I arrived back in New York in the summer of 1989, tired and dazed after what seemed like an eternity. I was 27 years old and had been away from home for 10 years. I left to go to school and returned home fully engulfed in active addiction. I returned to begin the arduous process of getting clean and sober. I was "tore up from the floor up" as they say. All I wanted was to put a few days together without the running and to be a part of my family again.
It did not go easy. Yet the process put me right where I needed to be. During my first attempt at sobriety I became very ill. I lost 20 pounds in nine days. After taking every test you can imagine with no answer, I asked to be tested for HIV. They were doubtful that I could be HIV-positive, telling me I was in lowest risk category because I am a lesbian and crack was my drug of choice. However, they grudgingly agreed to test me to make me feel better.
I will never forget the day I tested positive. What stands out to me through my experience with HIV is the love and support that I received from my families. I jumped at the chance to share my story because, unlike many of the friends I have lost over the years due to complications from the virus, I have been extremely blessed with support. This support has come from my biological family as well as from the faith community where I worship and serve as a Deacon and Minister of Music.
It started with the love and support I received unconditionally from my parents who are both United Methodist Pastors. They never skipped a beat. In fact, my mother was the first person in my family with whom I shared my status. I vividly remember waiting for a reaction from her as I told her, with the support of a counselor by my side. Her eyes welled up and one giant teardrop fell onto my arm. I rubbed it in. Then she looked up at the counselor and said, "All right, tell me what we do now? How do we best support her?"
I struggled for a number of years after that with my sobriety. My faith community at the time was not supportive, and that took a terrible toll on me. They worked with me as a "special project," and had very alienating views on AIDS, as well as zero tolerance of my sexual orientation. It felt like they did not want to embrace the truths, and so were comfortable moving in ignorance and perpetuating self-hate. At the same time I was watching everyone I knew with the virus die. I was in so much pain in mind, body and spirit. I was sure I would be next in line; it seemed inevitable.
I was depressed. I remember sitting on my windowsill five stories up, my cat in my lap. All I could think of was just leaning forward so it would all be over in a second. Then the phone rang - it was my mother. She was all the way across town, but she spoke to me like she was across the street looking at me in my window. She had no way of knowing where I was sitting, yet she asked me to sit on my bed. She then proceeded to tell me about her friend who had just opened a church in Newark. It was a place where I would be affirmed in all that I am: a brown lesbian living with "the virus."
To my surprise and delight the church my mom spoke of was a space that not only affirmed me as a lesbian loved by God, but had a very active AIDS ministry. A completely affirming HIV stigma-free church has a huge impact on a person struggling to find acceptance in either of those areas. It was an overwhelming experience that was almost unbelievable
After becoming involved in this church I began to experience some serious changes in my life. I believe everything is divinely orchestrated. Being led to my faith community in New Jersey was the perfect set up. It catapulted me into a center of love and support I needed to get through the most challenging times.
I was immediately drawn to the choir. For me, music is that universal language that soothes the spirit and touches the soul. I would strategically sit right behind the choir every Sunday. They were so powerful, almost hypnotic. I would sing along once I learned the communal songs. Soon the choir director approached me to join, and my journey with Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship Church began.
I was still struggling with addiction issues and my health was quite fragile. I believe that if I had not been a part of such an intensely loving and supportive community, I would have never found my way into recovery. Their love gave me a reason to live. My mother made sure that if I ever truly needed anything from my family it was never denied. Even though I always knew that they loved me, throughout my addiction I managed to separate myself from my family.
By 1995 my family had been dealing with my addiction for nine years. I was in and out of programs and they worried about me recklessly putting myself in danger everyday. They were devastated by my inability to stay clean. It was painful for them to watch as I slowly wasted away. I had crossed many lines and hurt people that I loved deeply through my using. They had to protect themselves. On top of all of that, the fact that I had contracted the virus was a lot for them to deal with.
My church family filled in the gaps. They still had standards, but it was a more understanding environment. Our commonalities and the faith that exuded from the clergy and the congregants allowed people to be more tolerant and accepting. I was able to trust them and open myself up to get the help I needed. My health was in serious decline. Without making these changes I surely would have died.
It has been almost 15 years since I walked through those church doors. I have never experienced being passed by or ignored while in distress. When I was sick, someone was right there to nurse me back to health. When I was hungry, someone was there to feed me. When I was broke and had trouble paying my bills, God made sure someone from my community knew and helped handle that too. We have a slogan that "God is love, and love is for everyone!" My church family has exemplified that statement and taken it to a whole new level.
I continue to be amazed each day about the tremendous things we do in our community. I came up through the ranks slowly, recovering from the inside out. I had so much support with the work of mending my spirit. That work allowed me to grow from choir member to Deacon in a remarkable journey. Through their love and support, my church family helped me to reach many of the goals I have aspired to over the years. Sometimes, when I sit to reflect on where I have come from to where I am now, it makes me cry tears of joy. Through renewed inspiration, faith, and support I am thriving as I live with this virus. I am a multiple cancer survivor with ten years drug free. I am sure that love lifted me! Love lifted me from the grip of addiction, love lifted me to a renewed sense of myself, and love let me know that I am love and worthy of being loved.