This Positive Life: An Interview With Bernard Jackson
"It's been a very enlightening diagnosis, as well as one that, at first, was a very discouraging one," says Bernard Jackson. He's come a long way since 1999, when his wife passed away in the hospital mere weeks after testing HIV positive. "Because of the medical reports, the blood work: All those things tell me that because of her being in an AIDS diagnosis so early on, that she had been living with her virus before we met," Bernard remembers. He was also diagnosed HIV positive at this time, but he was so consumed with shock, loss and the need to stay healthy for his young daughter, that years went by before he was able to process his own diagnosis. Educating and supporting others through telling his own story was what finally helped him begin to move on -- and led him onto a new path in his career. "That's how I started kind of building myself back up ... and seeing that what I thought was the end for me was actually a beginning."
Bernard, welcome to This Positive Life.
Thank you so much for having me.
Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive?
I found out I was HIV positive after my wife tested positive, and had actually progressed to an AIDS diagnosis. She became very ill and we took her to the hospital, and she was diagnosed with AIDS. So I found out through getting tested at the recommendation of her doctor.
Did they have a sense at that point of how long she had been HIV positive before she was tested?
I don't know exactly how long. I really don't remember if they even told me, just because of the mere shock of it. I wasn't really too aware of all the details. But she had obviously been sick for quite some time, because she passed away from those complications not long after -- approximately three to four weeks after her diagnosis.
What did you think, and how did you feel, when you first heard that you and your wife were both HIV positive?
She was in the hospital when the doctor suggested that I go get tested. My first thought was to be there as a support system for her. In the next day or so, I did go and get tested. I think that test was first done on a Monday. I had to make the decision to remove my wife from her life support that following Thursday. I found out the following Monday that my test had also come back positive for HIV.
The one thing I do remember is that because of my T-cell count and viral load, the time frame appeared to be that I had actually contracted HIV from my wife during our four-year relationship.
It was a feeling of shock. I was so involved in grieving for my wife that I didn't really know how to feel. I just knew that I had to deal with the process of grieving her loss, raising my daughter. Then approximately two weeks later my mother passed away suddenly. And so there were a lot of things that didn't allow me to focus on my diagnosis. It was just: "Give me my medicine; let me take the pills; let me make regular appointments; let me try to stay healthy." There was just so much other stuff going on that I just did what the doctor told me.
How old was your daughter at this point?
At the time that my wife passed, my daughter was 8. I did not tell her exactly what she died from, although she knew that my wife was sick because she had diabetes. Her diabetes stayed out of control a lot -- now we know it was because of her HIV status. But my daughter only knew at that time that her mother had problems with her diabetes. She believed, at that point, that that was what caused her mother's death.
She handled it very well, because we've always been a very strong people, with our faith. My wife had talked to her about death and dying, and how to handle that. I still didn't reveal to her that I, too, was positive, because she was so young. I just wanted to try and let her have as normal a life as possible, hoping that when she was ready to talk about those things that we would.
One night we were having our father-and-daughter monthly discussion. She said, "Daddy, I want to have our talk tonight." And we started the conversation off with, "Well, Daddy, first of all, I want to let you know that I know that you're HIV positive."
And I said, "Oh, really?"
She said, "Yeah. I heard my cousin talking, and he told me what happened to Mommy."
She wasn't our biological child. We actually had legal custody of her, and were in the process of adopting her. So she was not affected physically by the virus. But she had overheard her relative speak about it. I asked her how did she know about me. She said, "Well, we learned some things in school, and I went in the drawer and found your prescriptions. I went online and found out what they were for."
So she pretty much was educated through the school system -- and some family members -- as to what my status was. Since then it's been wonderful, because it was such a burden lifted. She's handled it very well since then.
She was 8 when you were diagnosed; how old was she by the time she found out you were positive?
At that time I think she was probably about 13, maybe 14. Ever since then it's been an open book about my HIV status with her. I must say that it's been a big support, early on, in my life.
At first, one of my biggest concerns was: How would I tell my mother? Unfortunately, my mother passed away before I got an opportunity to tell her. So then there was my daughter. I was really concerned about how it would affect her life and her going to school, and being worried about me. But it's been a wonderful blessing, to be able to have that openness with her. It's something that I encourage a lot of people to do: to find that one person in your life that you can talk about this virus with. Because it can be a very lonely experience for someone, without having that support.
Your daughter must be in her mid-20s by now. Did you talk with her about safer sex, and protecting herself, and HIV risk, when she was growing up?
All the time! One of my family members came to my home one day and they were a little bit offended, because I had a beautiful hand-woven basket in my bathroom. And it was full of condoms.
They said, "Don't you think that's a little bit much to have around your daughter?"
And I said, "My daughter is well aware of the proper use of them. I think it's important that she has them available for her, if she ever needs them." I am a strong advocate for abstinence. That's one of the things that I have encouraged for her. But she did, in fact, have a baby a few years ago. She has a son.
One of the things that I always laugh about is I tell youth to make coming and getting tested a part of dating. If you want to date someone, why don't you all come in and get tested, so you know where you are?
My daughter didn't come to where I work, but she went to another location in Virginia, and she and her boyfriend got tested, and she made the decision that they were going to engage in sex. So she's had a lot of knowledge about it. And she has, in turn, shared her knowledge with some of her friends. Fortunately she is using protection now, but she had that opportunity to get as much knowledge as I could share with her. And through the work that I do, she has read a lot, and knows a lot about it. So I'm hoping that she continues to do the best that she can and be safe.
What was the first thing that you did that you feel really helped you come to terms with your HIV diagnosis?
The first thing that I did when I was informed of my wife's diagnosis is, when I did leave the hospital, I went directly to my spiritual advisor, and I informed them of what the situation was. Like I said, I relied, and still rely very heavily, on my faith to deal with this virus. And that was the one thing that we did. We prayed for each other. We prayed that our faith would continue to give me strength to deal with what I was dealing with.
The grieving process, and finding out my HIV status, just kind of made me a little withdrawn from family and some friends. But the main thing was I was focused on trying to keep healthy. I wanted to be healthy for my daughter. So the medication was the first thing I started with, educating myself about what the medications were, what the side effects to them were; and the benefits of them outweighed all of the side effects. So that was the first thing I did, was start immediately on medication. But relying on my faith a lot to help me deal with it.
My first regimen was Combivir (AZT/3TC) and Sustiva (efavirenz, Stocrin). One of the side effects that I know I dealt with a lot was the crazy, vivid dreams, and anxiety. It eventually passed.
That's one of the things that I try to share with people, as well. Some people think that the side effects are so overwhelming that they get discouraged. And I know that each individual is different. But the side effects lasted for probably two to three months, and it kind of made the depression a little bit more enhanced. But according to my doctors the medication was doing what it needed to do. And as long as the HIV was staying under control then I felt like I could deal with some of the side effects. It helped to understand why I was having the anxiety attacks -- what I thought at that time because of the experience that I'd had was that, if I can keep my life, then I can deal with some of these side effects. But it was a little tough.
I've moved on from that regimen to Atripla (efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC). So it's still the vivid dreams, it's still some of the anxiety. But the virus is being controlled, so I'm thankful for that.
I took a "drug holiday," as they call it, in between going from Combivir and Sustiva to Atripla. I took about a month. Understanding the toxicity of the medication, and that there are long-term side effects that we still may not be aware of with those medications, I felt like I wanted to just see where my body was. What was my body capable of doing on its own? Because I got started on the medication so quickly. I just wanted to take a break from it.
When I did that, my viral load had kind of changed a little bit. That's when we talked about the Atripla. I've been on the Atripla, now, for several years. I have not discussed with my doctor about changing medications, because I felt I could handle the side effects, to a point. I found out with the Atripla that it does make depression a little bit more difficult to keep controlled, so I've gotten on some antidepressant medication. But since it's controlling the virus at the rate that it is right now, I haven't really discussed changing it at this point.
How has your health been, generally? Have you had any HIV-related health issues since you were diagnosed?
I have had no HIV-related illnesses at all. I've been blessed in that way. But I think the advancements of the drugs that are out now have really cut down on some of those problems that people in prior years have had.
How did you find your HIV doctor? What's that relationship like? Have you had the same doctor for a while, or have you switched?
Initially I was with a program here in Virginia that deals with a lot of HIV-positive people, an Inova Juniper Program, which is wonderful, in the area, with some of the best doctors. I was connected with the Inova Juniper Program for several years, until I became happily eligible to get insurance through my work. So I've been working with Kaiser Permanente. I ended up with an infectious disease doctor through Kaiser, and he's just great. It's wonderful there. There are a lot of resources in Virginia right now, as far as medical care, that are really good.
I've been thankful for them for keeping me with the same doctor. I've been pretty much with the same physicians since I've been involved with them. That makes it a lot easier.
Do you know your current CD4 count and viral load?
Right now I know that I'm about 4-something. I haven't gotten my test for this month. I'm due to have my blood work done. But I know at the last count it was at 4-something. And I don't pay too much attention to the numbers. I know that it has dropped from what was almost normal -- that is, 1,200 -- from some time ago; but it has remained, with the medication, at a safe level. I know that they, certainly the doctors say that if it would drop below 3-something, they really get a little concerned about changing your medicine. But mine has stayed around 4-something, so I'm really thankful for that. I have been undetectable ever since I was diagnosed.
Is there anything else that you do to stay healthy besides HIV meds? It sounds like prayer and spirituality are very important. Do you exercise, or keep a special diet? How does spirituality support your health now?
I'm not a person that exercises a lot. Through my work, I do a lot of walking; I drink a lot of water; I try to eat a lot of fruits; I do take vitamins.
The best thing that has helped me, in addition to my faith, is I laugh a lot. I think laughter and happiness can pull you through, and do a lot of things with your immune system, and with your spirit, and with your body. Because of my work, a lot more people know now about my virus. And so I'm able to laugh about things that at one time I thought I would never be able to laugh about.
I surround myself with wonderful people. I've been blessed with a great extended family of friends, and they just keep me laughing, and they keep my life normal for me. I don't sit around and think about my virus as much as I used to, because there's always so much else going on that that's not an issue.
I see so many other people around me that are healthy, so that's encouraging -- that life is still wonderful. I see wonderful people who have been positive much longer than myself. And they're still healthy, and they're still happy. So that's encouraging, as well.
At this point, it sounds as if you're open about your HIV status to everyone close to you. Are there still people in your life with whom you haven't yet shared your status?
I was fortunate enough to be a part of a PSA that was done for Fairfax County Health Department. It's called "Breaking the Silence." I had a part in that, and it's been televised all over the Northern Virginia area. So a lot of people know me now for being an HIV/AIDS advocate.
Being very open about my HIV status has been a good therapeutic thing for me, too. The more I'm able to find out that my sharing my story may help someone think twice about their risky behaviors, or make someone feel more comfortable with talking about their status; it's a wonderful feeling.
The work that I do puts me out there. I do HIV presentations at local schools, as well as some health facilities and organizations throughout the area. So I'm always talking about it. I'm always learning more about the issues that other people are dealing with. And I find that having people like myself and others, who are openly discussing it, and forums like on TheBody.com for us to talk about it; it's so encouraging to other people. So I think my status is known by everybody who knows me.
How long have you been doing HIV work, in general?
I actually started as what we call a Face to Face speaker with NOVAM [Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry], probably in 2007. And through the success of my story being told, and me continuing to learn more, I was hired as an HIV prevention specialist. I did Internet outreach. I was hired in 2008, and I've been here ever since.
I've actually been working on a program called HEARTS, which stands for Health Education and Risk Reduction Training Services. This program works with African-American MSM [men who have sex with men] youth. It helps them to recognize the challenges in their lives that put them at risk for HIV, and to try to deal with some of the blocks in their lives that put them at risk, as well. It also just provides them with that someone that can openly talk with them about their situation, and help them to work around resources that are available to keep them safe. Some of them are positive, and some of them are not. So we incorporate the youth that are positive to educate the ones that are not, and explain to them how they can change some of their behaviors, and incorporate condoms into their activities, and to be a support system for them. It's been a wonderful experience, doing that for the last several years.
But I still do the Internet outreach. I still do the Face to Face presentations. I also now have the pleasure of working with the faith community, helping churches in the area to start HIV/AIDS ministries, and doing testing at the churches. There have been a lot of wonderful opportunities that have come from just being a Face to Face speaker, and getting hired. Every program that becomes available that they feel I am capable of contributing something to, they give me the opportunity.
What's been your experience working in the faith community around HIV/AIDS issues?
There's been some resistance. It's been very difficult to stand in some of the pulpits and talk about anal and oral sex, and vaginal sex, and not have some of the parishioners cringe a little bit. But I think the reality is that everyone now realizes that this virus is preventable. I think that people are more willing now to openly talk about things that are going on in the church, and how the church can play a role.
The church has always been a place where people can go and get information, for many, many years. It's important to now have the churches be a little more open to talk about these issues to their congregations, and let them know that this is an issue that has truly affected every area of the community. It's important to be able to go to church and get that knowledge, because these are people that we trust to give us the correct information about things that affect our lives.
They're open to the trainings, but they don't want condoms in the church. They don't want to promote anything by presenting condoms to people. But they've been very open about understanding that, in fact, some of their own congregation are infected or affected by this virus. So I think they see they really have no choice now but to open up and deal with that situation. I think it's been a wonderful success here in Northern Virginia.
What kind of work were you doing before you were diagnosed with HIV, and before you started working at NOVAM?
Before that I was a home health aide, but I hadn't worked in a while after my diagnosis. One of the therapeutic things that I was informed of was getting involved with the Face to Face program. That's how I started kind of building myself back up, being able to openly talk about my diagnosis to people, and seeing that what I thought was the end for me was actually a beginning.
I had always done home health care, certified nursing assistant -- that type of work -- but this HIV diagnosis made me feel like I needed to start moving away from so much of that. My diagnosis turned my life around, and gave me a new vision. It gave me a new mission. At first I was still dealing with the depression, still dealing with, in fact, some suicidal thoughts -- a lot of things that a lot of people express that they, too, have dealt with in this virus. With everyday life, we get discouraged. And then when we add the HIV onto it, that's another issue that makes things difficult.
Doing the Face to Face speaking is what I've been doing, what I've enjoyed doing, and what has helped to encourage me to feel better about my position in life. So I'm sticking with the HIV prevention, at this point.
Tell me a little bit about your background. What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? What was your family like?
I was born and raised here in Northern Virginia, in the city of Alexandria. I attended T.C. Williams High School. A lot of people "remember the Titans" from that school that were made very famous with the Denzel Washington movie. I grew up with very wise parents, who gave me an education, in addition to what the public school system could give me, about life, about respect and pride and morals.
It was a very large, close-knit family, of family reunions, many matriarchs and patriarchs in the family. My grandfather, my mom's dad, who was just an awesome man, who was actually born to slaves, was our patriarch in our family. We had family dinners there on Sundays. We celebrated his years -- he lived to be 100 -- and just celebrated his life. My mother had 11 brothers and sisters, so there was always a reason to celebrate something.
My mom and my family, as a whole, and my dad gave me a wonderful foundation to build on. That, too, along with my faith, has continued to give me a good outlook on life. I still have the same friends that I actually had as a child growing up. And in fact some of my friends have tested positive. So we've become a support system for each other.
I think that when we have that foundation that's already been laid and set up for us, we can fall back on that at our weakest times and get encouraged. So I credit my family and my friends with where I am today. I grew up around a lot of wise people, and that information, to this day, still clicks in. Some of the things that I heard as a kid, today I still say, "Oh. Now I understand what my mom, or what my dad meant, or what the lady across the street meant, or what my grandfather meant, by certain things that they would say."
I had a pretty wonderful childhood. I have a lot of things to be thankful for, as far as my family life. Pretty much everybody's here in Virginia.
Who was the first person among your family that you told about your HIV diagnosis?
The second person that I told was actually my cousin. My cousin had been living with HIV for quite some time, and I knew that they were positive. I went to them after maybe about a month, and I shared with them that I, too, was positive. That was a lot of support that I had to rely on.
I find that in a lot of families, especially in large families, when we don't openly talk about HIV, we find that there are other people right in your own family that are dealing with it in secret. My cousin was open enough about their situation to have that for me to go to. My cousin, in fact, also passed away a couple of years ago from their complications due to the AIDS virus. And that was kind of devastating, but I learned so much. Because they had been positive for many, many years, and very healthy. That was encouraging, to have my cousin available to talk to.
I still, to this day, don't openly discuss HIV with a lot of my family. They don't have to say anything to me to let me know that they're aware. It's just that they continue to love me. They continue to be a part of my life. So there's a lot that's unsaid; it's just showing me through their actions that they have no problem with it, that they support me. If I'm not on the phone with one of them at least twice a week, they're calling to make sure that I'm OK. But we never openly discuss it as much.
I think that the way that I started feeling comfortable with talking about it was through the Face to Face program. A couple of my cousin's children were present in some of those presentations. So it kind of trickled down in the family, you know, about my status.
How do you decide whether to disclose your HIV status to someone new in your life? How do you decide whether it's something you want someone to know when you're outside of an educational context?
With anyone that I'm involved in a lengthy conversation with, it's almost normal for people to say, "What kind of work do you do?" When I say that I'm into HIV prevention and education, it automatically becomes a subject with most people that I come in contact with.
Every opportunity that I get to talk with someone who wants to hear it, I do. I have no problem with disclosure at this point, because I know how valuable the knowledge is to people who don't have it. I understand that there are so many people still functioning in society that aren't educated. If you like me well enough to sit here and hold a conversation with me, knowing that I'm positive, then maybe that will open up your heart to understand it with someone else. Because we still have so many people that don't get the opportunity to get educated about the virus; they still have some of these stigmas attached to it.
Here at NOVAM we do testing. We have a consultation moment. I'm not necessarily supposed to go into the fact that I'm positive; but there are certain people that you come in contact with that need to know that life goes on. People look at me and say, "But you look so healthy." But there are people walking around with cardiac problems; people walking around with high blood pressure and diabetes. Right now, we are just in the same category. We are treating our illness, and we want to be cared about, we want to be loved, we want to be included -- and we want to be a part of other things that go on in this world.
What's the best response you've gotten from telling someone that you're HIV positive in any context? What's the worst response?
The best response that I've gotten from telling someone that I'm HIV positive is they, in turn, disclosed their status to me. And they had been hiding this issue in their life for about four years. And just me saying to them about my status, they revealed to me that they had gotten an HIV diagnosis some years prior to us meeting. And I became sort of a support system for that person.
The worst response that I've ever gotten was someone asking me, "Well, how long are you going to live?" It just kind of struck me that so many people are so uneducated, still, about the virus. But that was the first question they asked: "Well, are you afraid of dying?" I'm, like, "Um, no. I'm afraid of walking out in front of a bus going about 50 miles an hour more than I'm afraid of the HIV virus." That was one of the things that kind of bothered me, is that people still connect HIV with death.
I won't say that was the worst response; I did get a person that didn't want to shake my hand after I disclosed to them. But I gave him enough education in that few minutes that I talked with him to make him really think about it. And they came back later and apologized.
On the subject of dating since you tested HIV positive: Are you in a romantic relationship or a partnership now?
No. Relationships to me have always been so difficult. I think that my marriage to my wife was one of the greatest experiences of love and togetherness and working together that I've ever had in my life. I think that was one of my blessings. And I'm just not sure if I'm ever going to find that again. And I know that that relationship was something that I prayed about, and something that came to me strictly for me. I believe God made that person, and that relationship, just for me. So right now I'm just into friendships.
I've found out that dating is so nice. It's a wonderful thing to have people that just like you for you, and not like you for what goes on behind closed doors.
So, right now, no. I'm not in a relationship. I don't want to be alone forever. I'm definitely looking. But right now, I'm just enjoying my work. I'm enjoying meeting wonderful people. And I have relationships with people that are just truly platonic relationships. It's a way of being in relationships and having many of them. I love dating. I love that. I like that part. So I'm content right now.
It's great to hear someone say that they've had good experiences with dating. Usually the consensus is: Oh, dating; it's so tough. How do you meet people for dating?
I'm a very outgoing person; I'm a people person, I guess. I've always been told that -- that community services are one of my assets. I love talking to people.
People tell me that I have a nice smile. People tell me that I have a nice personality. So it's never been a difficult thing for me to meet people. One of my gifts that I pride myself with is, I'm a vocalist. I love music. I've had the opportunity to sing at a number of social events, and private parties, and things like that. So that's always kind of like a door opening for people. Because you know, they always say, "All you've got to do is sing the right song, and somebody will like it." And so singing the right song now and then attracts the right person; we can connect on that. And then a friendship builds. And then we just get together from time to time.
So, social events, and even through different activities involved with HIV, I've met some wonderful, wonderful people with whom disclosure is not even an issue. We can just talk openly about our meds. We can talk about our side effects to the meds. We can talk about the latest HIV information that that other person may not know. So, just meeting people locally.
Some of them I've met through the Internet, just to converse with.
Do you mostly date other positive people, or are you not exclusive about that?
I'm not exclusive about it. I find it easier. Like I said, the disclosure issue is not so difficult. We have something more in common to talk about. So I think mostly the people that are involved in my life right now are people who are positive, because that's pretty much the circle that I'm in.
As far as dating, do you just date women, men, or both? Has that changed over time?
I lived my life primarily as a gay man, growing up. That's a subject that we might need another interview to take care of. But that is one of the things that I talk about in my presentations.
I am a gay man. And through some bad experiences, I prayed about it -- and that's why I said earlier that my relationship with my wife was a gift, designed especially for me. I was alone for quite a period of time, because I was trying to understand what I wanted in life, and what I needed in life. My relationship with her made me really start questioning myself.
We have a tendency to put people in categories, as far as their sexual preference. But my relationship with her was much more than that. Basically what we want is to be loved, and have someone that we can love. And I found that in my wife. She was aware of my lifestyle when we met. But we knew that the chemistry that was there had a value to it that I didn't want to walk away from. I knew that I had prayed for someone to love me, and someone that I could love; and it just happened to be sent to me in the form of a woman, and a person. I accepted it, and it was truly one of the greatest experiences that I have ever had in my life. In fact, she was the first woman that I'd ever been involved with in my life.
I never stopped being the personality that I had. But in that relationship I found out that there were some things about myself that I wasn't aware of. I didn't think that I could love a woman. But I think that I could love. And that was the most important thing.
I'm not going to stop my blessing from wherever it comes from, at this point. And that's something that I'm really struggling with right now. It's just the love. I don't know where it's going to come from, what gender it's going to be. But I just want love. So I look for it in anybody that I'm talking to, on that intimate level.
I travel mostly in the gay community at this point, as far as socializing. But I'm around all kinds of people, all kinds of backgrounds, all types of lifestyles. And I have had a few people say, "I know that, to a lot of people, you identify as being gay, but I know that you were married. So what do you consider yourself?"
I just say, "I'm human, and I'm looking for love." I only had maybe that question once or twice. I don't remember how I responded to it, except for the fact that I think that wherever you find love, you find it. And I think that if you turn down that opportunity to know love from anybody who's offering it to you, then you're missing out on something wonderful.
Since you were living as a gay man before you met and married you wife -- and one of the most popular misconceptions that people hold about HIV is that it is exclusively a gay disease that heterosexual people don't transmit to one another -- after you and she tested positive, were there ever people in your life who believed you'd infected her?
I've had that come up. I was actually tested prior to my involvement with my wife, because I knew where that relationship was going. That was one of my big issues. It wasn't just about a sexual thing, but I didn't want to involve her in my life if HIV transmission was a possibility. But I received a negative diagnosis.
I'm understanding this virus a lot more now. I know that I did get tested outside of the window period in which a test might come back negative when the person is actually positive. Because I had been in a gay relationship for 17 years, and that relationship had ended about seven years before I met my wife. There were no issues in that relationship; we had both been tested.
People have asked me, "How do you know that you didn't infect your wife?" But because of the medical reports, the blood work: All those things tell me that because of her being in an AIDS diagnosis so early on, that she had been living with her virus before we met. In fact, her ex-husband had died a year prior to her dying. So we know where the virus came from, as far as she was concerned. She had contracted it from her ex-husband. So there was some confirmation to where she had contracted the virus from.
Can you compare your feelings about having HIV now to when you first found out you were positive? It sounds like you've been on quite a journey since then.
When I first found out my diagnosis, like I said, my wife had just died from complications of AIDS. I now know that life is wonderful. I have a lot of confidence in the medications and the medical advice that I get, by the lives that I see that are still wonderful, people are still just happy with their lives, and where they are right now. Right now I know that I still have a lot to do. And I know that HIV is not going to stand in the way of that.
In fact, because of the HIV I'm a better person today. I'm doing work that I never thought I would be doing, but it's still in the same line of what I was doing. I'd been involved in health care, in working with people with different illnesses that I didn't understand exactly what they were dealing with. But now I'm doing a type of work where I understand what it feels like for a person to get a diagnosis of HIV, understand what it feels like for a person to be dealing with the side effects, understand what it feels like to lose a loved one because of this virus.
In so many ways, because of the people that I've had the opportunity to come into their lives, and touch their lives, and just become friends with, I think that HIV has enhanced my life in such a way that I didn't believe that this virus had an opportunity or possibility of doing. It's put me in a place -- mentally, spiritually and socially -- that I never thought I would be in.
I don't hold HIV accountable for anything that goes on right now. It's just what you do with it, how you use it, and I'm able to use my diagnosis in a way that helps encourage people to remain negative, and not be exposed to this virus, and to encourage those that have been.
It's been a very enlightening diagnosis, as well as one that, at first, was a very discouraging one. I've learned so much. I look at it now as opening another door -- to a life that, as I said, I didn't ever expect to experience. Since I've been positive, I have had the opportunity to meet some wonderful, inspirational people -- people who I might not have ever met without being involved personally with HIV -- who encouraged me to just live life. So the virus has not been a hindrance to me in any way.
Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers and listeners over here at TheBody.com before we close?
One of the things that I would like to share is that we need our parents to get as educated about this virus as possible. We need our youth to be able to openly talk about their thoughts and their experiences with their parents, or to educate the parents to a point where they will realize that their children are going through some of the same things that they've gone through.
Sex is something that ... I always think about the old Chaka Khan song: Once you get started, it's hard to stop. And I think that we have to continue to just educate society as a whole on this virus. We just have to open our eyes and understand that this virus is still very prevalent in our lives. It's still going to be a part of our lives, I believe, until the end of time, in some way. There may be cures for it coming in the future; but there are so many people who are still undiagnosed.
Getting tested is a wonderful thing. I always tell people that the positive thing about getting a positive test result is that now you know where you are. Now you know what you must do to remain healthy, to be aware of your actions -- how they involve and affect other people.
I just want people to get tested and get educated -- mainly educated. Because there are so many people that are being turned away, so many youth on the street today because they're gay and maybe positive. Or, because they're gay, people assume that they are -- they connect HIV with homosexuality.
And that's one of the things that I'm working so hard on, is to keep people from associating HIV with homosexuality. Because I did not contract my virus through a homosexual act -- as far as the medical doctors have told me. I contracted it through a heterosexual relationship.
We need everybody to open up and be aware of the risk. I don't think everybody is really that open right now to learning that much about HIV, and get away from some of the stigma that's attached to HIV.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.