Occasionally we here at TheBody.com are lucky enough to hear from readers who've volunteered to craft their own articles sharing their stories and thoughts. This is one of those articles.
I am a 51-year-old mother of three, and a grandmother of two. I have spent 10 years of my life on crack cocaine, which led to my vulnerabilities for contracting HIV. Although I never walked the streets prostituting myself, I spent many years having unprotected sex with many different men. I stopped and restarted using crack on several occasions during those 10 years. At one point in my life, I lost the respect of my children and family because of my choices.
In March 2002, I tested positive for HIV. My reason for being tested was that I became sick and started having strange things happen to my body. First I would have fluid draining from the pores of my skin, which resulted in me losing all of my hair. The next disorder was that my face from the neck up turned as black as tar. Following that I lost most of the feeling in my feet and hands. My vision was also severely affected and I could only see things in black and white. After numerous wasted trips to the emergency room, I was referred to a dermatology clinic. The dermatologist performed extensive tests, which all came back negative.
Finally after six months of various tests I was asked to consent to an HIV test which, regrettably, came back positive. That positive diagnosis resulted in my life changing forever. Although I was raised in church and had faith in God, I now had to find purpose for my life -- as well as a new way of living.
There is a saying that when it rains it pours; this was definitely true for my life. In January 2003, I lost my only daughter, who was killed in an automobile accident. Her death triggered my desire to return to using crack again. In August 2003, I decided to move to Baton Rouge, La., to seek professional help for my drug addiction. Every place I went for treatment turned me away, because they said that my problem wasn't serious enough for inpatient or outpatient assistance. It left me feeling hopeless with nowhere to go for help. I fought my desire for drugs for many months, but eventually found myself right back where I started from, smoking crack cocaine again.
It wasn't until I noticed my grandchildren were not only looking at me funny, but they too were beginning to lose respect for me. That's when I found the strength to begin my spiritual healing. I prayed and asked God to remove the urge, craving and need for crack. On Dec. 31, 2005, I packed up all my smoking paraphernalia and gave it to my sons to dispose of. That's when I decided that no one else could help me and that I would have to help myself.
Accepting that truth, I found a renewed outlook on life. I regained the respect of my children, grandchildren and family. They all continue to stand behind me 100 percent in everything that I do. In 2007, I enrolled in DeVry University online to pursue a bachelor's degree in business. My going back to school has led to others I know also going back. During some of my classes, HIV/AIDS was a topic that was discussed, and I shared my story with those classes. Some of my classmates thought I shouldn't do that because they felt it was too much personal information, but I felt like everyone should know.
Today I speak publicly about my life, and attend classes, lectures and conferences promoting safer sex. I've also gained so much more knowledge about this disease that has affected people all over the world. I take these tools of what I have experienced and what I have learned, and use them to educate others on the importance of being tested. Although I can't say exactly who I contracted the virus from, I take responsibility for being irresponsible. At this point it doesn't matter anyway, because I have accepted my diagnosis and am using it in a positive manner. I am willing to talk to any and everyone that will listen, and I stress on a regular basis how important it is to get tested.
I currently sit on the consumer advisory board as secretary for Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge. I sit on the board of the Baton Rouge AIDS Society, as well as volunteer with the agency every Wednesday for free HIV testing and counseling. I have also started a new women's group called P.W.W.V. (Phenomenal Women With Voices). We are a group of women that are positive as well as negative. We perform a skit based off of Ntozake Shange's stage play, and Tyler Perry's movie, For Colored Girls.
Since I was diagnosed as being HIV positive, I've been ridiculed and criticized because of my HIV status by others who lacked knowledge of the disease. But that has just made me more determined.
I try to keep myself available to speak to others about my life, and how being HIV positive has impacted my life in a good way. Mostly I am thankful to God for his love and mercy by giving me new life throughout this life-threatening illness.
Millicent Y. Foster
"I've been ridiculed and criticized because of my HIV status," writes Louisiana resident Millicent Foster; "But that has just made me more determined." That determination has led this grandmother of two to become a committed HIV community educator and volunteer. Here, Millicent writes her own story of facing addiction and tragic loss, turning her life onto a different path -- and drawing from family and faith for support.