March 7, 2011
Teniecka Drake has been busy lately! She was known as Teniecka Hannah back in 2007, when she was first interviewed on TheBody.com. At that time, she was between relationships, and focused on helping her peers by sharing her story of living with HIV with audiences at high schools and universities, and encouraging them to make HIV testing a part of their lives. Now, four years after that interview, Teniecka's approaching the 10-year anniversary of her HIV diagnosis. She's also gotten married (hence the "Drake") and given birth to two daughters and a son. I caught up with Teniecka recently, and she shared her experiences with pregnancy and birth; caring for her children while going to school and working in the HIV community; and maintaining a strong family unit without the support of extended family members.
Teniecka Drake, welcome back to TheBody.com! Your last interview with us was in April 2007. It seems that there have been a bunch of new developments in your life. Do you want to talk about some of that?
Yes. I'm recently married, in 2008; and I also have three children. One is 2 years old, and that's my oldest daughter. My son is 1 years old. And my newest little girl is going to be 5 months this month.
How did you meet your husband?
Well, the story I gave other people, like my family members -- it's all going to be coming out now -- was that I met him at Walmart, because he was a truck driver. But the real way we met was on a chat line where you can meet people and interact on the phone. From there, we figured out where we could meet in person. I dissed him really badly in the beginning. I didn't like his appearance, so I kind of shunned him.
I told him at the beginning that I wasn't interested in looks and appearance. But when I saw him -- he was going through a divorce -- he was so skinny and frail. It looked like I could break him, because I'm more of a thick type of female. His appearance looked so shallow and shabby to me! In my mind, I was like, "I just don't think you're the one for me." My girlfriend was with me and I said, "You need to get me out of this situation. It doesn't feel good for me. I don't like the way he looks." So we came up with a little plan to escape.
He called me the next morning and said, "Are you sure that's what you want to do?" Because we'd had plans to go out to dinner and the movies, and I'd just blown him off.
When he called, I was like, "What am I doing? I told you it wasn't based on appearance and that I had moved away from that, but I judged you on appearance. And I'm so sorry for that."
He was living in Aurora at the time. I had to drive up there to compensate for him coming down here and me blowing him off. The rest is history.
How did you disclose your HIV status to him? How did that come up? How did he react at first?
I went about it in a very unique way. When dealing with HIV, you don't just disclose to anybody, because of all the stigma and how people may view you. So what I did -- and I did it early on just to know what type of man I was dealing with -- is I asked him, "Do you know about the rapper Eazy-E?" He was like, "Yes. What about that rapper?" I was like, "And do you know the illness that he died of?" "Yeah, he died of AIDS." And I said, "Well, I have something similar to what that rapper was diagnosed with." He said, "AIDS?" I said, "No. The virus part. I have HIV. I'm HIV positive."
He didn't say anything. He took a little pause. Then he said, "OK." And I said, "Well, how does that make you feel? You're trying to get to know me. We're new. And I do have this illness. You're going to have to deal with it if you're going to be with me."
He just told me flat out, "I accept you for who you are. That does not change that I'm still going to be with you." And then he said, "We're going to be married, anyway." And that was very early on.
I almost started crying. I said, "Don't play games with me. Because telling me that you're going to marry me when I've got HIV, that just sounds like you're just trying to make yourself look good."
He said, "No. I accept you for who you are regardless of your HIV status. I still feel we have that connection. And you will be my wife. Watch what I say." Here, today, that came true.
Pregnancy and birth can be really intense experiences for moms in general; how were pregnancy and birth for you, with all three of your children?
They were all different. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I didn't really think much of it. I got little cravings for pickles and ice cream -- not together! I would just need tons of pickles and everything, but I didn't have a problem with the cravings.
But then the pain part, which I'm pretty sure any woman who has been pregnant can understand: The pain of the contractions and things are not fun. But I still was just really elated that I was even pregnant. Because I never thought, from when I was diagnosed till when I actually was pregnant, that I would even have a child, let alone be pregnant and have a husband that was going to be the father of my child.
I had a C-section [Cesarean section] with her, but it was an emergency C-section. They put me totally under, so I do not remember her. I just remember the doctor saying, "Hey, you had a beautiful girl." I was like, "Yeah," because I was drugged up.
Why the emergency C-section? Were you ever given an option between a C-section and vaginal birth, or was a C-section the only option for having your babies because of your HIV status?
For my first child, my doctor wanted me to do a vaginal delivery. That was the plan, but my body and the baby changed that. My body started to go into labor the night before she was born. My daughter was born June 13 and her due date was July 2. In the hospital, I was given an AZT [Retrovir, zidovudine] drip. When my labor contractions started, my viral load also spiked. I was told it jumped to 1,500, so I had to have an emergency C-section.
My HIV status did not make my doctor perform a C-section. My thoughts on it are that the woman or couple should have the choice. If a vaginal delivery is what you want, do it. If a C-section is preferred, do that. For me, my body and the baby made my choice for me. At the end of the day, you want to do what is right to have a healthy baby and to be a healthy mother.
With my second child, my son, I was going into labor when he broke my water. And so that was another emergency C-section, because he wanted to come out. That was a different, unique experience, because I had Flight for Life [the emergency helicopter transport organization take me to the hospital]. Then, in the hospital, they couldn't find my veins -- these people that deal with emergencies had both of my hands, trying to find my veins. And here comes the anesthesiologist. Meanwhile, my mom's in the room talking about some weird movie, Blazing Saddles, that I didn't want to hear about. I was like, "Why are you guys all in this room?"
The doctor's not even prepared, because he got called out of his bed to come. He was like, "Every time I come back into the room, you're contracting even faster." Nobody had the operating room open because it was not planned.
When [things were finally ready,] I was really happy. Everything went smoothly after that. I remember him being born. He didn't even cry, because he was around a lot of ladies. I was like, "Is the baby OK?" And my husband said, "Yeah. He's over there taking a nice bath, and all these pretty women are around him, so he's not crying." And I was like, "Well, OK, that's good."
When my last daughter was born, it was a unique experience because it went kind of badly, a little bit, for me. The C-section was fine and she came out healthy. But the hospital was going off of some old viral load test results showing that my viral load had increased; they thought my viral load had spiked at that time. They thought, because of that old test, that I would be a danger to my own daughter if I coughed or something. They said they needed to monitor my daughter a little more thoroughly. They didn't have my most recent test result, which showed my virus was undetectable. They were going off an old one that said I had, like, 92 copies of the virus in my blood.
They told me I could not see my daughter or hold her. Plus, she had a little bit of a respiratory problem. They kept her away from me and they put her into intensive care for infants. When I did go to see her, they had me put on gloves and a robe to touch my own child, which really made me upset.
Was this the same hospital where you had given birth to your other kids, and was it the same doctor? Or was it different people you were dealing with?
With my first daughter, I actually delivered on a military base installation; but with my son, I did deliver at that same exact hospital. And I had the same pediatrician that I had for my son. That's why I was a little taken aback and puzzled. Like, why is this happening now? When I had my son, I was laboring and water broke, and yet they were not like this then. I was able to touch him. I was able to see him. They did not take him away then. I would think, for his situation, it would have been, "Let's watch, because the water broke. Let's see if any membranes burst, or anything like that."
But this was a totally different thing. There was no emergency. She came at the time she was supposed to be due, which was on the 27th of September. She came at the exact time and there were no issues.
I had to call some other people to help me with this. I said, "I've never had this happen to me, where I can't touch my own child." Then I found out, after I went through all of that, that they were basing that off of an old test. There was nothing wrong. I should have been able to see my daughter. I was like, "You guys didn't even update your records to find out that those weren't correct. That was incorrect information. You guys didn't have up-to-date information."
The worst part of my pregnancy and birth was when I couldn't even hold my own baby. They took her from me, and it was at least a good two days before it was OK for me to see and touch her. It was really heart-wrenching at the time. I was glad that when they were done with what they were doing, I could actually have her in my room. But she's still healthy. And I'm just glad that portion is over.
Your other two children are confirmed HIV negative. Is this newest little girl still within the period in which she'll need to be tested to confirm that she's HIV negative?
When is the date that you'll find out for sure?
We're going to do her lab testing in March. She was tested in the hospital, and that one was negative, but they always have to follow up. I'm really not worried about it, because I was undetectable throughout [my pregnancy and] her birth. I was taking my pills, doing what I needed to do, eating healthy and all of that. Plus, [during delivery,] they gave me the AZT drip on top of my medications.
What did you do to keep healthy while you were pregnant?
What I did was just be natural, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. Because I don't eat that many vegetables, I overloaded on fruits. I would overload on tangerines, oranges, strawberries, leafy greens -- whatever I could find. I was using a little bit of yogurt sometimes. I was using whole grain bread, and making sure to at least drink a glass of milk, because it's easy for me to just grab a glass and drink it. Just little, simple things that I knew I could do for the baby to be healthy.
Even the doctor noticed. He was saying I was losing weight. I was like, "Well, I'm not exercising." And he was like, "You're not, but you are eating healthy." And he said, "I know you're doing this because of the baby, but after the baby, you need to continue to do this so you can be a grandmother to the grandkids that will come from these children. You want to be around! It's awesome you're doing that because you're pregnant, but don't forget to do that same healthy bingeing that you're doing to get the baby the vitamins and nutrients for yourself."
He was right. I'm actually slacking now, because there's no baby. But I'm still trying to maintain something. At least if I can get an apple, I'll know I'm eating something nutritious.
The first time you interviewed on TheBody.com, you mentioned that you didn't get much support from your family after your diagnosis. Has that changed at all in recent years? You mentioned that your mom was involved in your second labor and birth. Is your family involved in your life in a different way, especially now that you have kids?
Well, my family: They are my family, and I wouldn't ever want to say anything bad about them, but they've moved to California and I'm here in Colorado. The only person I have here is my grandmother, and we've been kind of on the rocks, anyhow. My mother was here for my son's birth because she is a federal employee, and she just happened to be coming to Colorado Springs for a conference. He wasn't supposed to be here; he came early and she just happened to be here during that time.
I don't converse much with them. I've spoken to my brother and my younger sister. My other sister, I kind of don't mess with. They're don't ask, don't tell. And since I don't communicate with them that often, we don't really have any support from my family that way. It's gotten a little worse, not so much better. I'm not really worried about it. So, support-wise, it's just me and my husband.
What about your husband's family? Are they involved at all?
No. He and I have the same family dynamic. I've never met his mother. I've been married to this man almost three years, and I've never met her. She's only seen my children in pictures; she might have also gotten a glance at whatever pictures I have posted up on Facebook. But she doesn't know me. We don't speak and I've never met her. His brother lives in Washington, and he's not been a part of this family. He doesn't really care. He's all about himself.
So we just try to keep our family intimate and close, between my husband and me. If we have any issues, we just make sure that we bring it back and try to remember that we are all we have. If we have any arguments, sometimes I sit down and remember that I don't have my family to run to. And that they could care less. So I really need to do what I've got to do to make sure my own family stays focused, and stays together.
How do you find yourself resolving conflicts with your husband when they come up? Do you have any tips?
When we get into serious arguments, when they get really hot and heated, and I don't want to let it go, I want to keep pushing my issue to the point that maybe fists and things will start to fly -- not that I want that to happen -- but when it gets really hot like that, I have learned that I need to remove myself from that situation, and stop trying to voice what I want to say in the argument. Because nobody's going to hear anything. I'm going to be yelling. He's just going to be ignoring me, which makes me really upset.
So I just remove myself. And since I have online classes, and I have to check e-mails and stuff, I'll go upstairs to the computer room and do things on the computer just to remove myself from that situation so I don't cause any more problems, or anything like that. I've found that by leaving my husband alone, he'll actually come up when he's calmed down, and start poking at me and saying, "What's wrong with you? Why you being mean?" Then we start giggling and laughing again.
Giving ourselves that space -- five or 10 minutes just to cool down, relax and get our composure back -- I find works a lot better for us.
How do you think being a mom has changed you, if at all?
I think it's made me a better person. It makes me want my children to have the family dynamic that I don't think I have now. I don't want them to grow up to be adults who do not think that they can come to their mom and dad because we don't want to have any dealings with them. I want them to be able to have the love and everything that I think I might have missed out on. The relationship my mom and I don't have -- I want to feel that relationship with my daughters, and for them to be able to come and talk to me about whatever they're going through -- if they're having man troubles or if there's anything that they want to know about, like my HIV. I don't want to keep any secrets from them. I want to be open with them and not have them fear me, or just think flat-out that their mother doesn't care about what's going on in their life.
I want to change the way I treat my children and learn from what I had to deal with, and just change to make them better people, make them what I was not.
I'm going to nurture them. I'm just going to keep doing that until they're adults. I want to be able to accept their husbands, or their girlfriend. I want to be able to accept them and not shun them because of their choices in life. I just want to keep loving them and let them know that: "Your mom's here, regardless of whatever choices, bad or good, that you make. I'm going to be here unconditionally. I'm not just going to leave you stranded out there to fend for yourself." That's not the impression I want to put on them.
Have you come across any challenges that relate specifically to raising kids as an HIV-positive mom?
When I got diagnosed, it was a wake-up call. So, every time I feel like I'm getting mad at my children, I just remember the reason they're here, and why I wanted to have children. I didn't want to have them just to have them; I was really excited to have children. HIV plays into that because I thought that, being HIV positive, I would not have someone who would accept me enough to actually put himself in jeopardy to have some kids with me. And now I have three! So that always plays a part.
I look at them every day and think, "You're not HIV positive; you guys are healthy. There's nothing wrong with you guys. You are not on oxygen. You guys aren't needing anything. Nothing came out wrong. You guys are just healthy children."
If they do something wrong, sometimes it hurts me to even tell them, "No, don't do that," because of that passion and that compassion that I have for them. It just changed me. The way I try to discipline my children or try to talk to them is so different from someone who says, "Hey, I lay down and had a kid; it was by accident," and who is not HIV positive.
They weren't a mistake to me. And the HIV, I think, makes me a better person to understand that life's fragile. You only get one chance at it. So I'm going to do whatever I have to do to stay healthy to survive, and be around for them to graduate from high school and college, and get married. I don't want the HIV to put a stop to that. It helps me to make sure that I take care of myself so that I will be around for them, for the years that will be coming up.
Has having a family changed your level of openness about your HIV status?
I think it always depends on the situation and the circumstance. I always use discretion [in my personal, one-on-one interactions with people]. I just watch who I speak to -- because I do have a family, and my husband sometimes doesn't feel comfortable with people knowing my status. It's not even him; he just doesn't want people looking at me funny, or this and that.
I just try to keep in mind that whoever I'm speaking to, I need to be doggone sure that I would like that person to know that intimate part of me. That's something really personal that you want to not disclose to everyone. People can use that against you, or they can use it to go and spread gossip that's not even true. So I've let a few people that I've gotten close to as friends know my status. They haven't said anything, or looked at me funny, or treated me in any different way.
Only certain people that I trust wholeheartedly, and that I know wouldn't do me wrong, should I disclose that to. I don't go out [in my day-to-day life] and just blab it to the world: "Hey, look at me!" Because there are people that would gun you down in the middle of the street, and there are the hate crimes and stuff like that. I have children and, like I said, I want to be around for them. So I want to use every discretionary measure to make sure that I'm doing right by disclosing to certain people. And then, at certain times, not opening my mouth and keeping that private.
Have you thought about how you'll talk to your kids about HIV -- whether it's talking to them about your own status; or, when they get older, telling them about how they can protect themselves and practice safer sex?
I've thought about how I would bring it up, but I haven't reached any definite answer. During the sex talk that we are going to have -- on account of, I've got girls and I've got a son, and they're all going to need to know that -- I probably would talk about all the different STIs [sexually transmitted infections] that you can contract from having sexual contact. I would do it age-range appropriate. Because my best way to do it is through storytelling, like I did to my husband, I will bring out a scenario, and then I will bring myself into it. I would start with, "So, what do you think?" -- and then ask them, "Do you know about your Mommy?" I'd explain to them how their mother contracted this illness, and what they can do not to: "You can't put your trust in everybody, and make sure you protect yourself, because Mama didn't do that. Mama didn't do that."
Then I would tell them, from the heart, that Mama's not saying go out there and go do it, and just make sure you wear condoms. Take your time when you're doing this. Because it's a big decision to go out there and sleep with anyone you want. Even if you have a condom on, it could break. [Use your mind, not just your body.] Protect your body, because that's your body. If you get something like HIV, or any of these other diseases that don't go away with a shot or some kind of medicine, you have to deal with that for life. That's a consequence of not protecting yourself.
Make sure you know what you're doing. Because the price to pay is a very long one. And it's a very hard price if you contract something like what Mama has. That's what I would say. So, I know what I want to say; I just haven't figured out the way I will say it. I've kind of got my head wrapped around it. I've got a few years before I have to bring on the big guns with these conversations.
Switching gears to your professional life: What are you up to now? Are you in school? Do you still work in the HIV field at all?
I'm going to a different school since the last interview. I'm going to Kaplan University online. I'm majoring in business administration -- trying to get my bachelor's degree in that. I would like to use that degree to open either a restaurant or a nonprofit. The nonprofit would be dealing with homelessness and HIV, and all sorts of stuff. I haven't really worked out the kinks in my mind. But that's how I want to use the degree: to help others.
As far as the HIV work: I was doing peer mentoring training just this weekend, Friday and Saturday. I'm going to be helping others that are newly diagnosed with HIV and don't know how to deal with it.
Do you do peer mentoring with a specific organization in your area?
Yes. I do it with S-CAP, which is the Southern Colorado AIDS Project. They also go by Southern Colorado Health Network. They're trying to start up peer mentoring for their newly diagnosed people that are having trouble wrapping their heads around what the meds are about, and have questions like: What is a CD4 count? What is a viral load? What are these things I'm dealing with? Why am I sick? All of that. Just being a mentor: taking them by the hand and letting them know how they can go about their life, and knowing that it's not a death sentence, and that they can make it.
It's a six-month program. After that they should be able to go out and get resources and be a little stronger than they were when they first came to you all wound up and not knowing what direction they wanted to go, feeling a little lost and isolated -- all that stuff that people with HIV mostly deal with, the emotional toll and all of that. So when we get it started up, I can't wait to do it.
I'm also going to be in Ebony magazine -- in their April 2011 issue, their inaugural spiritual issue. I'm looking forward to that. I've already done the photo shoot. I'm just waiting for the April magazine to come out and go get me a copy.
The section is about people who have gone through different obstacles, and how their faith has helped them get through it. The interviewer found me on Who's Positive [a Web site that raises HIV awareness by showcasing the first-hand accounts of young adults coping with HIV]. I think she also saw me on TheBody.com. She read my story on either one, or both, and she said she was so impressed that she wanted to use me as the lead in a story. I was really excited.
With all of the activities that you're involved in, how do you manage childcare? Are you and your husband just really strong partners, as far as the childcare piece?
My husband does not work. He's not happy about it. He got laid off from his trucking job back in 2009, and he's got some issues dealing with that. But since he hasn't been able to go to work, it's just perfect that, if I need to go somewhere, or I have to travel or even go to different parts of Colorado Springs, he can stay home with the children. He doesn't have any qualms about it, and we don't have to worry about paying for childcare, which is really expensive. We just do handoffs like that. And I promised him I'd get him an EVO phone. So I owe him that, to upgrade his cell phone.
I give him gratitude and little things that he wants to show him that I still appreciate him. If he's tired, and wants to take a nap, and I'm awake and just doing my schoolwork, I'll watch the kids for him. You know, just give him that time away. So he gets what he needs and he keeps doing what he does as a good dad, and a great husband. And he gives me a day off from cooking, and things like that. So I do think we're really strong. We switch off. We make sure that we compromise.
Switching gears again: How do you access your HIV meds, and your health care in general?
Since I was in the military and I'm a vet, I get my medication from the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]. That's part of my service-connected disability, which means that my medications from them are totally -- and always will be -- free. I just tell them, "Hey, I'm running out of Kaletra [lopinavir/ritonavir]" or, "I'm running out of Epzicom [abacavir/3TC, Kivexa]," or whatever meds that I need. They say, "OK, let's just send it to you. How many bottles are you short?" Or, "You just order what you need," and it just comes.
I'm so fortunate, and actually, very happy that I don't have to deal with ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program]. When I first got diagnosed and I had to use it for a little bit, they were doing good. They had an apothecary who was a supplier of the medication in Boulder. Now they've switched to a Walgreens and it's a little bit more complicated, and a little bit more difficult. I've been hearing about wait lists, and all different types of stuff. I'm just so glad that I don't have to go through that route, and have to fight and re-fill out forms and documents. I'm just glad I don't have to deal with that part.
What was your role in the military?
I didn't have an MOS [military occupational specialty], but I was supposed to be working in supplies. I got ill within 10 days of my basic training. So when I did get out, it was on medical discharge. I never actually got to shoot my M-16, which is what I wanted to do. But it's OK; I shot it in my mind, which makes up for the real thing.
Have you generally been happy with your care at the VA?
Yes, I have. I did have a private doctor I was seeing for a long time. He was the first doctor I saw, and he had been seeing me since 2001. But during that time I got really annoyed at him; he wasn't giving me any affirmations or making me feel good about myself. He would always have something negative to say. And I got fed up.
I had been with him for seven years. My husband -- at the time, my fiancé -- watched me blow up at the doctor. I was like, "Every single time I've come in here you are always negative. You're always talking about my being so overweight; I'm so this or that. But you don't never, ever say, 'Oh, it's good that you're undetectable.' You're always asking me am I taking my medication. If my viral load has spiked, than you should be the doctor, the professional, and find out what the reason is. And don't be asking me if it's because I'm [not] taking my meds. If the meds aren't working, then let's try a different regimen now. Shouldn't we?"
I got so fed up with the negativity that I kept getting every time I stepped into that doctor's office and went to speak with him; I just got irate. And then I got pregnant at the same time. He was like, "Oh."
My husband was excited. He was like, "We're going to have a little girl." And the doctor was like, "Oh, that's good." My husband looked at me, like, "Oh, is that bad that you're pregnant? I mean, should you have a baby, then?"
I was like, "Look here, Doc. We're going to have to cut ties. I'm done with you. You have made my husband feel like crap. He's excited to have a baby, and you're making him feel like crap. And I'm getting annoyed with you anyhow." So I got rid of him and went to the VA.
I remember some people were saying that if you do not like your doctors, you don't have to stay with them just because you've been with them so long. You can find another provider.
I have my own infectious disease doctor I see up there at the VA, Dr. Marinka Kartalija. She is great. She is awesome. She actually cares, not just about me and my medication, and my HIV and all that; she also cares about my family. She cares about my husband. "Has he found a job yet? How's the job situation? How's your housing situation? How are your babies doing? How are you feeling?" Not just, "Oh, well, your virus is doing good. Are you sure you're taking your meds?" She actually, actually cares. We have a good relationship. I remember when she came for us one day in the waiting room. She was like, "I'm ready to see my favorite patient." And she said it in front of a room that was full of other people -- and I'm pretty sure some people had her!
Every time we would come in -- one baby, two babies, three babies -- the whole doctors' room is just filled with my family. And their office rooms aren't that big, but here we are, all up in her office. And she's examining me and everything.
Do you have anything you want to add before we bring this interview to a close? Is there anything you want the readers at TheBody.com to know about you, or anything that you didn't get to talk about?
Well, if there's anyone out there that still feels a little lost, and you've been diagnosed with HIV, don't forget that you can contact me. I am available. So don't feel lost. It's not the end. Just be positive, and just keep trying to do the best that you can do and live your life. Because it's not over yet.
Teniecka, thank you so much. It was wonderful getting a chance to talk to you.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.