Evany Turk is an inspiration. Positive for eight years, Evany works as the Program Coordinator for the Positive Adherence Stable Housing Now program at Chicago House and Social Service Agency, as well as being a mother and foster parent. On the day we met for this interview, Evany was fighting a cold, but her good energy and positive outlook on life, as well as her dedication to her work and family, were strongly evident.
Sue Saltmarsh: What's the most important thing that women should know about HIV?
Evany Turk: That it's not a death sentence, that you can live pretty much a normal life with it.
SS: Did you start on meds right away?
ET: Yes, and that was a struggle. At that time, I was given like 16 pills to take twice a day, so it was real hard for me to do it, but after some hard work and some therapy, I finally got it together.
SS: What would you say your everyday food, exercise, and sleep formula is to stay healthy?
ET: I try to have breakfast every morning, because they say that's the most important meal. I try to go to bed every night at 9:00, because I need my proper rest. I try to drink plenty of water, plenty of green tea. I've eliminated sugars out of my diet completely and that's because I learned that viruses feed off of sugar. As far as exercise, I walk as much as I can -- I walk up stairs and to the store -- and I dance a lot. I love to dance and that's good exercise. I don't do any drugs and I don't smoke. I do drink socially, but I try to limit my drinks to two per weekend. In order to stay sane with seven kids, I have to have a social life! Oh, and stress! I try to eliminate as much stress as possible.
SS: What's been the most difficult thing about being positive?
ET: The stigma. And dating. And the dating part is because of the stigma. When to tell, when not to tell, who to tell and how to tell -- that's been the most difficult part. It's easier now that I've told most of the important people in my life. But it took me a while to do it. My family found out just by looking up my medication on the Internet, but I didn't tell other people until three or four years ago.
SS: Is there anything that you think can be done to reduce the stigma?
ET: Yes. I think if we had bigger campaigns around HIV and the risks and how it's really affecting individuals -- I definitely think if there were more African American women, more women, period, out saying in public that they're positive, it would give it a face that people could relate to.
I know that people think, "Oh, it's not going to affect me, I'm not close to that, I don't know anybody who's positive" and I'm finding more that when I tell individuals I'm positive, they say, "Wow! I never thought I'd know anybody who was HIV-positive." It turns their attitude towards the whole thing around, just because they've never been close to anybody who's positive before. It's just not out there like, say, a cancer campaign. I think it would really change things if individuals could start seeing people who are in their neighborhoods, in their social circles, who are talking about being positive.
SS: Of the times that you've disclosed your status, have you found people to be sympathetic or judgmental?
For the most part, individuals I've disclosed to are sympathetic -- they're positive reactions, I should say. I've only had one bad reaction to it and it wasn't horrible, more like, "Uh, I've never really dealt with that and I don't want to deal with it." And I was like, "Okay, that's fine. If you ever want to talk about it, you can call me." But for the most part, I've been lucky to have good people who want to learn more and I haven't been rejected because of it. I was very surprised that they weren't afraid and they just wanted to learn more and once they did, they were very accepting of it.
SS: What advice would you give to a woman who had just been diagnosed?
ET: I would advise her to first learn about how healthy she is and what she needs to do to stay that way. I would definitely advise her to get a therapist immediately -- even if she didn't think she needed one. When you're battling HIV, in my opinion, you automatically get a mental health diagnosis, because it's such a life-changing thing. So I would advise her to get a therapist, work on her health, and just put her priorities in order as to what's most important to her and what's going to make her happy, now and in the future. When you're positive, you have to stay as healthy as possible, which includes eliminating lots of stress and things in your life that don't need to be there. I would advise her to learn as much as she could about the virus and the medications she's taking, if she's taking any, and go from there.
SS: I know you're a graduate of TEAM (Treatment, Education, Advocacy, Management, here at Test Positive Aware Network) -- did you find that helpful in your own learning process?
ET: Yes, it was very helpful. Actually, TEAM was the first class I took about the virus and it taught me so much and opened up a lot of avenues for me to research other stuff. It also showed me that I didn't know as much as I thought I did! I thought that just by talking with my doctor, I knew everything there was to know, but once I went through TEAM, I was like, "Wow! I didn't know about any of this stuff!" I wasn't really communicating with other people who were HIV-positive and I didn't know about a lot of the other stuff that comes along with being positive. So when I came to TEAM, and started hearing about everyone else's experiences, it helped me see that my situation wasn't so bad compared to what some people went through. TEAM opened my eyes to a lot of new things, new information. It humbled me in the sense that I now know there will always be something new to learn about and it's always changing. So TEAM was great for me.
SS: How has being positive changed your life in a negative way?
ET: That I have to take medications. Before I found out I was positive, I never took any kind of medication. I really never got sick! Now I have this extra thing that I have to do automatically, so that's hard.
SS: And how has it changed your life in a positive way?
ET: It has made me very non-judgmental of pretty much everything. I have my own personal philosophy -- no matter what a person looks like, acts like, or is doing, don't judge them, because you never know what they're going through. That has helped me become good at the work that I do -- counseling people and helping them to figure out what they're going through.
It's also helped me to see life in a different way -- no one's guaranteed to be here tomorrow, so you might as well be happy today. I try my best not to stress out anymore and if I find myself tensing up, I release it, because I know stress is not good for anybody. Every night when I go to bed, I reflect back on my day to see what I've learned, because I want to learn something new every day. If I made a mistake, I want to learn from that mistake so I don't make it again, because I really don't have time to make mistakes that are going to stress me out. It's helped me be happier and more productive and that's reflected by my children, which is a good thing. Something happens, we just roll with the punches. I try to teach them, "Don't worry about it, we'll get through it." We try to have as much fun and laughter as we can, love each other as much as we can, because, again, you can be here today and gone tomorrow. So it just opened my eyes to the whole what-life-is-about thing and about what I should be doing while I'm here on earth.
SS: You mentioned children and I can't imagine what it would be like dealing with this illness and being a mother at the same time. I think a lot of women who are HIV-positive have struggled with that. Do you have any parenting secrets?
ET: Again, it's about making life as normal as possible. My secret is pretty much just trying to stay happy and deal with things as they come along and not stress about them, because once something happens, it's just the process of how you deal with it, your outlook on it, as to how it turns out. And the kids -- we sit down and talk about everything. As a matter of fact, I have two biological kids and five foster kids and five of the seven are teenagers. My mother says I'm crazy! It's sort of fun, though -- they keep me young, even though they make me grow grey hairs! And they all know -- every time I get a foster kid, I make sure we sit down and have "the talk." I explain to them about being positive. I explain to them, "You're going to see me taking this medication every night, so I want you to know what I'm doing, why I'm taking it." And it serves as a preventive for them -- I have this, you could get it, please protect yourself.
SS: That's what I was going to ask next -- do you think they have an awareness of applying your lesson to their own lives?
ET: A few of them do and a few of them are still bumpin' along, but we have open conversations. I tell them to be as honest as possible with me and that way, we can deal with whatever comes up and we can prevent a lot of things. I didn't used to be that kind of mother before -- but now, I know that if someone had talked to me when I was a teenager, if someone had sat down and let me be as honest with them as I want my kids to be with me, I possibly would not have become HIV-positive. I didn't have a hard childhood, but sex was never talked about, drugs were never talked about -- those things were just not dealt with. I couldn't bring it up because they wouldn't want to talk about it. So applying that to my own parenting skills has allowed me to make it easier for the kids to come and talk to me -- that way, if something is going on or they need some advice, I can give it to them and prevent them from getting on drugs or getting pregnant or getting somebody pregnant. My centerpiece on my dining room table is a big bucket of condoms! I know they all have sex, except the little ones, and I say, "I prefer you not to do it, but if you're going to do it, at least protect yourself." Because once the kids are out of the house, you can't control what they do, so I would rather keep them protected than not. I tell them when I get sick, it's because my immune system isn't doing so well and I say, "I love to go to parties, but I can't party like I used to because it's stressful on my system. You don't ever want to get something that's going to compromise your immune system." They ask me questions, they bring their friends over to talk to me -- I don't know how well their parents like that, but I'm just trying to keep the kids from getting something that they shouldn't. And all that, the honesty and parenting skills, I wouldn't have any of that if I hadn't become HIV-positive, because I wouldn't have known, I wouldn't have learned about emotions and things like that. So all of those things have been beneficial for me.
SS: Is there anything about how this country is dealing with HIV/AIDS that you'd like to see change or improve?
ET: I should first say that things could be worse -- the services that positive individuals receive are exceptional services and there are a lot of services out there, at least in the city, that people can utilize. But if there was something the nation could do better, I'd say it would be to make it equal for all cities, all states. And of course, give more money to it. There are a lot of programs out here that work and if they had the money to expand, they would. I think the president and his administration should look at some of these programs and make them nationwide, because I think they would work for prevention and for treatment and care. A lot of HIV treatments and services are on the cutting edge of things that could work for individuals with other chronic illnesses. If they could make some of those programs universal, I think that would help a lot with health care.
And, of course, if we could get rid of the stigma, make our messages more popular and get people, positive and negative, to talk about it more often on a regular basis, do more national education on it for everybody, I think those things would help a lot, and help it stop spreading.
It remains to be seen how President Obama and Congress will change our health care system and the way HIV/AIDS is dealt with in this country. In the meantime, having people like Evany Turk willingly standing in her truth; leading by example and actively helping others who are HIV-positive; and raising her children to know that honesty is good and knowledge is power, may be one of the most effective ways we have of battling this disease.
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