Table of Contents
- Personal Bio
- HIV Diagnosis
- African-American Identity and HIV
- HIV, Health Care and Treatment
- Disclosure, Relationships and Sex
- Adventures and Wishes
Tell us a little about your life. What's the community where you live like?
I live alone near the border of West Los Angeles. It's a very congested, very diverse area with its fair share of gang activity -- but we know each other in the neighborhood. I'm disabled now -- not so much from HIV as from hep C and other stuff -- so I can't work. But I started an AIDS ministry at my church, Ward AME [African Methodist Episcopal]. It's called PEACE -- People Enriching lives, Advocating against AIDS and Conquering in Exhortation.
Where did you grow up?
Texas. We lived in Dallas until I was six. After my dad was shot and almost died, all the kids got split up. I went to live with my aunt in Midland, Texas, until I was 16. Then I returned home to care for my dad.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a doctor so I could take care of my dad. Amazingly so, most of my life, I've worked in the medical field.
What kinds of work have you done?
Medical assisting for five years, certified nursing assistant for 10, and security for four years. Also phlebotomy and medical billing. For the last 12 years, I've done HIV counseling, testing and advocacy.
What work did your parents do?
My father was a mechanic -- he managed a Texaco franchise. My mom worked for the newspaper and Mary Kay, and my stepmom is in real estate. My real mom's been deceased for a long time.
Who are the most influential people in your life?
Professionally, I'd say Cynthia Davis. She's an assistant professor at Drew Medical Center. She's done so much in the HIV community. She's traveled internationally, runs a mobile HIV-testing unit, started this doll-making sisterhood project for girls in Africa, and holds fairs and does all this teaching. She gets a lot of flack from some of the grant providers because she wants to fund a broader base of HIV programs here in Los Angeles, which is still heavily focused on the gay male community. I applaud her so much for all the work she does.
I also look up to Mary MacLeod. She was someone who struggled through it all -- born to slaves and working in the cotton fields -- and still, she reigned at the top, educating about racial equality and advising presidents.
In my personal life, my father was my hero, because as a kid, I watched him get shot. He was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of it. And still he raised all seven of us children.
Are you a religious or spiritual person?
I am a very spiritual person, and God has been so good to me and has brought me through so much.
Do you attend a church? How does it address HIV?
The church that I'm in, where I started this AIDS ministry, is somewhat open about it, but it's a new arena for them to work with, so we're taking it one day at a time. Thus far, all is well. I think as time goes on, we will be more compassionate and welcoming and able to understand.
Do you feel accepted as a person with HIV?
Yes, for the most part. I can't say I that feel totally accepted.
Do you consider yourself an AIDS activist?
Yes. It inspires me when I get calls from people asking me to share my story. When I can talk with someone who's newly diagnosed and I'm able to share what I've come through in a way that enables them to use that information for themselves, it fills me -- sometimes you can't see the good in you for yourself, but someone from the outside can show it to you.
I have my down days, like everyone else. I get sick a lot, I get fatigued, I get depressed. But every day, I know my being HIV positive is a "lemons-to-lemonade" story! I don't do the things I used to do anymore because of HIV, and I can be proud of that.
What does activism mean to you?
Lobbying, rallying, writing letters to your congresspeople. Getting on that bus, marching. Going around, talking about it. If you hear something that you know is wrong, don't just allow it to escape, correct it if you can.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to write poetry.
How did you find out you were HIV positive?
In July 1986, I was hospitalized for a hysterectomy. On the last day of my stay, the doctor called me on the hospital telephone as I was preparing to leave, and she told me, "You've been exposed to HIV, and when you get home, see your doctor." I thought "exposed" meant like it was in the air, you know, so I didn't do anything when I got home. I spent the next four years doing everything I had been doing before, which was a lot -- the drugs, the men, the crime, everything. That was in Texas.
And then, in 1990, I moved to California and I went to the Clare Foundation in Santa Monica for drug detox. I moved on to Pacifica House, where a man from the Red Cross came by to teach us about HIV. The man talked about "exposure" meaning "infection"! I tell you, my hand shot up when he said that, and then the staff said I needed to get tested and that they could do that right there at the facility.
So I got tested and they told me that my test came back funny and they were going to have to test me again. I checked out! I left Pacifica House, checked into a hotel, got drugged up, and tried to kill myself with a .45. I put a gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger -- but the hammer jammed. I'm a country girl -- I know guns, so I oiled the hammer and tried again.
Foolish me. The bullet just barely grazed my cheek, so you know God was there with me that night.
I went back to the Clare Foundation. I called the Red Cross. They sent a lady out to give me my diagnosis, with my counselor there for support. When they told me I was positive, I just dropped. Clare Foundation wasn't real educated about HIV at that time, so they sent me over to Tarzana Treatment Center, which was the rehab facility that was considered to be savvy about HIV. The positive people were classified as a certain "level" -- like no one else was going to know what that meant, right? Everyone knew we were the positive group.
The staff was not very educated about the basics of HIV. They didn't want to be too close to us, they gave us plastic utensils to eat with, our clothes and sheets were washed separate, all that. And this was "the spot" for people with HIV!
Anyway, I left there because I was angry with the way we were treated. I rejected a staff person's sexual advances and he started making trouble for me. I went through the PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) program; I got a job, saved my money and got an apartment. Life was just beginning for me, a new life. I called my dad with the news of my HIV, but he was so happy that I was doing well, he couldn't hear me cry. He told me he was proud of me and to stay in California. He died a few days later. I went to Georgia to be around close family, I got married, traveled, left that marriage, and eventually returned to California, where I still am today.
What advice would you give someone who has just found out they are positive?
My tips for the newly diagnosed are: Keep your head up! HIV is not a punishment. There's life after HIV! Don't let it monopolize your life! It's very important that you learn to love yourself. Live, because no one else can or will do you better than you can do you. There is no concern for blame -- the concern is, "How do I live?"
Also, make sure that you understand what you're being told when you receive your diagnosis. I'm so glad they aren't allowed to give you that news over the phone anymore, because you really need to get them to sit down with you and make sure you understand what that test result means before you leave. I've seen my hospital records from 1986 now, and it was written that I was HIV positive. But, as you can see, I didn't leave knowing what the doctor told me really meant. It took me four years to get that information straight, and during that time I was doing dangerous things with people. I'm grateful that I didn't infect anyone, but I would have to say I wouldn't feel totally at fault -- I didn't know I had HIV and I believe each person is responsible for themselves. If your partner won't use protection, you can.
What conditions in your life put you at risk for getting infected?
I had all of the high-risk behaviors -- transfusions, unprotected sex, needle-sharing. But all my sex and drug partners that I've talked with are negative, so I tend to believe I got it from the transfusions I received when I was hospitalized. This was before widespread blood testing, and I got hepatitis C too, so that makes sense to me. I got approximately 10 pints of blood during that stay, and that blood saved my life. If HIV was the result, so be it -- I would have died without it.
When you look back, what would you have needed in order not to get infected?
I don't think there's anything in particular that would have stopped it -- it was my fate. I can't say, "Why me?" I always say, "Why not me?"
What is the first thing someone who has just found out they are infected should do?
First, pray; second, pray some more. Then go talk with someone who's living with HIV.
How has HIV changed you?
HIV has changed my life totally. It's been a blessing instead of a curse, because I don't do the things I used to do. I'm particular about who I allow into my inner circle. I'm more close to my faith. I'm able to share my testimony, my story, and touch somebody's life. To me, that's the best. If I can keep one person from falling into what I fell into, then I've added a star to my crowning glory.