Betty, an awesome lady from Texas, commented on my very first blog post for TheBody in 2015, which was called "HIV on the Inside." She told me her own story of living with HIV. We became fast friends -- and we still are today. One of the privileges I am allowed while being incarcerated in Umatilla, Oregon, is that I can video call people in the free world. I wanted to ask Betty questions while still seeing her body language and emotions.
I have been in prison for a long time. Making friends from in here is limited to meeting people through our family and current friends that we had when we came into prison. Over the years, people in our lives tend to drop off and lose contact because they get busy or just move on and leave us behind. Now that I am older with all of this prison experience, I know what it takes to truly appreciate those that have been in my life for a long time. When I tell someone that I appreciate them, it goes far, but if I show them that I appreciate them through my actions, it can go even further.
We met around six in the evening. We spoke for about an hour. I gave her a chance to opt out of any questions that she might feel uncomfortable answering. Betty said that she had been living with HIV for 23 years and six months, a bit shorter than the 29 years I've been living with HIV.
Little did I know that the next questions I asked would open her emotions and show me her pain that no one else gets to see if they aren't close to her. She caught HIV from an ex-husband she loved and trusted to keep her safe. I had shared with Betty that I too had unprotected sex with numerous female partners, which could have been the way I contracted the virus. I was also an intravenous drug user, which could also be the route of my HIV infection.
She shared that she too had served time in county jail, where she was exposed to tuberculosis (TB). According to Betty, she was treated for TB in jail, and it hasn't come back in any form. Around this time, doctors discovered an undiagnosed heart problem which led to a heart attack. She had surgery to correct the problem and now has been clear of any heart issues.
Betty added that she has been alone for the past 10 years. When I pressed her further, she told me she doesn't want to face the rejection HIV-positive people have when exploring a new potential relationship. Especially with someone you want to be intimate with. As humans, we have to feel the touch of someone that loves us and be close to someone that needs us just as much as we need them. Being alone makes me feel disconnected and makes me question my self-worth and value to another human being. The thought of being rejected by someone who wouldn't otherwise reject me if I were HIV negative weighs heavily on my heart and mind. I can truly understand Betty's concerns about not going out finding a new person to love her and facing the rejection by someone that is ignorant about this chronic, treatable disease and the progress that has been made throughout the years.
Betty has an estranged son that doesn't keep in regular contact with her. Apparently, he resents his mother. I asked how her son had reacted to her HIV diagnosis. She said that she "did not really remember all that clearly." Betty went on to talk about her daughter, who is angry that her mom has contracted HIV and about the way she got it. They stay in regular contact.
Betty then asked about my kids. I told her about my son, who is 31 this year, and my daughter, who will be 28 in September. She asked about the last time I saw either of my children. I told her it was back in 1993, when they were probably too little to remember me. Becoming a parent happened at a time in my life when my selfish choices seemed to be more important than being a father to my kids. Each and every day, I live in regret, because I helped bring them into this world and I let them both down. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about them and pray that they come into my life, even if it is for them to ask me the hardest questions I ever had to answer. I do owe them an explanation, and they don't owe me anything in return.
I asked Betty if she was involved with any groups like the Positive Women's Network (PWN), and she said not at this time. She said that she was involved in local activism many years ago. Now, she is interested in getting involved once again, because she enjoys helping others. While the interview was winding down, I asked Betty to share something that she wants people to know. She told me that she "accepts her disease," but she does not "dwell on it" either. She shared that she "lives in the moment," but her pain reminds her of her HIV status. I asked her what kind of pain was this. She told me that her bodily aches and pains are what she is talking about.
Let me tell you about Betty's friendship. She has let me into her life -- and more importantly, her heart. This has taught me that it is OK to be vulnerable. Through her words, she has shown me the raw side of Betty and that it is OK to trust her with things I can't tell anyone else about. Our HIV is the reason why we met, the reason why we are close friends. And it's a bond that I never want to be broken.