This Positive Life: An Interview With Patricia Kelly
January 3, 2011
Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Patricia Kelly. In 1985, Patricia, a then-31-year-old IV drug user, learned that she was HIV positive while serving time in a South Carolina women's correctional facility. Convinced that she was going to die because her doctor told her as much, Patricia hid the fact that she was positive and spiraled deeply into her drug use. This mother of three and recovering addict talks to us about her 20-year journey living in and out of the prison system; overcoming the cultural stigma that stopped her from seeking the mental health help that she needed; and the relief and peace that being able to disclose her HIV status has brought her.
When were you diagnosed with HIV?
I was diagnosed in 1985, back in the time when it was the hysteria.
Long-term survivor, you are.
Yes. I'm a conqueror. Yes. It was a difficult time, you know, because when the doctor diagnosed me, he had a mask, gloves and a gown on. And he told me I was going to die. And he told me not to tell anybody that I was positive.
Where was this?
At the Women's Correctional Facility in Columbia, S.C. -- I was incarcerated. At that time, they tested you without you knowing you were being tested. Just the fact that you were an inmate; you were tested. He told me not to tell anybody, because if I told anyone they would not want to be around me. He also told me I was going to die and I believed him.
How long were you incarcerated?
Nine months. But at first, I didn't believe him. I wanted another test. So I got tested again and it still came up positive. Because of the hysteria and everything about it, I kept it to myself for nine years. There wasn't any counseling or anything back then. But, physically, in all these 25 years, I've never had any signs or symptoms. So had I not been tested, I would not have known. But emotionally, I've been to hell and back.
When you first heard the words "HIV," how did you feel? I know you said you didn't believe it, but when you got a second confirmation, saying, "Pat, you have HIV," what did you think?
I thought I was going to die. I thought my life was over. I wasn't married and thought I was never going to get married. I even believed that I couldn't have sex again. I was, like, oh, my whole world has come tumbling down.
Did you realize that you were even at risk? What did you know about HIV? Did you think it was just a gay men's disease?
I knew nothing about HIV really. I had seen it on TV, here and there. But I did think that it was only for gay men. And then later on, after I was tested, they started talking about IV drug users. So that was another facet. I was, like, "Oh, my!"
So when you left jail, what did you do?
I lived my life like I was going to die tomorrow. I took risks at doing crazy and wild things. I really got on a drug spin, and alcohol, and just taking outrageous chances. And I never told anybody. But I continued to be involved in the drug world -- which I knew, even if they knew, they would have accepted me. Because it's what you got that gets you in, you know. But I never said anything. Maybe towards the later years, as I realized I wasn't going to die, I started to share my HIV-stratus with some of my drug friends. They was like, "Well, if you knew this, why did you do that?" You know, that I put them at risk.
And I'm like, "Even if you had known, it wasn't going to make a difference; because when we out there, we out there."
How long had you been addicted to drugs?
I did a life sentence in jail on the installment plan. And back in the day, a life sentence is 20 years. So I did drugs on and off for about 20 years.
Do you remember the first time you did drugs and which drugs were they?
I guess that would be alcohol.
And how old were you?
I was a teenager, and it was right after I watched my first love commit suicide. And so, basically, I started drinking. Then I went away to college, and some people introduced me to marijuana, and cocaine. Then I dropped out of college and started doing drugs a lot. Later on I got focused and went back to college and got my degree. But the year after that, I was incarcerated for writing bad checks-I didn't have any money in the bank.
It was during that stint in jail, [I found] out that I was positive. And before that I had interest in going on to grad school and doing this and that. After that, I was like, "It's over."
While you were doing drugs and you were kind of in and out of jail, what did your family think?
I stayed with my family. I'm originally from New York.
Which part of New York?
The Bronx, but I grew up on the Lower East Side: ABC Town. And a lot of my activities took place away from home. I went to Connecticut to hang out, or I'd do things in South Carolina, so that my family -- or anyone who knew me -- couldn't point and say, "Yeah, I saw your daughter over there." I basically tried to keep it away from my family.
They had thoughts and ideas, but they couldn't say that I was actually a drug addict. They just thought I was out there with men, or, you know, my kids' father -- stuff like that.
So, the drugs and alcohol: Were you doing that to self medicate?
Yes, most definitely.
What were you medicating yourself for?
I didn't want to feel. I didn't want to think about dying. In 1991 my brother died from AIDS. That's when it really hit home. He came to South Carolina to live with us. That's when my mother and father got educated about the disease. And even though I had been positive for a number of years just like my brother, we had seen each other and I had gotten some idea, but we never spoke about it.
You know, he was also an IV drug user, and every now and then we used drugs together. And he would be like, "You can't use my work kit." He was more protective in ways later on that wasn't a part of him in the beginning.
Later on, I was incarcerated again and they allowed me to call him when he was in the hospital. I said I was going to be praying for his recovery, and praying for him; and he said he was beyond prayer. That's when I actually knew, without us even having the words. Because I knew that he had the feeling that I had -- that it was going to be all over.
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