A Bunny's Life
Rebekka Armstrong, a Woman with HIV, Hops from Meds to Modeling
Rebekka Armstrong, a model who has been featured in magazines from Playboy (she was a Playmate and Ms. September 1986) to Poz (she was featured on the cover in June 1998), is a 34-year-old HIV-positive woman. She now counts her years from her HIV diagnosis ("I'll be six years old in February"). An outspoken proponent of needle exchange and an active public speaker whose passion is working with youth on prevention issues, Rebekka spoke with Positive Living writer Susan Forrest from Rebekka's house in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles.
Forrest: There have been stories written about you in many magazines including the cover story of Poz. Filmmaker Antonia Bird is doing a documentary about you also. Why?
Armstrong: I'm not trying to talk myself up here because I'm not anybody great or anything. I can tell you exactly why Poz chose me as their cover story. They said it was because I was an attractive, young woman living with HIV. Right there.
And the reason Antonia's doing it is just because she's amazed at me as a woman dealing with what I deal with. As far as Playboy, having HIV, my liking both men and women, my struggles in different relationships with those men and women, and I guess just me. She thought it would be a really great thing to write.
I picture myself sitting there when I was diagnosed and feeling really alone, and not knowing what to do, and thinking that I was dying. I mean, all these terrible things that you're thinking. So I thought that it would be really cool if there was something -- and I remember going out there and renting anything on HIV/AIDS and . . .
Forrest: Right -- you got Silverlake Life.
Armstrong: Right! Right! I did. I rented that. So I thought that if I could give some young woman or some teenager, or just anybody, something that would say, "Hey, you know, this isn't the end of the world. You can live your life. You can manage your life -- you can." That's why I wanted to do it. Also, when I go around talking to teenagers at schools, I think it would be a really cool educational tool to use.
Forrest: Did you tell your family/friends/lover(s) that you were HIV-positive? What was their response?
Yes. I told everybody I needed to let know that I had been diagnosed. First, I needed to let everybody know that had come in contact with me because I wasn't sure when I was infected, and secondly, to find out who did this to me. I don't feel that way at all anymore, but at that time I was like, "God! Who did this to me?" Most of them were more scared for me than for them. They were freaking out that I was dying. And that's also part of why I went and met with them in person -- for them to see what I looked like, you know, that I wasn't all emaciated yet. Listen to this: I was diagnosed in August and I couldn't get an appointment with an infectious disease doctor until September 2. I panicked. I thought "No! You don't understand! I'm not gonna live that long. You can't give me an appointment that far off!" So, I was freaking out.
Forrest: Did you know that there were services available for people with HIV?
Armstrong: Yes. You know, the doctor who I saw would tell me about support groups and stuff like that, but it was mostly for men. And then, a couple of women that I did meet, you know, back in '89 or '90, died right away, like within a few months, so I was really terrified. I mean, here I am going into a hospital to see a girl that I'd just met in a support group. Those girls died pretty quickly. Then I started reading all of this research about how women, by the time they're diagnosed, die within one year. And I was reading all of this horrifying stuff and I thought "I'm gonna die. I have one year!"
Armstrong: So that's exactly what I did. I didn't try as hard to search out help as somebody without that drug-addicted mind would have tried. I did tons of speed and drank alcohol and stayed up, wasn't gonna miss a thing. And then I would panic after a few months of heavy partying, and I would make a doctor's appointment, get my T-cell count, and start maybe ddI for a while, and eating healthy, and all this kind of stuff. And then I would go "Fuck this!" and go party again.
I originally accessed services through L.A. Shanti. I went to a two-day women's support group. I met 60 or 70 other HIV-infected women and that's what really turned me around. Ironically, it happened on my birthday, and, for a few years prior to that I wouldn't even celebrate my birthday. My feeling was: Don't even call me on my birthday -- I don't want to know that I'm another year older with this shit. In February it will be six years ago that I went. It's silly, but I'll be six years old in February. That's what I say. That's when I really, really started concentrating on turning around. I had a couple of slip-ups here and there, but um, that's it.
Forrest: Can you speak about how coming out as being HIV-positive has improved your mental/physical health?
Armstrong: Going public was one of the best things I've ever done in my life. Very much so. And as far as relationships -- it makes it a lot easier on a date, being public, and not having to go, "Uh, gee, by the way, pass the salt -- I have AIDS." I don't have to do that shit anymore!
Accepting that I am HIV-positive changed my life completely. I no longer had to hide in my sorry AIDS closet. I no longer had to pretend to somebody else that I wasn't. I no longer had to come up with sorry excuses and lies and bullshit about why I was doing what I was doing or why I was feeling the way I was feeling or why I was in the hospital that week. It was so constant. And all of a sudden it came to a halt because I just came forward.
It was the Shanti thing that made me decide to come out as being positive. There was one particular woman. She was so . . . here (puts her hand to her heart) with me. Right here. She was a non-infected woman who was facilitating the entire thing. I was surrounded by 60 or 70 other women who were infected and dealing with the virus on totally different levels. Some women had to deal with placing their children somewhere. Some women were there with their children, talking about it. Some women were so emaciated . . . and it was like, "Oh my God! I'm not there."
You know what? I need to stand up right now. It was there at the workshop that I first said out loud to somebody (aside from my family and ex-lovers) that I was positive. And I remember that we all stood in a circle. We all danced in a circle to "That's What Friends Are For," trying to keep all of us women connected in some way. And we held candles, and we held hands and we held on to each other. And that was all I knew at that point. And goddamnit, I was gonna hang on for dear life. I was going for it. That's what kicked me in the ass.
Forrest: Was there any negative fallout to your coming out publicly?
Armstrong: Absolutely. I stopped working. I stopped being sent out on modeling jobs. What company is going to want an HIV-positive Playboy Playmate to represent their product? Crest isn't going to be calling me on the phone.
Forrest: Perhaps Monostat.
Armstrong: You know, I thought I would be the Monostat poster child! Monostat: Call Rebekka!
Forrest: Have you been able to use your Playboy notoriety in a positive way?
Armstrong: Absolutely. Playboy gave me a voice. And you can take that any way you want it. Some people think I'm being sensationalized just because I took my clothes off in Playboy magazine. That's not what I'm doing. As far as I'm concerned I'm giving HIV a face. I may not be famous, but, at certain points in my life, I have been in the eye of the public, even if it was in their bathrooms!
Forrest: How and why did you tell Playboy you were positive?
Armstrong: I had to. I had no choice. I was losing my mind. I was homeless. I'd lost my house, my car, I didn't have anything to eat, I had the terrible reputation of being this unreliable model. Don't even call her, don't even send her out, she's not gonna show up, and stuff like that. One time I was in the hospital with a brain infection and I didn't even remember that I was supposed to be in New York that week. So they automatically thought it was drugs. And part of it was drugs. But part of it -- a lot of it -- was trying to hide my HIV status. So finally I did tell them but I told them not to tell anybody else. I needed to explain why I was such an unreliable person. It took them a little while, of course. It had to circulate through Legal and through everything. Granted, they needed to figure out how they were gonna deal with it. They are purveyors of sex, and HIV is a part of sex. In the last three years they've really, really supported me big time. I needed to prove that I was a new person, because I was pretty fucked up for a while. But it's really gone great.
Forrest: How did you transition from being an almost-excommunicated Playmate to working with the Playboy Foundation?
Armstrong: I was never really excommunicated. I think that what was going on was them trying to figure out how to deal with me, and whether or not I was really on the up-and-up. Remember, they were dealing with this person who was totally drug-addicted and freaked out and drinking and doing everything and anything to not deal with her virus, and being a total flake. They wanted to know whether I was really legit now, and also, they had to learn how to deal with and how to present somebody they were involved with who was HIV-positive. How does that fit with the girl-next-door Playboy image? After I proved to them that this is what I really believed in and that I am willing to work really freaking hard to make it possible, the Playboy Foundation stepped in and agreed to sponsor me. Cleo Wilson rocks! She's the executive director of the foundation, and if it wasn't for Cleo . . . I don't know. She, Cindy Rakowitz (president of Playmate Promotions) and B-Jaye Turner (director of Playmate Promotions) have helped me immeasurably.
Forrest: How did you start public speaking?
Armstrong: Since, to the best of my knowledge, I was infected at the age of 16, I went to my high school and told them that I'm HIV-positive and I would really like to come in and talk to the students about what it is that I have.
Forrest: On your own?
Armstrong: All on my own. And so this kid from continuation high school, where a lot of girls go because they've had kids, asked my brother to ask me if I would come speak. Here was my first chance. And so I went there and I spoke. I did a two-hour presentation -- back when there were no holds barred. I did a condom demonstration on a big dildo. I did everything. I went through lesbian sex. I went through gay sex. You name it, I touched on it. And there was no question that you couldn't ask me. To this day I make that perfectly clear to the students. If you are afraid to ask me in front of your peers, ask me after.
And anyway, word got out at that time that I was gonna come in and give this demonstration and people were still like, "Oh my God! Someone with AIDS is coming into our school! So they had health teachers and supervisors from different schools in that area come and watch the presentation, and that's when it started. They were like, "Can you come to our school next?" And until I moved away, I would go back to my high school every year and speak to the health classes.
Forrest: What is your definition of an activist?
Armstrong: Somebody who really, strongly believes in what they believe in. I think that there are a lot of different types of activists. There are the major extremists that will chain themselves to doors and things like that -- and we need people like that to make a statement. There have been these marches that ACT UP has been involved in, and I really want to do that but I'm afraid of getting arrested and not being able to get my meds. I'm on my third cocktail and I'm thinking, "You know what, if this one fucks up, everything will have to start over." And I don't want to not adhere to my meds and have that shit start mutating so, I'm just not gonna go out there and do anything that might get me arrested. But I know that I'm still an activist. Just not as extreme as somebody else.
Forrest: At what point did you start educating yourself about HIV?
Armstrong: I never, ever would have gone to an HIV-101 because that would have meant admitting that I needed to be there for some reason. So I started educating myself with films, literature that I could find. I even did -- I don't know if you remember this- the shock therapy thing? It was a little box that they would hook up to your feet and shock you. It was to shock the virus out of your body. One of my friends and his lover were actually going downtown and getting bleach injections. I'm so glad that I didn't have the money or I would have done it! I'd just go to all these gay bookstores like A Different Light and find books on HIV and AIDS. I was scared to death if someone knew I have HIV I'd lose my job working for Playboy and modeling.
Forrest: Do you do anything else aside from going to high schools, as far as your activism is concerned?
Armstrong: Yeah! I've done a lot. I've co-facilitated women's groups. I've helped set up CABs (Consumer Advisory Boards). I've also spoken to emergency medical teams in small, rural areas. I've volunteered a lot at needle exchange programs. I've done a lot of harm reduction stuff in NYC. I know needle exchange programs get a bad rap, maybe not as much today as they did in the beginning. But I think that any way to stop the transmission of the virus is a good way.
Forrest: Are you currently in a relationship?
Armstrong: I'm not in a relationship. But what does a "relationship" mean? OK. I'm dating.
Forrest: No, but are you accepting phone numbers or mail?
Armstrong: YES! Yes! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Mail from prison is fine. Fine. I'm open to talk to anybody, especially someone who's sitting in four walls dealing with their virus. A lot of prisons are dangling their medications in front of them like a fucking carrot, and I'm trying to encourage them, hopefully. Now, I haven't done a lot with people in prison. I have spoken to people who have just freshly gotten out, trying to encourage them to not grow this crazy, mutated, resistant virus in their body and to continue taking their medication and to not transmit the resistant virus -- but that's another story.
Forrest: Do you date only people who are HIV-positive, HIV-negative only, or do you not care?
Armstrong: It doesn't matter to me. I did date somebody who was HIV-positive just last year for the very first time in my life, knowingly. And it was really cool on a lot of levels, but then there were issues on other levels that were hard for me to deal with. It really, really doesn't matter to me if you're infected or not infected. But if you're not infected, I want you to be educated about what it is that I have, because I don't want you doing something and putting yourself at risk and going "God! I didn't realize that that's how you get it!" Before I will actually have sex with somebody that's not infected, I need to know that they know what the hell this is.
Forrest: What have your experiences been in the world of dating with regards to protected sex?
Armstrong: I have had men who were like, "Uh, I don't have to use a condom, do I?" And I'm like, "OK, that means I don't have to deal with you 'cuz that's fucking stupid," you know? But different men that I've dated are really careful about latex gloves and dental dams or Saran wrap and condoms and making sure, you know? And just being a little over-zealous about it. Sometimes that makes me feel reeeeally uncomfortable. It depends on how it's being done. For me, if they're treating me like I'm contaminated, then you know what? Why are you doing that to yourself, first of all -- and why are you doing that to me? And then when somebody wants to have unprotected sex with me, it kind of freaks me out, too, because how dare you think that I would be stupid enough to possibly contract something else on top of the shit I already have? And how can you be such an idiot to think that it's OK? It pisses me off.
Now, I have been lax in the past, especially when I'm in a relationship with somebody that I'm serious with. There are times that I haven't been 100-percent cautious. There were times -- but yeah, I have done things that my partner and I probably shouldn't have been doing, but it was our choice. We both made the choice. When I had unprotected sex with my husband, for example, I was totally aware of what was going on to make sure that it didn't become unsafe, but it was a mutual decision.
And as I live with this for a longer period of time, [laughs] as the years roll on, I find myself being more leery of contracting something from somebody else. I know so many people who are dually infected, and I don't want to do that! I've been involved with people who do have Hep C, and I'd read all this new information. Fuck! I don't want to deal with that.
And now, one of the people who I used to date is calling me telling me about all these severe things that he's dealing with with his Hep C medications. He's breaking out in lesions, he has abscesses and things like that, and I'm thinking, "Whew!" I just really feel that he didn't care if he gave that to me, also. That really, what we were dealing with was him. If I got infected with the same thing that he was dealing with, then so what? It wasn't any more than he was dealing with already, so why should it be any different if I got it? Why should I feel so upset? He's dealing with this shit already. And that was the attitude I had a really hard time dealing with. He fucked himself. Whatever his lifestyle was -- he did that himself. He chose his lifestyle. Don't do that to me. What did he expect? "Oh, gee, honey, thank you!"? It's not like, "Oh gosh darnit, I got a little bruise." It was really brutal.
Forrest: Do you find that it's usually your partners who initiate unprotected sex?
Armstrong: Absolutely. It's not me. And unprotected sex just means without a barrier. I'm talking about just actual exposure, what I think could be actual exposure to each other's body fluids. I'm concerned about transmission. I'm concerned about catching anything that they may have that my immune system cannot fight.
Forrest: What governs your decision to practice protected sex versus safer sex? Is there a difference to you?
Armstrong: In all actuality, it doesn't really matter if we're intimately involved or if we're casually dating. I want to have protected sex no matter what. It doesn't matter if I'm really into you for a long period of time or if we're on our first date.
Forrest: Do you find that when you date men the issues surrounding protected sex are different than when you date women?
Armstrong: No. They're not. They're not different, except that I find that I can have a sexual relationship with a woman without having to worry as much about protecting myself because the actual exchange of bodily fluids doesn't constantly come into play. I can make love to a woman more readily without exchanging bodily fluids than I can with a man.
Forrest: Can we talk about the person you're currently sort of involved with? How is it to be involved with someone who has never been involved with an HIV-positive woman?
Armstrong: I'm gathering up as much information as possible other than me just giving him information about what I've lived through, what I have dealt with, my own personal experience with HIV. I want him to have as much information as possible. From the most severe; from the CDC, all the way to reality; to Project Inform.
Forrest: Do you feel more of a responsibility toward this guy than you have toward people you've been involved with previously, because he knows so little about HIV and they have known so much?
Armstrong: Yes. Absolutely. It's because he's not as educated as the previous relationship that I was in, or as my husband, who was incredibly educated about the virus. Also because I have this really strong connection with this person and I really want this person to make his own decisions. I want him to be as educated as possible before he does anything with me that -- just before it goes any further.
There are a lot of other aspects to education about HIV than just transmission. If he's going to become involved with me he is going to have to deal with a lot of other issues: I get sick. I get tired. I go to the hospital. And I feel guilty, you know, about these things. How can I subject someone to these types of issues? That's something that we're both going to have to deal with a lot.
Forrest: Do you have a support network in your personal life? How did you go about building it?
Armstrong: Yeah! I'm surrounded by great friends and family who totally are supportive of me and totally believe in what I'm doing. And they've educated themselves. Especially my little brother. My little brother knows what a T-cell is now. He knows what a viral load is. So I have a really great support network. I went and sat in on the Women's Luncheon (at AIDS Project Los Angeles). I really enjoyed it! The very first meeting that I went to, I met a few other women. They had good food there, and you got to talk and chat and somebody from Biotech was there talking about Procrit. She gave a great presentation, and it was something that really affected me because I have dealt with severe anemia from Combivir, and so it was like a really great little thing.
Forrest: Do you seek out friends who are in the "HIV community" or do you prefer to meet people outside of that realm?
Armstrong: It doesn't matter to me now. I have gone back and forth. I do have friends who are HIV-positive but I would like to have more friends who are HIV-positive. HIV-negative friends I have a ton of. I have gone back and forth. Like, I went through a period where I decided not to have any more HIV-positive friends because they just die on you -- or they just can't deal with it! When I got clean some of my HIV-positive friends just totally stayed strung out and fucked up and I had to stay away from them because I didn't want to use speed any more and I couldn't understand why they didn't want to clean up and get better. You feel better and everything! It doesn't matter if you're HIV-positive or not HIV-positive but I think, for myself, that it's important that I have a little bit of both.
Forrest: How have your friendships/family relationships/lover relationships changed for the better since you became empowered around your HIV?
Armstrong: They've changed a lot. Like, my family -- my brother -- he's so proud of me. He'll see a clip on Entertainment Tonight of me and he goes to work the next day or whatever and tons of his friends will come up to him like, "Yeah! I saw your sister on TV, you know? She rocks! She's out there doing something!" and it makes my brother really proud.
Forrest: How do you separate yourself from HIV? As far as your identity.
Armstrong: I don't. I do and I don't. HIV? I'm married to it. It's right there all the time. Whenever I'm in a conversation or somebody new meets me everybody asks what I do. So what am I gonna say? "I'm an HIV and AIDS educator." "Oh wow! Really? You know, that's a great job! You're going out there educating people -- what made you want to do that?" "Well, I'm HIV-positive."
Forrest: And what made you want to do that?
Armstrong: Really! Darn. So it's always there. It's constantly there. And sometimes I wish that it wasn't because when I meet people it does take priority over whatever is going on or being talked about. So many people, friends included, introduce me as Playboy Rebekka. The Playboy Bunny with AIDS. And that is who I am to some people until they get to know me and get comfortable with me. I never, ever get embarrassed about it, like I was in the beginning.
I'm pissed off sometimes that I have HIV, that I have to deal with it, but it's very rare. A couple of times a year I feel sorry for myself. When that time of the year comes around, boy, do I feel sorry for myself! And then I get over it. And sometimes I get really scared. I get in the hospital and when they start to panic, I start to panic, and it's like, "Oh shit!" When I'm doing things that are really meaningful to me, like having my nice long walk on the beach, or everyday things that are happening in my life, I'm not encompassed by HIV. But when I get up there and I make a stand, and I make statement, and I'm talking to a crowd and I'm doing what Rebekka Armstrong: HIV-Infected Playboy Playmate does, it's in my face constantly. But it doesn't bring me down; it just empowers me.
The transition between my time alone and my time in the public eye just happens. There's no thought process to it. Maybe once in a while I'm so bogged down with HIV stuff that I really need a break. I feel like I'm doing too much and I know that I need one day for me -- one really long bath, some hot soapy suds, a manicure, pedicure, give me an eyebrow wax, condition my hair. You know what I mean? Totally pamper me. I don't want to deal with HIV today.
Forrest: Do you want to talk briefly about your health history and your meds history?
Armstrong: In the very beginning, I major dosed on AZT. I was taking six or eight pills a day. Remember, in the beginning when they didn't know how many you were supposed to take? So, that's what I was doing and that shit was killing me. And then I stopped. I decided that doing drugs was more important (laughs).
Then I tried ddI and my pancreas started to rupture when I was visiting someone in Texas. I had to hide the fact that I was HIV-positive going into the ER. I can't stop regurgitating, vomiting -- and I'm telling this woman that I'm dating at the time, "Don't tell them that I'm HIV-positive!" And she was like, "Becky, how are they going to help you if we don't tell them?" "Don't you dare tell!" It was so brutal. I went back on AZT after a considerable amount of time.
I didn't really start any cocktail until I started my move to Massachusetts. I started taking Combivir right before my drive across the country. I started Crixivan when I got there. I had heard some war stories about the drug. Well, all the war stories abut Crixivan came true for me. I'm not knocking it because Crixivan definitely kicked the shit out of that virus for me, but it kicked the shit out of me. Some of my hair fell out and the hair that didn't was destroyed. I'm too vain to have AIDS and take Crixivan. So I stopped taking it, and I stopped everything at that point. There was just no way. Everything I'd believed in about these drugs killing me first is true!
So I didn't do anything, and then the following year I ended up in the hospital with no platelets and they wanted to take my spleen out. My viral load was through the roof. I had a handful of T-cells. They put me on Viracept and Combivir and I did that for a year. After the first four months the viral load was undetectable, I had a few hundred T-cells, you know, everything was going great. But by the eighth month, I was breaking through.
They increased my dose, and eventually it failed me. I didn't fail it, because I adhered to it religiously. That really sucked because Viracept was sooo easy to take. So I went ahead and decided that maybe taking this Viracept stuff made me stronger, so I'm going to go ahead and try Crixivan again. So I tried it again and that's when it got really, really, really brutal for me. My lips were constantly bleeding. I always had this gross taste in my mouth, and my skin was coming off. I ended up in the hospital in May with severe anemia due to the Combivir and so we stopped. To figure out what it was that was causing the anemia we stopped all my medications and then within three weeks my viral count was through the roof again and my T-cells had been cut less than half of what I had, and I started getting sick. Once again, the chronic yeast infections, the thrush and everything that decides to come back and visit when your immune system is down. I was like, "Fuck! I've gotta go on something." So we figured out a new combination which is Viramune, d4T, since I can't take Combivir anymore, or AZT, and Abacavir, yeah, Ziagen. And a lot of people are like, "Oh my God! You take Ziagen? God bless you!" Because, you know, it's scary. It's a scary drug to take. I'm doing really well on it. I just got my numbers back and I have over 800 CD4s and viral load under 50!
Forrest: Did you get nervous when you were in the hospital a few weeks ago?
Armstrong: No. Umm, oh God -- that's a lie. I did get nervous. When I was sitting in there explaining to the doctor what it is that I'm feeling again and they tell me "You need to go to the emergency room," that's when I went "Fuck!" And you feel the tears well up in your eyes, and you're like, keep it cool, keep it cool. Just go and do this. And when they're putting the IV in again, you're like, you know, yeah. So yeah. I got nervous. [Laughs] No, I'm Superwoman! But thank God it was just bronchitis. Which could become pneumonia, but whatever. so now I'm taking Biaxin to kill the bronchial infection and then, immediately, now, whenever a doctor prescribes me an antibiotic I take Diflucan. Whenever I get a yeast infection, though, I try to treat it vaginally because I'm scared to death -- petrified -- of becoming Diflucan-resistant. But if I don't take Diflucan when I take antibiotics, I have this yeast infection that takes me forever to get rid of.
Forrest: How do you stand up for yourself and your beliefs when you're working with your doctors?
Armstrong: The first time I was kind of forced into it by my doctor over at AIDS Healthcare Foundation before I moved away to Massachusetts. She asked me, "You know what, Rebekka? How in the hell do you expect me to help you when you cannot even develop a good rapport with me? Listen. You've got this and this, and we could have done this and this, but no! You are so flaky." I was, because some days I wanted to deal with it, and some days I didn't. So, my doctor gets a lot of credit from me. She used Child Psychology on me, and it made me feel like a total idiot and that I really should . . .
And then my friend Patricia, who just died in February, she would constantly put literature in front of my face. They were talking about wanting to put me on a cocktail. So she and I would sit down and she would gather up all the information she could find. We would go to women's conferences, and we would go here and go there, and we would get all this literature. I'd be bombarded and sometimes I didn't want to deal with it -- it's too much. So she would sit down and start reading it. She would say, "Oh! This sounds cool!" And then I would start reading it. So, anyways, my doctor kicked my ass. My friend Pat would help me. She would research it on the net, and get literature. The GMHC Newsletter sometimes is really difficult, even to this day, for me to read. I'm clinical, but sometimes I'm clinically ignorant when it comes to reading shit like that. You need your "Hello I Have AIDS" dictionary. Thank God for Project Inform.
You know, it's really important that you educate yourself. Because, in the beginning, I started doing whatever the doctor would tell me, because he was going to save my life. And I knew that. I would take as many of those blue and white pills as I needed to. I didn't care if I couldn't get out of bed and couldn't walk, because I knew they would save my life. And then I started reading "AZT: Poison by Prescription" and I went from one extreme to the next. "I'm not taking those pills! They'll kill me before the virus does!" And in some aspects, I think maybe that's why, even though I end up in the hospital a few times a year, blah blah blah -- I'm relatively healthy.
I think that the more educated you are on HIV and how you've treated it in the past and what your options are for the future, the more your doctor will be willing to work with you, as a team.
When we decided to try Ziagen I was back and forth because I had this week-and-a-half or two-week period before I actually started it. I needed to start the Viramune first because both are very toxic to your liver. I was trying so hard to find an excuse why I shouldn't take that Ziagen but I didn't want to take the liquid Norvir because I knew what it tastes like and I didn't want to deal with that. Gasoline mixed with rat piss tastes better. This sounded like a really easy therapy. I could prevent the worst thing that could happen if I really educate myself on the symptoms (which was pretty easy. I even have a warning card that I keep on me just in case). So, that's that.
Forrest: So, what issues are important to you right now?
Armstrong: Obviously, HIV issues, issues surrounding the virus. Because in many aspects of my life, I'm extremely involved/moved/touched by the virus. But I think it's extremely important to find time for yourself. To make time for you to do those things that you like to do. To do the things that for somebody who's HIV-positive when we can look back and think, "Oh gosh, I'm doing something normal today," it's a really good feeling. To totally remove yourself from it completely and really feel good about who you are, and to surround yourself with people, places and things that help support you in making you feel good. But the things that are important to me personally are health, my brother and my family.
Forrest: Your hair?
Armstrong: My hair, yes. I'm vain. Give me a break! Because when you start looking shitty, you start feeling shitty. And that scares me. And I want to have fun. I want to start dating again, but it's going to be a slow process for me. I think it would be nice to date, but I'm terrified of a serious relationship right now. I want to help others, I definitely want to become more involved now that I'm back in Los Angeles, so anybody reading this? I'm available. For anything! Literally!!
Forrest: You do a lot of prevention work with kids. With the high rates of young people becoming HIV-positive, do you think that prevention efforts are effective?
Armstrong: Absolutely I believe that prevention works. I've done it for the last five years, and I've actually gotten feedback from the kids that I've spoken to. And I get feedback still, years after from the same kids. "Hey, Rebekka, if it wasn't for you I wouldn't have ever used a condom." I've had kids run up to me crying because they know that their friends are putting themselves at risk. "What can I do to make my friends change their ways?" Yes, of course, prevention works. We need to do it even more. I think that we need an array of prevention methods. You know, you get one spokesperson like myself, and I'm going to appeal to young girls and young boys. I'm going to appeal especially to young boys because I'm a Playboy Playmate. So I'm gonna capture that audience right away. I'm also going to capture the audience of young bisexual people because I'm outspoken as being bisexual. There's only a small group of people that are really, truly going to be attracted to what I have to say.
Now, you've got Greg Lougainis, for example, who's really going to attract a large gay male population. I can go along the entire line from A to Z with different types of people, but I really think it's important for campuses to host many different types of infected people. Nobody is immune to this virus. Anybody can contract this virus. And there are absolutely no excuses in the world now, these days, for contracting this virus. You know how it's transmitted. You know how you can catch it. You know how you can prevent it. I have so many students that say that despite what they have read or learned about HIV, they never would have looked at me and thought that I was infected. And they never would have believed that I'd been in the hospital and dealt with all of these things. They never ever would have been able to personalize HIV had I not come face to face and come out. I think it's extremely powerful and I know it's reaching them. I know it is.
Forrest: How do you feel about going to support groups?
Armstrong: This might sound a little selfish, but sometimes it's really hard being in the public eye and accessing services because they see me -- I come in, here's this girl who's out there. She's constantly advocating and educating others and giving it a face, and I seem really strong -- well, I am. I'm very strong. But all of a sudden I'm falling apart today, you know, and who do I talk to? Sometimes I feel like I can't go in and talk to women that look up to me because then they're gonna go -- maybe I'm gonna make them feel more depressed.
Forrest: Do you feel that there aren't services available to women, or that women just aren't accessing services?
Armstrong: Both. I think it's very, very important that women seek out some sort of a support network. Whether it be going into an agency or having someone they can talk to on the phone -- something. You need some frickin' outlet or else you just explode. I'm doing really well right now, but I go through my bouts where it's like, "Whoa!" And sometimes it's like too many people are expecting too much out of me. Sometimes it's overwhelming. That's why I think it's really, really important for women to hook up and kick ass together.
Forrest: What are your plans for World AIDS Day?
Armstrong: I want to do something that's very meaningful to my family -- especially my little brother. And for my little brother, to walk in a line of people who are all marching for the same purpose, just means so much to him. I really want to do a candlelight vigil. It's so important to my friends and family. It's important to me because of the way it makes me feel when I do it with my friends and family.
This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.