"It's all about trying to help people." This statement sums up what Jackie is all about. A petite, engaging African-American woman, Jackie's appearance seems to belie the fact that she's old enough to have grown children and to be a grandmother.
All three of her children have been supportive of their mother around her HIV status. It was just recently, Jackie said, that she sat her children, ages 17 to 22, down around the kitchen table and told them about herself. "A friend said you have to tell them. They have to know in case something goes wrong," she says. So, with much trepidation, Jackie did just that.
The result was almost anticlimactic. No one took it as a death sentence. They'd all had AIDS education in school, and the announcement of Jackie's HIV-positive status was not going to change the nature of their relationship with their mother.
This is a far cry from where Jackie herself started off. After testing HIV-positive in 1992, she spent the next six years, more or less, in denial. Although the news wasn't surprising (a former lover had died of AIDS), Jackie just didn't know how to deal with it.
Then, about a year ago, Jackie began having some health problems and ended up hospitalized for a respiratory infection and fatigue. "I felt like I was going to die -- financially, physically, and emotionally." Jackie attributed some of this feeling to the clerical job she held at that time and to the series of similar jobs that had comprised her work history. "Pushing paper wasn't for me," Jackie says. She was retested for HIV and as a result began to realize things she didn't want her life to be about -- "No more clerical work!"
But now what? Jackie's sister had earlier gone to Exponents Arrive and taken some classes, so Jackie went there too. She did the eight-week intensive training course that is a workshop focused on HIV and AIDS and substance abuse issues. This was the first time that Jackie had met "positive people living with HIV," and this exposure helped her gain an "acceptance of the things I cannot change," like her own HIV status. She began the process of disclosing to other people.
What kind of effect did this have? "I put more effort to things, complete things now. I could put the pieces together as to where I wanted to go."
One of those "pieces" is Jackie's current job as a peer educator with Body Positive, where she's involved with outreach programs and facilitates a support group for women and HIV prevention workshops near her home on Staten Island. Jackie also does lobbying work around HIV issues on both the city and state levels.
In her education and outreach work, Jackie has the opportunity to meet and be helpful to other women who have been newly diagnosed HIV-positive. "Get as much education as you can about this disease, and don't allow anyone to force you into anything you're not ready for. You're not alone."
Jackie's not alone either. In addition to her family, she has a weekly supervision support group to help her do her job. And she has God. Jackie attends a nondenominational church service every week. Here she gets inspiration and support for healthcare issues (Jackie is not on a protease inhibitor cocktail or any drug for HIV: "What it would do to me mentally would not be worth it; between my Lord and holistic treatment, we can do this") and for her work ("Everything happens for a reason. I can only offer knowledge I have of my Lord").
And it's her Lord and HIV that Jackie credits with giving "life direction, meaning, purpose. I am facing problems head on. Running away is not an option anymore."
For Jackie, helping others is part of her healing too, and it is giving her an opportunity to "put something behind me and make a difference in someone else's life, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or whatever other prejudices people have."
With the help of others and a whole lot of hard work, Jackie has created a new life for herself despite HIV ... or maybe even because of it. For her, things have turned around, and being able to use her experience to help others has been one of the biggest rewards.
For Jackie, before, "life was dragging along." Now, she says, "making a difference is a whole new world."
Tom Weber has worked for nearly ten years at Gay Men's Health Crisis, Inc., and is currently Volunteer Coordinator of the Buddy Program. He is a frequent contributor to Body Positive.