Are you in favor of that happening?
Oh yes, definitely. 'Cause, I mean, nobody is trying to act like they're not looking for their soulmate or whoever is going to give them this big love rush. We're not trying to pretend that we're so independent, that that's not what we're looking for. I just didn't want that to be the overall focus of the group. We have had two couples so far coming out of this group -- they're doing fine -- and the only thing that we did establish at the first meeting was that if you couple off, that's great, but please try to still attend the group as a couple. I'm sure at some point, when we have more couples, we'll have to deal with when they are no longer a couple, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Most of us are between our early 30s and late 40s, so we've had a lot of people who've been married and divorced; it's not like were 16 and trying to run around with whoever. I think we're looking at relationships -- even dating relationships -- from a little bit different perspective. There is a very large group consensus that we all do want to date and be with someone who's also positive.
Pretty much everybody feels that way?
I'd say 95 percent. And I think that's just a personal decision.
Do you feel that way personally?
I don't really have a set perspective on it. I believe that you never know who you're going to meet and when you're going to meet them. And I've had to learn that you have to take chances in telling people: give them a little more credit and let them make their own decisions. I think a lot of the reason that people feel like, well, I'll only date people that are positive and that I meet through HIV-positive functions, is because then the whole issue of disclosure is already taken care of. That's the real big thing. I think that's the big premise on these Web sites for HIV-positive people: You don't have to tell anybody, because they already know, and you already know when you read their ad. I've only been with one person since I've been diagnosed who was negative, and it took me a long, long time to tell him.
How long did you end up dating him?
After that? Not that long. [Laughs.] And that's something that's just with them. We talk a lot in the group about what we'd do if we were HIV negative. If I was HIV negative, I'd like to think I was open and educated enough a person to date a man who was HIV positive. But I'll never have to make that decision now. [Laughs.] But I don't know. When you really have to look inside yourself and decide, I don't know if I would. But you can't make decisions for other people. You have to at least give them the chance to make their own decisions.
True, and for you to have the confidence to say, "Hey, I'll date whoever if it's the right person," it shows that you have a lot of faith in other people.
Yeah, I do, still. [Laughs.] I've had my periods where that faith has faltered. In the last three years I've really come back around to believing that. None of us are perfect and most of us are the protectors of our own personal agendas, but overall I still choose to believe in the good in people. But I have definitely had my periods of time where I didn't have faith or trust in just about anybody.
Did one of those periods coincide with when you told your last HIV-negative boyfriend you were positive?
Yeah, exactly. That's such a kick in the face, because it's like, you know, it's still me.
How long did you wait before you told him?
About three months.
How did you tell him? Were you just sitting down at dinner when you said, "I'll have the crème brûlée, and by the way..."
I have this tendency, even with my friends [laughs], that we'll just be out driving in the car and all of a sudden -- I mean really out of nowhere -- I'll be like, "Well, I really have to tell you something." To this day, I start crying right after I say that -- not hysterical or anything, but I get tears in my eyes. And I'm like, "I have to tell you something," and they're all, [whispering] "What?" [Laughs.] "What is wrong?" And I just say, "Well, I have HIV." And then they're like, "Oh!" [Laughs.] It just blindsides most of them. For some reason it's always in the car, I don't know... My parents said that maybe I think there's nowhere they can go then; because they're in the car, they're driving, they can't just turn around and walk away.
I really haven't had any bad experience. I mean, even with the HIV-negative guy that I told, he wanted to hear the whole story, and we're still friends. It just wasn't going to develop past that. We didn't get into big in-depth conversations about, "Do you want me to take you and educate you on safer sex?", things like that -- we didn't ever take it to that point, so I don't know. There's a guy in our group who has always dated negative women, and he basically tells them within about ten minutes of meeting them. And he screens them out that way. He knows within ten minutes whether he's attracted to that person at least, and he'll tell them right off the bat. And if they want to still get to know him for him, then they do, and if they don't, they don't, and he has an answer.
Has that generally worked for him?
Yes, it does! He's actually engaged to a woman who's negative; they've been together two years. He told her the first night they met, and she said, "Well, let me call you." She called him a couple days later, and her basic answer was: You know, the little I know about you, you're someone who's worth getting to know more, and, you know, sometimes you don't pick who you fall in love with.
Wow, what a nice story!
Yeah, it is. I've talked to her pretty extensively about it and I say to her, "You know, I'm not trying to put you on a pedestal or say you're a martyr but" I'm like, "Why?" [laughs] But she has a very good point: She's been there and been divorced; she had her time of fun and frolic where she said she was probably putting herself at more risk of being infected than being with one person who she knows is infected and using the right precautions; and she's raised her children, she doesn't plan on having more. And she kind of takes those three things as the big factors.
Have you done any public speaking, outside of your involvement with your group?
I've done several personal-experience panels at training seminars for people who want to volunteer with different ASOs or in the medical field. You just tell them what you want to tell them, and they ask you questions. But I haven't done that in several years. I would love to be involved in an education program, but I have found that the forums calling for speakers set limitations on voicing what and how HIV should be addressed and prevented. You find audiences wanting to hug you to show they have "no fear" or wiping their eyes in sadness. Neither of those responses are meaningful to me. I realize that one life could be touched from an audience of hundreds; a young girl who remembers your face when faced with the decision to have sex without a condom and makes the choice not to, but as I watch infection rates in young people increase again in recent years, I am more and more discouraged.
Do you think you'd be interested in doing any public speaking eventually?
Yeah, that's also one of the things the group's talked about. We have two members who are very, very active. They give about a speech a week to schools, from elementary up to high school. And they do churches. They really have made their niche in Atlanta, so we have them. I would love to speak, but I might have my hands kind of full right now.
Yeah, especially with your full-time job. What do you do right now?
I have a management position, working for a radiology group, where I focus on compliance issues, training/education and client management. It's not what I had thought I'd be doing. My degree is in social services, and I thought that I really wanted to work with either at-risk teens or with kids who have addiction issues. I drank a lot and did a lot of drugs in college. So that was kind of the direction I wanted to go. But, like I said, you go through different personal stages, and at the time when I would've been developing that career I didn't have it in me to hear anybody else's problems or care about very many other people.
Have you thought about going back to social services?
Yes, I have, and actually I've been looking at the different options that are out there. But I took a little career change, and I went to one of these technical schools and learned medical coding. And I really like it; I mean, it's different, and I've always been interested in medicine. I could never be on the clinical end of medicine, but now I get to read all that's going on with everyone else and assign a number to it. But I really enjoy it, so we'll see what happens.
What would be the first thing you'd say to a person who's been newly diagnosed?
I hate to say this because this always sounds so cliché, but I do tell people this when they are newly diagnosed: You are not by yourself, and you're not going to turn around and die tomorrow. I'd let them know I'm there, I've been there for ten years. You kind of help them through the different things they're going to go through -- because it really is a process -- and kind of send them in the direction they need to be in. I do still believe that people -- especially newly diagnosed people -- need to go to a support group, they need to find the correct health-care provider, and they really need someone to talk to them and help them, for instance, disclose their status to certain important people in their lives so that they have that support. With this group, we have had members who were diagnosed less than six months ago, and we just say, you know, some of us have been diagnosed 18 years. So talk to us. We didn't have anybody to talk to, but we can help you through it.
My belief in helping a newly diagnosed person to realize there is a way to live with HIV, that it does not have to rule your life or become who you define yourself as, remains the same. I think I do a pretty good job of presenting the good and the bad faces and/or phases of having this illness. I am honest in answering their questions even if it may not be what they would like to hear. It is most important to allow the person time to "grieve" and move through the situation(s) at their own pace. Each of us lives this journey in our own way and through our own experiences.
Mindy can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.