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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Women
Michelle Lopez Alora Gale Precious Jackson Nina Martinez Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga Loreen Willenberg  
Michelle Alora Precious Nina Gracia Loreen  
Barbara Choser Cusack

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After you were diagnosed, what emotions did you go through? How did you cope?

"When I was first diagnosed, I was very angry and scared. Counseling helped a lot ... we didn't focus on my past; the past is past. ... I learned here I am such a fighter..."
When I was first diagnosed, I was very angry and scared. Counseling helped a lot. The counselor that I was using, we didn't focus on my past; the past is past. I didn't want to have to play the blame game. We were really dealing with what's here and now. I learned here I am such a fighter, yet I never thought I could live on my own. I began to get self-confidence.

Maybe you just never really had the opportunity to bring out that side of yourself.

Yes, exactly. So basically, after Danny died that had to come out, because I didn't want to be a loser and I didn't want to get on to taking antidepressants. Counseling helped, and then I started to go back to church, which is always a good foundation -- to get back to God and the person I once was. I didn't use God as a crutch, but more like a sounding board; to talk to Him about how angry I was, to ask Him, "Why did this happen to me?" Then I just thought, well, let's try to make a bad situation into a good one. I just decided not to be stuck in the grieving process but to move on; I said, "OK, I recognize that I'm bitter. I can't be bitter forever, because I do want to fall in love and remarry, and who wants to marry someone who's going to be bitter?"

"After Danny died ... counseling helped, and then I started to go back to church, which is always a good foundation -- to get back to God and the person I once was."

I'm not angry anymore. I'm just irritated. I've come to terms with living with this. I'm irritated with ordinary, every day situations, but I'm having a normal life.

Before, I hated healthy people and pregnant women. I've come to terms with that. There's just no chance [for me to have children now] -- I'm in menopause now, and it's OK. I have no desire to adopt. When I hit 40, I realized it's not my life's calling to be a mother. I enjoy my nieces and nephews. I go to the nursery.

In fact, I went to take care of babies at a nursery at my church, and I was surprised. You know, they do a background check for the volunteers, and they asked me, "Do you have HIV?" I was surprised that they had that on the application. I didn't answer it. I just went to the girl at the desk and said, "I don't think this is right." Privately, in the back room, I said, "I have HIV, but I don't think this is right."

They didn't call me back about the application. I can't even change diapers at the church. [Laughing.] I guess the Lord doesn't want me to change diapers.

Weren't you angry?

I wasn't angry. I've grown. I wasn't going to walk away from my church. The Lord will have another avenue for me. Yes, I guess you could say I have grown. [Laughing.]

Once you and Danny started exhibiting symptoms, how long did it take you guys to realize, "Maybe we should go and get ourselves checked out?"

Oh, we didn't!

You mean you never even decided to get tested?

No. We were never really sick until Dan caught pneumonia. He recovered and went back to work. We thought it was just stress from working and going to school. But then he got the flu. In order for him to go back to work, he had to get permission from a doctor certifying he was healthy. I wasn't in the room when he was talking to his primary-care physician. Dan came out and said he got the HIV antibody test. I asked him why, and he said, "Well, the doctor said he wants to rule this out." I said OK, not a problem. The test came back positive and Danny never got better.

How long were you two married?

We were married for eight years.

Never had kids?

No, because there was always something. We got married when I was 25, but the first five years of our marriage were an adjustment. Then he started going back to school and I just didn't want the extra stress -- trying to have a baby with him going to school. So we figured after he graduated and I turned 35, then we would try to have a baby. I was diagnosed at age 33, so when I turned 35, it just angered me because I had no husband to start a family.

How did you decide who to tell about your HIV status, and when to tell them?

Well, Danny was not getting any better. He thought once he got on the medications he would get better and we would keep it to ourselves, but he was not getting any better. In fact, the first person I told was my friend Lisa; I told her within three days. She said, "I knew something was wrong!" Two years before we were diagnosed, she had bad dreams -- like a premonition that something was wrong with us. Now that I look back, it's like, the signs were there, but who would have thought it was HIV?

And then I guess after about three weeks Danny wasn't getting any better, and I said, "Danny, we have got to tell our parents." So I went ahead and told my folks. He told his dad on the phone because he was too sick to go over there and tell them in person. I felt really bad that he had to do it that way. And then I slowly started telling my clients, because I was still cleaning houses.

You've been in this business a long time. How did you get into house-cleaning in the first place?

I have always been a people person. In high school I had a part-time job working in the dining area of a nursing home. After high school I got my Florida real estate license, but being young no one really took me seriously. At the time my father had a friend that was in apartment maintenance who needed a person to clean out the empty units. It was hard work, but I enjoyed being my own boss, so I did it for five years. From there I started doing private homes. Then I wanted to do something different, so I went to school and earned a paralegal degree. But after so many years of keeping my own hours and comings and goings, the thought of being enclosed in an office from 8 to 5 didn't appeal to me. Besides, now I had a husband who had a good job and earned enough money for our household. We had bought a piece of land to build our future dream house. So I continued cleaning for my clients, with whom I have a wonderful relationship. I used my paralegal degree to volunteer at the Orlando Legal Aid Society for a year and a half and also volunteered as a Guardian Ad Litem in Seminole County for three years.

Now I'm working 45 hours a week. I expanded my organization, Housekeeping 101. We are doing commercial clients and home organization in addition to home cleaning. I've got three part-time employees. I'm doing good.

What made you decide you needed to tell your house-cleaning clients?

Like I said in my book, it's a very personal business. I've been with these people for a long time. I mean, we knew about each other's personal lives. They knew Danny was going to school. It's not like I go there and these people aren't home.

So there's a much more direct involvement in their lives.

"A lot of people I disclosed to got tested; they're like, 'Well, if you can get it' -- a lot of these people were my age -- 'if you can get it, it could happen to us.' It really woke up a lot of people."

Oh yes, I interacted with some of these folks. I've been in this cleaning business for many years, and I've been with some of these families longer than most marriages, so we all knew what was happening in each other's lives. I don't just go in and clean, we talk. So I realized, OK, I need to start telling these people. It upset them, but they all figured, "You've already been in our house four years, five years, so why should you leave now?" A lot of people got tested; they're like, "Well, if you can get it" -- a lot of these people were my age -- "if you can get it, it could happen to us." It really woke up a lot of people.

That's actually kind of a good thing, that you were able to spread that awareness.

Yes, 11 years ago I was the only woman they knew that had it, so it really scared them. You know, "My goodness, if it could happen to her -- and she's not a drug addict or fools around."

Also I was starting to lose weight, because of the medication. So they just knew that, "OK, Barbara, you're thin, why are you getting thinner?" The medications really sped up my metabolism, and they noticed I was taking medication in the middle of the afternoon, which I hadn't done before. I was on Crixivan [indinavir], AZT [Retrovir] and 3TC [Epivir]. Crixivan and AZT had to be taken mid-afternoon.

Those aren't the only medications you've been on, are they?

No, now I'm on Viracept [nelfinavir] and Combivir, which is AZT and 3TC together. I take them morning and evening. When I was diagnosed 11 years ago, you had to take them separately. So my clients noticed that I was taking meds in the middle of the day, and I'd go to the bathroom a lot. They just knew something was up.

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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Joanne from Louisiana Fri., Jul. 4, 2008 at 10:24 am UTC

I applaude you on your courage to go forward with your news. You're very fortunate to be among such loving, open people.

I was diagnosed in 1989 with HIV, and have been shunned by my "best friend", former lovers (where I was trying to take responsibility so they could be tested), acquaintances, co-workers, and some family members (even my own sister). Life has been very difficult living in silence with this secret. I have become very isolated, and fear even meeting people. I'm single, 53, and have not dated in 16 years. I, also, barely socialize because of my fear of how people would react if they ever found out. I have sustained so much rejection, and honestly don't know how to go forward. But, adjusting to being alone has become my task in life. I pray I will find a better way, and wish I had your courage.

Best wishes for a long, healthy, fulfilling life!
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