March 16, 2010. I remember it so vividly. I was in an in-patient drug treatment facility, 21 days sober and angry at everyone. When I got the news that my HIV test was confirmed positive, I thought I was receiving my death sentence. I now know, that was actually the moment I was blessed with a new life.
I grew up quite sheltered, in the small farming and military town of Yuma, Arizona. When the AIDS epidemic first surfaced in the early '80s, the terror of the disease was my biggest fear. I stayed out of trouble as a child, was a gifted classical pianist and had hopes and dreams of making my mark in the world.
In Yuma, if you were talented, well rounded and intelligent, you competed in the Miss Yuma County Pageant, which afforded scholarships and the opportunity to be a role model in the community. In 1995, at 20 years old, I was crowned Miss Yuma County, and in 1996, earned the title of Miss Arizona. I competed in the Miss America Pageant in September of 1996. During my reign as Miss Arizona, I implemented the first state pageant/state government community service platform in the country, educating adolescents and teenagers about the effects of violence in dating relationships. I was making my mark.
When that experience was over and I was no longer having to adhere to its rules and regulations, I stayed in Phoenix to go to school and experience life. I had some deep-rooted issues regarding my self worth and suffered from depression, and it didn't take long for me to find my escape. Rather, a solution to my problems.
Very quickly, that driven young woman was driven right into an addiction that took away every hope and dream, made me cross every line I said I would never cross, and destroyed my soul. I began to absolutely hate the person I was becoming, but didn't know how to stop. The drugs eased the pain, were always there when the relationships or jobs ended and by 2008, it was so dark that I set aside any of my values or beliefs to get "well." I didn't care about living and was pretty sure that no one would care if I died. I began to have major consequences for my actions and on Feb. 21, 2010, I checked into treatment for my drug addiction.
When the doctor suggested that we do some blood work, I asked him to include an HIV test. It had been a few years and I had heard rumors about someone I was personally involved with. Aside from the rumors, I had never actually met anyone that was positive. Imagine, 34 years old, to have never known ANYONE and to be told that I was.
All the fears about whether you would like me, if you thought I was pretty ... my roommate at the rehab asked to change rooms, people were afraid to eat and drink after me ... in 2010!! Unreal! So after processing the information for a few days, I started talking and started learning. I started to see my situation as a blessing that saved my life and that my past experiences gave me a voice and a platform in which to make a difference.
I talk very honestly and openly about my status, because I believe the more it is talked about, the more we can chip away at the social stigma attached to it. It can infect and affect anyone, but our best defense against it is knowledge. I am co-infected with hepatitis C as well. I know I will live a very long, very healthy life as long as I am proactive in my awareness of my status and take care of myself. I have self worth and a purpose and today I carry myself with dignity and grace.
In the last year, I have been asked back to the stage at Miss Arizona to share my story as a symbol of hope in the final night of competition at the Miss Arizona 2012 Pageant; have been the keynote speaker for Barb Eldridge's Team Rychard, benefiting the AIDS Walk Phoenix; was the top Individual Fundraiser for the entire AIDS Walk Phoenix, on the top Team Fundraiser "Team Rychard"; had the opportunity to speak at the AIDS Walk to share a little bit of my story; and have been hired on by Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS as the new Prevention Interventions Facilitator. My dreams have absolutely become my reality and I am so extremely grateful.
I firmly believe that by sharing my story, how it affected my life, and actually changed my life in a positive way because I am "positive," I can affect change and make a difference in the advocacy of HIV/AIDS. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story.
Want to share your own "Day One With HIV" story of finding out your diagnosis? Write out your story (1,000 words or fewer, please!), or film a YouTube video, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the coming months, we'll be posting readers' "Day One" stories here in our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed. Read other stories in this series.