March 31, 2010
My name is Tree Alexander, born in Chicago, Illinois. I have lived in NYC for almost two years after moving here for a relationship. In that short time I have experienced a deranged partner in a domestic violence relationship, homelessness with hunger, loneliness, heartache, pain and deceit. That relationship lasted for about nine months. I had to make that end through tears and heartache -- but, I will save that story for another day. I found out my HIV status one month after I turned 20 and HIV has changed my life completely. I went from acting to producing. I don't just "act" like who I want to be ... I am! I can now experience life as it is.
I moved to the North Side of Chicago when I was 18. I was introduced to the gay clubs and bars, the late nights and early mornings, the alcohol and the sex. I began working, partying and enjoying life on the North Side. I was now in a neighborhood that was accepting of me. During the summer when I turned 19, I was working in a clothing store on Halsted and Roscoe streets. I saw this guy come in and he was cute. He looked over and when I asked him if he needed any help, he gave me a smile. After that, he smiled at me the entire time he was in the store. He began to leave, so I stopped him and asked, "After all that, you not going to ask for my number?" In a quick reply he said,"Nope, but I will take it if you give it to me." We laughed and exchanged info before he left.
He called me every day, and every day I was busy working two jobs, so I told him to call back. That went on for about a month. He then started to show up at the store and tried to take me out for lunch, which never happened. I think it was because I saw him in the parking lot across the street watching me. So another three months went by, he gave me a call, asked me out for a dinner date, and I said "sure."
By December of that year, after only being together for three months, we were living together. I became ill with a cold, something I haven't had since I was 2 years old. I didn't know how to deal with it and it seemed to get worse. He was there to take care of me for almost three weeks, and then I was back to work. He wasn't working at the time and spent a lot of time at home, so he says. Another six months passed and he started to get sick. But this was more than a cold or "flu-like" symptoms. He began to get weak, lose weight, got a black spot on his tongue (thrush), and more.
I tried to get him to the doctor, but he wouldn't go. There was always some excuse. He said, "There's too many people in the ER and everyone is dirty. That will only make me more sick." He started to spend most of the day in the bed. This went on until one day when he couldn't move any part of his body. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors said that if I didn't bring him in he wouldn't have made it through the night.
We found out his status after three days in the hospital, and I went to get tested that same day. The ER redirected me to the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center which is a clinic for the prevention, care, and research of HIV/AIDS. He later told me he'd thought he had "IT," but was afraid.
When the time came for me to pick up my results, so many things were running through my head. I wanted a negative result but I knew the chances were slim. I remember thinking, "They say it only takes one time for the little swimmer to catch you." I prayed that one time hadn't happened. After seeing him in that hospital bed with his face thin and ribs visible, I started to count money. I know how much of an insurance policy my mom had on me, so I was planning her pockets. I didn't feel sick or like I was dying but, I didn't have much of a drive to continue living. I knew that if I was to pass away my mother would have a financial boost.
I was wondering what I would tell my family the next time I saw them. At the same time, I knew that I had never experienced sickness -- no pink eye, flu, chicken pox, and a cold only twice. Could I be like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable? Am I unable to get sick? Am I a super hero of some sort?
Now it's my turn to go into the back room and talk with the tester. "I'm sorry to tell you, but you're HIV positive," she said with a straight face. I took a deep, deep breath and replied with a straight face, "OK." She asked me was I really OK about five more times. I was truly in denial and my thoughts were focused on getting home and drinking nothing but orange juice for the next two weeks. Then I wanted to boost my vitamin C intake so that I could return and show them that the first test was indeed wrong.
My career has changed a bit. When I found out I was HIV positive I was working as a fitness trainer. Now I have committed myself to HIV/AIDS care and prevention. This came about when I would attend groups and hear all the horror stories of disclosure. I also thought back to my high school's sex ed class and just remember hearing how to get tested and that HIV leads to AIDS. I also remember that picture of that guy with the gonorrhea in his eye, that picture of the penis with warts the size of Reese's peanut butter cups, and more. That's what made me use condoms up until my ex convinced me that we both were negative and "faithful," whatever that means. So where were the pictures of HIV?
There was just not enough information on HIV/AIDS. You can say "one million people die from AIDS complications" all you want but it's not real to someone until you tell them that 75 of those people are in your city, 15 of which are in your neighborhood and two from your high school, and so on. I think we need more education on HIV/AIDS worldwide and especially with youth and the only way to do that is ... show them a picture. Show people that HIV really does exist, it's not just something from T.V. or from the distant past. It's right in your backyard.
Now I am 23 and work hard to help others understand testing and treatment options. I have no problem with telling my story or encouraging youth to get tested.