Tell us a little about your life.
I live in South Los Angeles with my husband. We were married in September '05.
I work at the Center for Health Justice in West Hollywood as the women's health educator. [The Center for Health Justice works to empower people affected by HIV and incarceration. It offers prevention, treatment and advocacy services.]
I also used to work as a treatment adherence coordinator at [the AIDS service organization] Women Alive, doing intake, outreach and the outpatient clinic. Women Alive writes fact sheets on different HIV topics, new medications, and medical updates, and they do support groups.
I'm also an AIDS activist. As HIV-positive women, I believe we need to have our voices heard. We have to advocate for our own health needs in order to ensure that we get the best medical care and have equal access to the newest and best medications. I'm a member of ATAC (AIDS Treatment Activists Coalition), a national coalition of people living with HIV/AIDS and their advocates, working to improve research and treatment access.
I also do public speaking -- I work with the African-American Community Development Initiative -- it goes into black churches and trains ministers and pastors about HIV and AIDS.
Where did you grow up?
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was a little girl I always wanted to be a nurse because my mother was in the medical field. She wasn't a nurse, but she was a unit secretary, so she knew a lot about the medical field.
What kinds of work have you done?
At the time of my diagnosis I was in school working on my degree -- I'm a social worker -- and I was working part-time. Then I dropped out of school. Now I'm going back to school to become a nurse. My goal is to work with people who have HIV.
Tell me about your partner.
I'm a newlywed. I met my husband a couple of years ago. It was quick. But he had known me for two years from being in the community. He came through the door of Women Alive seeking services. He was thinking about joining the heterosexual support group at Women Alive for HIV-positive men and women. We talked over the phone first and it was an immediate connection. I had visualized that he was probably going to be tall and dark but then when I saw him he was a shorty like me. I said, "He's a client, so I'm not even going to worry about it." So we did the intake, and we knew some of the same people. We ended up exchanging numbers, and that's how we ended up talking. He's very outgoing, very nice and compassionate, and loving.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to read fiction and sometimes nonfiction. Right now, I'm reading the Holy Bible. I'm starting from the New Testament.
Are you a religious or spiritual person? Do you attend a church?
No, I'm not religious. That's a manmade thing to keep control. But I am a very spiritual person. If I didn't have any spiritual belief or connection, I'd probably be dead.
How did you find out you were HIV positive?
My ex-boyfriend wrote me from the penitentiary. He told me he had tested positive for the virus and that I should go get tested.
How have your feelings about having HIV changed over time?
Wow. A lot of emotions. At first, I was angry. I was upset. I was ashamed. I was even more upset with myself, because I kind of had a feeling that there was something wrong with him, but I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was. He had donated blood, and they had written him a letter telling him to come back in because there was something wrong. And I had a feeling that he might have been HIV positive.
And I was shocked. Even though I was emotionally prepared by disclosing the information that he told me to my mom. She was my support. But when you actually see the results that it's positive, it's like, "Oh my God, that's true."
I've forgiven him. I did write him what was going on and we attempted, when he was released from prison, to get back together. He said that he was going to continue to have unprotected sex. And I was like, "Oh, you have lost your mind -- I'm done with you."
How long do you think it takes to process a diagnosis?
To be honest with you, it took me a couple of years to process my diagnosis. I was depressed, but I was still functioning. I wasn't stuck in bed -- I had to go to work. That was my coping field pretty much. Until I went out on stress relief, stress leave, in the year 2000. And that was the first time I was able to walk into a support group. The first support group that I went to was Women Alive.
What advice would you give someone who has just found out they are positive?
The advice that I would give a person who just found out is to not get stuck in the depression, and don't get stuck in your work because that will allow you not to deal with the situation -- it keeps the focus off it. I would recommend they take a little time off to regroup, find out the services they need and can access. There is help out there, whether you're newly diagnosed or long-term. There is treatment available if a person needs to be on medication; there are support groups; there are mental health services. Once you have all the services that you can access, then you can slowly move your way back into your normal routine. I wish I could have gone straight to Women Alive as soon as I was diagnosed. But I was always working.
I think what works best is when a person understands the importance of health care and of their treatment regimen, how it works in the body and how it suppresses the virus so that the immune system can be boosted; understanding HIV, period.
How has HIV changed you?
I'm truly grateful. That's for sure. Grateful that God allowed me to see a better day. I don't take things for granted anymore. When God allows me to wake up and see another day, I take full advantage of it. I work in this field because it helps me to see, to stay grounded and to not forget where I come from. It's also about me giving back to someone else.
For some people I've talked to, it changes their lifestyle, how they used to live -- now they feel healthier and are not abusing themselves anymore. That's what happened to me. I didn't use drugs or anything like that, but now that I'm HIV positive, I have to eat healthier, I have to not get stressed out about stuff that I don't have any control over. Because people could say something to me and I'd just blow up. So it has helped me to really deal with myself and with issues.
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