Ten years ago, Bridget Gordon had it all: the high-paying engineering career, the beautiful Los Angeles home and the handsome, loving husband. Or so she thought. Almost immediately after marrying the music executive, Gordon got sick. A trip to the doctor revealed that she was HIV positive, but she couldn't figure out why, since the only unprotected sex she'd ever had was with her husband. Eventually she discovered that her man had been secretly sleeping with other men.
Under the pseudonym "Bridget B.," Gordon sued her ex-husband for $12.5 million in a landmark California Supreme Court case -- and won. He, however, filed for bankruptcy, so the 45-year-old has not seen one penny of the settlement.
The Black AIDS Institute recently spoke with Gordon -- who appeared on Oprah earlier this month and is now six months pregnant with her first child -- to find out how life has changed, how she's treating her illness and what she wants other women to know.
You indicated on Oprah that you'd only had unprotected sex with your ex-husband. So how could you have believed that you infected him?
I didn't know enough about the disease and how you contracted it. Plus, I was new to the area, so I saw my ex-husband's doctor, and he was adamant that I gave it to [my ex]. [This doctor] claimed he was an expert in HIV. That was the major factor in me doubting myself and doing what he said for 18 months.
You courageously told Oprah that living with HIV isn't as easy as looking at Magic Johnson makes it seem. Describe your lifestyle before you became involved with your ex-husband; how has that changed?
I was a workaholic -- very driven. I wanted to help my family financially and go skiing or take trips to New York. I worked really hard to be able to do that. After I was diagnosed, my life turned upside down. I had to go on medical leave. My insurance company limited my coverage to 24 months. Within that period, my company laid me off. I've lived off of retirement pay, investments, Social Security and Medicare. I had to sell my house. Today I am on public assistance. I rely on it to get medication.
You became ill immediately, right? What symptoms did you experience?
My health plummeted between Monday and Friday. By Wednesday I had lost my voice. I had a fever. I was exhausted. My muscle strength was really low. I had swollen lymph nodes and felt run down. I could barely drag my suitcase.
Are you taking medication?
I got on medication for the first time a few months ago because I am pregnant. In Los Angeles County, we have not had a baby born in 14 years with HIV because of the meds, and so I wanted to make sure we were covered. I was originally on Kaletra, Combivir and Norvir, the only regimen approved for pregnant women. But Kaletra was so harsh on my system, I had to switch to Reyataz -- I had thrown up something like 17 times within 18 hours. I also take antidepressants.
Did you go for any counseling in the wake of your diagnosis?
Yes, but it was very, very hard initially to find the support I needed. I reached out to dozens of women's AIDS organizations in L.A. but either didn't get a callback, was told my ex and I made too much money, or was told that they didn't have services for people in traditional relationships. So after a while I stopped calling.
Fortunately, one nutritionist would check in from time to time. She gave me a referral for a therapist. He sees me for free. Without him, I would never have found a doctor of my own or received the right information about transmission. He helped give me the strength to lean on my family, who helped me ask my ex-husband the questions I'd need to find out what he had been doing [with other men]. They stood for me when I couldn't stand for myself. I've been in shock since the diagnosis. I became like an abused woman.
What was it like disclosing your HIV status to your current partner and father of your child, since he is not HIV positive?
It was really hard. I chose to tell him after three months. He was heartbroken but said it wasn't a deal breaker and that he needed to learn about the disease because he was not letting me go. He's been very supportive.
What do you want to tell other women?
First, learn as much as you can about this disease. Second, understand what intimacy really looks like. In my marriage we never established an intimacy. In my relationship now, we can share things we're really ashamed of. And my partner still loves me, no matter what. Examine what intimacy means to you, because that can save you from having unprotected sex with a man who is unable to reach intimacy with you.
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Essence_,_ POZ_,_ Real Health and Ebony magazines, among others.