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This Positive Life: An Interview With Patricia Clark

December 3, 2010

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Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Patricia Clark. When Patricia's then-boyfriend called her from prison in 1991 and told her that she needed to be tested for HIV, she was completely stunned. Living in a small town in Michigan, Patricia didn't know anyone else who was positive and feared that she was going to die. But with the help of her local HIV service organization, Patricia found the support, information and solace that she needed. This AIDS advocate and mother of one talks openly about how stigma has deeply affected her relationships with family and friends; her ongoing struggle to ensure that fear does not control her life; and how doing HIV/AIDS work in her community makes her happy.

So let's start with the beginning. Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive?

Well I was with a man. He was an alcoholic and he had been in and out of jail and prison. When he had gotten caught and gone to prison again, I got a letter from him saying I needed to get tested. He had tested when he went into the prison and he found that he was living with HIV. So I went to not the health department in my county, the one next over, in case I knew someone, and was tested. Back then it was the blood draw.

Now how old were you then? What year was it?

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It was in the fall, October of '91 -- and I was 31 years old. So I came later into it than a lot of people. But it was so long ago. I knew immediately after I got the result. The man who tested me was like, "Are you OK?" And I answered, "Yup, I'm fine."

And there was a little nursing clinic right adjacent to the health department building. And so I said, "What do I need to do? I have to have a plan right away." And so he said, "Go to the nursing clinic and they can help guide you." So I went right there, talked to the nurse. She said, "Well, the first thing is you're going to have to get" -- because I had no insurance, she said, "You're going to have to get insurance. You're going to have to go down to" -- at that time, the welfare office, "and apply." And I said, "OK, I can do that." And she had told me about an AIDS service organization, Center for AIDS Research, Education & Services (CARES). And I said, "OK."

"[My mother] was very concerned that, 'Don't tell anyone. You'll lose your house. You'll lose your job. You don't tell people that.' So I kind of took on everyone else's fear and thought, 'Oh, I never thought of that. Yeah, OK.' And I lived like that for a long time."

I went directly from there, drove to the next county where my county is and went to the welfare, got the booklet, sat there, filled it out, went to the window to hand it in. This was probably within two hours of having my diagnosis and the woman, when I went to hand it in, said, "Oh, we stopped taking the booklets at 11." It was like 11:05. And I stood there and I think it finally -- and I just [makes crying sound] and I said, "I just found out I have AIDS. I need help." And she was like, "[Gasps.] I'll make sure someone gets it." So then I talked to somebody. And, like I said, at that time it was easier to get plugged into the system and I got on Medicaid and went from there.

So now besides the people at CARES, how did you first begin to start talking about your diagnosis? Who was the first person you told?

Well the first person I told was my mom. Actually, the man I was with called me from prison a couple days after I had my result. We talked some. I think he was more afraid that I would leave him than he was worried about -- even then, the disclosure, he was so fearful of somebody knowing.

And I talked to my mom. I hadn't really been fearful of it until I talked to him, I talked to my mom. She was very concerned that, "Don't tell anyone. You'll lose your house. You'll lose your job. You don't tell people that." So I kind of took on everyone else's fear and thought, "Oh, I never thought of that. Yeah, OK." And I lived like that for a long time. So I didn't disclose to many people because I allowed their fear to be my fear and lived with that secret for a long time.

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