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Monday Reflection: Sanctuary

By Rae Lewis-Thornton

October 1, 2010

This article originally appeared on September 27 on Rae's Web site, Diva Living With AIDS.

It was well over 20 years ago when my therapist at the time told me I needed to create my own space. A place just for me. I had been sharing an eight bedroom house with Jesse Jackson, Jr and his younger brother Jonathan for almost five years. I had long been an adopted sister in the Jackson family and Mrs. Jackson made sure I had a home.

Monday Reflection: Sanctuary

But I had made a transition to AIDS and my world was changing. At that time I was still living in secret about my infection. Too ashamed and too afraid to disclose my status. In many ways the secret was killing me quicker than the disease. It was clear even to me that I needed to make some changes.

The first step was finding a place of my own where I could exhale. The weight of the secret was way too much. I was a crazy lady hiding my medication and making excuses for my fatigue and the depression that was creeping up on me slowly. So I moved and it became the beginning: the first step in creating a space and place for me that brought me joy. Something that would be my own that AIDS could never take away from me. My sanctuary. Everyone needs a sanctuary. I purchased my first piece of art and it felt so right that it put me on a path of being a collector.

Every place I've lived has been my sanctuary. Three months before my separation from my ex-husband, we moved into a new place. When he left, it became my space. I lived there for 10 years. It was a wonderful three bedroom apartment in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. One block from the lake. I decorated the hell of this place. Three bedrooms, two baths, a living room, dining room, a large kitchen and a sun porch. My apartment was the length of the building in this swagger three flat. My landlord lived on the first floor and she was even more passionate about her living space and art collection than me. It was a wonderful place to live.

Then it all collapsed. First, my landlord passed away and her family, who lived in Michigan, started mismanaging the building. The lady on the third floor moved and I was left in the three flat by myself. I was determined to stick it out. My place was fabulous. For Real! Every inch was picture perfect. Something out of a home magazine. And thanks to my OCD nothing was ever out of place.

But it started to spiral downward. My finances began to dry up. Speaking engagements slowed down to almost nothing. Then I got sick. I was hospitalized for 14 days and my health seemed to be hanging in the balance. Then from nowhere, I got a book deal. WOW! A major book deal with an A-list publisher, Hyperion. And speaking engagements picked up. Things were looking up, sort of.

Yes, I had a book deal and I had gigs on the books for the spring, but the right now of my finances was in shambles and then my heath didn't get better. I landed back in the hospital for a total of 22 days and once out I had to have intravenous medications for 13 hours a day at home for another 33 days and unfortunately it happened during my spring speaking season. I had to cancel all of my speaking engagements. It was a mess. 

But superwoman kicked in. I knew I needed to move. I couldn't afford my rent and the new owners were letting the building deteriorate. Two years after my landlord's death, I was still living in the building alone. I needed to move!! But the reality of it was that I was too broke to move. Honestly, there were days I didn't have grocery money. So I created a plan. If I sell everything and move into a smaller place, I could live off the book advance until the second portion of the advance kicked in and I went on book tour. I implemented my plan. I had a house sale for two months, I sold half of all my clothes, all my furniture, except my bed, bookshelves and two wingback chairs. I started packing and looking for a new place.

Monday Reflection: Sanctuary
I chose a modest studio apartment on the Gold Coast. I had always wanted to live in that area and I saw this as my chance. For years, I basically did everything on the Gold Coast but live, so I decided to change that. The apartment and the building were very very modest. For sure it was a huge change for me. Leaving my three bedroom apartment and moving into a studio was a one hard hit. But I take all of my hits standing and I never fall down. But the hits kept coming. I lost the book deal. My editor was pissed that my writer quit and I ended up writing the book. I couldn't write, according to her, and she couldn't be bothered with all the edits that needed to be done. And, oh yes, she wanted me to "embellish, embellish, and embellish," in her words. That was not going to happen, according to my words.

So Hyperion walked and it left me devastated, emotionally and financially. I had invested everything. But that's another blog. The economy took a dive and speaking engagements dried up almost completely. I was stuck in this studio. It became demoralizing waking up every morning looking at my bed. Depression set in. My OCD was hijacked by space. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep the place picture perfect. I had way too much stuff and the space was way to small.

For sure I made it do what it do. Looking back on this space, I can't believe it was the same place, but it was. Friends who came to visit thought I had decorated the hell of of this place, but to me it felt like I was living in hell. I needed a new plan, but I was even more broke then before. I had been selling my designer handbags and jewelry for the last two years just to keep the lights on. So I didn't have what I had before to have a house sale. Speaking engagements were few and far between, and when I got one, I was always so behind I could never get caught up.

I prayed to God for a new place. A living room where I could put a sofa. A kitchen that was conducive to cooking, one of my favorite things to do. Walls where I could enjoy the beauty of my art. A building where young adults weren't in and out all hours of the night. And a place where they put their garbage in the can, not in the hall. I mean, I was living on the Gold Coast, but it felt like some slum building. Because the rent was so reasonable, it was the perfect location and building for young people who wanted to live in a trendy area, but at 48 and managing the world of AIDS, this was not the place for me. Things had to change. I no longer had a sanctuary and it was eating at my core.

My plan this time was faith. I had no resources to create a pragmatic plan. So I just acted on faith. I started packing. I started looking for a new apartment. And when my lease arrived, I laid it on the counter and didn't open it for two months. By that time I had missed the deadline and had no other choice but to move.

But I had no money, that was a hard core reality. I let my faith guide me on this one. I never stopped packing and looking.

But I was flawed. I was looking at all these big fancy buildings with a doorman. And it was all alluring. I wanted to be able to move into one of these fancy buildings. But I had to be honest with myself. #ForReal. Who the hell was I trying to impress? Why was I considering going into more debt then I was already in? I had to get over myself and over this image of living large.

You can't live large broke, that's a fact!! Living that lie will only dig your hole deeper and deeper. So I let it go and faced the reality. And once I was honest about it all, doors started to open. I was able to think with a clear head and act within my realities. Faith plus honest action will get you a lot farther then some pie in the sky dream. There is a method to climbing up the ladder: one step up at a time. If you take one step, God will take another. But faith without work is dead.

I called my current landlord. He ain't the best landlord but I had heard through the grapevine that his other buildings were a whole lot better than the one I lived in. They had an apartment for rent and I saw it the same day.

The next day I filled out the application and by the end of the week, I had signed the lease. It was a one bedroom in yet another modest building. But the apartment was too cute. And far less apartments in this building then the other building, which means less traffic. And best of all, my rent was only $15 more. No security deposit, no pet deposit, it was a lateral move. I even moved on faith. I rented a truck and I had three crews of people helping me move. Old friends, but mostly new friends I met through Twitter. Even the doorman in the building down the street that I always speak to helped. It pays to be nice.

Monday Reflection: Sanctuary
And for the last three weeks, I have been creating my sanctuary yet again. A place where I can exhale. And it's turning out to be some kind of fabulous. I'm grateful for this blessing. Grateful for the therapist that insisted years ago that I create a space to call my own. In the world of AIDS and my public life, my home is that special place... my private sanctuary.

To have lost it for a couple of years has been humbling. It has given me a better appreciation for that which I have and less worry about what I don't have. I've learned in the last two years that I didn't really need all that space that I had. And even in that hell hole that I lived in, I was able to create small sanctuaries for myself. My Sophie woke me every morning with kisses. I spent hours reading, taking me away to another place. I knitted, beaded and tweeted. My sanctuary became less about space and more about my actions. Now I can merge the two yet again. I'm #FeelingBlessed.

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See Also
More Personal Accounts of Women With HIV/AIDS


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Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton is an Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist who rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has lived with HIV for 27 years and AIDS for 19. Rae travels the country speaking and challenging stereotypes and myths about HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Church History. Rae has been featured on Nightline, Dateline NBC, BET and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless magazines and newspapers, including Emerge, Glamour, O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Jet, Ebony, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few. She earned the coveted Emmy Award for a first-person series on living With AIDS for Chicago's CBS News.

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