This is the second article I have written since I was told, April of 1993, that I was HIV positive. Up until that time I felt that I was educated about HIV/AIDS. My friends would tease me, calling me "Condom Mama". I was always telling them to use condoms, yet I did not protect myself every time, nor did I believe it would happen to me. But it did.
During my routine pap exam, I asked my OB/GYN to run my six-month HIV test, thinking I was being responsible. Silly, isn't it-- testing, but not protecting.
I had a little pretest counseling, and when I was told that I was positive it was over the phone. I was all alone. I don't blame the doctor. I was the first patient he had to give a positive test result to, and I think he did the best he knew how. He never made me feel "less than" or acted different with me in any way, and for that I am grateful. This doctor continued to treat me and performed minor surgery on me after my diagnosis, and I thank him for his compassion, for not turning me away when a lot of doctors still turn away from people with HIV disease.
I feel lucky that I had people who were there for me from the start, such as those in a 12-step program I'm in. My friend Chris, who lost a brother to AIDS a few years back, referred me to a crisis center in my community, which does HIV counseling and testing.
At this center I found Betty Lee, who gave me so much support those first few horrible days while waiting for a re-test to confirm I was positive. She gave me support group locations, literature on HIV, and she even went with me to the Valley to meet a woman named Deborah Eli. Deborah has since passed on, but I was lucky enough to learn from her and to gain focus on myself and what I need to do to stay alive. She helped me to connect with other women in my situation.
There is still so much stigma attached to HIV when you live in a small community. I am afraid that those who know my HIV status will tell others, or I'll slip, & someone who is uneducated will cause pain and confusion for my young child. My child deserves a normal life. I don't want to worry about other people not letting their children play with her because of my HIV. I will move if this ever becomes an issue.
I have found that, like myself, there are other single women with children who are infected, who want to reach out to our community, yet are driving seventy miles and more for support groups or to find services for women, all for fear of being "found out" in their small communities. There is so much fear among women, keeping us from learning more about HIV/AIDS issues, keeping us from being a community.
I feel that we need to educate ourselves in many different ways, and hit the problem from all angles. It could be women's groups, schools, newsletters, churches, recovery programs, jails, your neighbors. I hope that we can all band together and become more vocal, in the public eye or in a newsletter such as this one, which can be a good tool against ignorance.
There are very few women's groups in my county. I believe that we need to network with one another more and let other women know where the services are, and how to get the support that we all need. We need services to be accessible to all women in the county, including those who are not reaching out yet. I feel we need to be here for one another, be it by groups or phones to share our experiences, strengths and hopes. God bless us as we take this journey down the HIV/AIDS road. Together, we can make a difference.
Reprinted from "Being Alive on the Central Coast" with permission from the author.