August 4, 2008
was living the dream life for a high school student nearing graduation. She was athletic, attractive, and had the popularity that every teen desires. She was the type who hung out with the prom queen, the one who actually got to date her prince charming.
But her prince charming turned into a dark knight, and several months later, the world as she knew it would change forever.
On July 17, 2003, at 19, Brown lay sick in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit, with doctors unable to determine what was wrong with her. After being there for two weeks, she was told that she had only 24 hours to live. Immediately, her mother called in a priest, and the family started making funeral arrangements anticipating the worst possible outcome.
She lived through that traumatic night. Doctors told her she had pneumonia. She prepared to return to life as normal, but that would not happen. Her doctor would pay a visit to her room. There, he revealed some startling news: "You have HIV."
Not knowledgeable about the virus, she reached out to friends.
"I started calling people to get some immediate answers and to tell me that it was going to be OK," she recalled. "So, I called my best friend. She told me that she was going to come to the hospital to visit me."
"The next person I called was my friend who was 8 months pregnant, and I was supposed to be the godmother of her child. And I told her that I was HIV positive. And she told me that she did not want me to be her child's godmother anymore, and that she didn't want anything to do with me. So then I called my sister, and then I called my aunt, and finally I called my mom. My mother told me not to tell anyone anything, tell them that you have cancer."
Brown told her story at least twice before two different groups of journalists during training sessions prior to the opening of the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. Appearing nervous and weak, she stood strong, realizing that her message needs to be shared with the world to enlighten people of the realities of HIV and also to dispel stereotypes.
Brown falls into one the rising categories of HIV/AIDS infections outside of gay men, and that is young African American teenagers. African Americans accounted for 55% of all HIV infections reported among persons aged 13-24.
Now 24, she will soon join the Black women between the ages of 25 and 44 that accounts for 60 percent of all women in the United States living with HIV/AIDS. AIDS is the leading cause of death among women 25 to 34.
Upon discovering the severity of the disease that abruptly barged into her life, Brown said she went into a state of shock, disbelief and denial, something many people afflicted with HIV encounter initially. She found out that she contracted the illness from her boyfriend, who knew he had HIV, but did not tell her. She remembers the night that determined her fate quite clearly.
"I kept thinking to myself that he doesn't have a condom," said Brown, a native of Nashville. "But I thought, this is my Prince Charming, and I wouldn't mind being his baby's mother if this is the worst that could happen."
Obviously, she said, she thought wrong.
"I never got tested for HIV; I didn't even really know what it was," said Brown. "I heard about it, but as a teenager I felt invisible and didn't think it could ever happen to me. At 19, HIV is the last thing on my mind."
The word spread quickly in her community, and that is when her HIV status began to take a toll on her not only in terms of her social life, but also physically, emotionally and psychologically.
"Every day I wanted to die," she said. "My Nashville community had a way of making me feel like I was the only one with the virus."
For a while Brown remained in a state of depression, but she read her Bible for inspiration and strength to make it through each day. In addition, as her family became knowledgeable about the disease, they became more supportive.
Brown said her boyfriend new he was infected when they had unprotected sex.
"I had a choice, and I chose to have sex without protection," she said. "I think a lot of people want to place the blame on someone else, but we have to take responsibility for our own actions. What if he didn't know? I would still have it."
She attributes her decision to have unprotected sex to her lack of self love. In fact, she believes that contracting the disease actually taught her the importance of caring for herself, and not relying on attention she got from others to determine her worth.
"Having HIV has actually brought peace to me," said Brown. "It has taught me self love and responsibility, and that is the message that I try to send to others, responsibility." Now living in New York, Brown shares her story, realizing that in order for people to realize the impact of this disease, there has to be a face on it. It has to be visible so that people realize that anyone can get it, even someone as young as her. She has assumed the role of being that face for young Black women. She has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and most recently the CNN special, "Black in America."
However, being visible to the public has not come without its hardships. Brown has a MySpace page that is intended for people to come to for encouragement, and information. But there are those who take out the time to share their displeasure by leaving hateful comments.
"The worst thing about HIV/AIDS is the stigma, said Brown. "Some people don't like the fact that I am so vocal about my status. They say I am glamorizing the disease, making it seem easy to live with HIV. I have heard everything from you are disgusting to you should just kill yourself, you are making the United States look so bad."
Still, she stands firm. In her biography, titled "The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and HIV Positive," scheduled for release later this month, she will go in depth about her experiences, and also promote the ideas of education, self love, and responsibility.
"Young people have to be able to relate to the virus," said Brown. They have to see people like them who are able to impact them so that they can take it seriously."
As for how she is coping with HIV now, Brown says that she has accepted it and remains positive about life, but it does not come without its share of challenges.
"I will always feel the pain, but I just choose not to let it get to me. I have finally learned how to take care of myself."