris often volunteers over 20 hours a week, contributing to various planning councils, community advisory groups, and AIDS care consortia. Sometimes the schedule seems like a lot of work and not much gain.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm just the token infected female, that there is so much crap going on, that I'm losing that passion, the disgust is taking over, and I don't want to get to that point. But then I think, 'If I don't do it, who will?' Besides, I'd rather be doing that than weeding any day, or cleaning the house. Who cares about the dust bunnies?"
One of Kris's priorities is speaking to young people.
"When I meet younger women who've been infected, the ones who got HIV education from 5th to 12th grade, I think, 'What the hell is going on here?' And then I remember being a teenager. You experiment, maybe drugs, maybe alcohol, you get crazy, and who thinks about protected sex?"
Through speaking, Kris hopes to reach young heterosexual women and impress upon them that they are at risk.
"I just want to let them know about the possibility that they can be infected. I've known people who were infected after one time of unprotected sex. I want the girls to understand, that while they might think their partner is monogamous, maybe he's not. I know people who have been infected after being married 20 years. I know girls who were infected who thought their husband was heterosexual, and it turns out he was bisexual. I think when you're young, you don't think about that. Maybe more today, but it depends on what they're exposed to, and that's why I go out there."
"I also hope that the young ones go home and tell their parents about the discussion. A lot of parents are divorced. They're dating again. A lot of grandparents are widowed or widowers, and of course they're not in school. They don't get that kind of education. They rely upon the information they see in the newspaper, and that is sorely lacking. There is no message out there for older people. So I suppose that's part of why I do the speaking, too. Now, whether the kids actually end up in a discussion with their parents, I don't know. But if only one does, that's fine. It's worth it."
For more information about services for women living with HIV in the Seattle area, the BABES Network can be reached at (888) 292-1912 and the Positive Women's Network can be reached at (360) 568-2888.