On Being HIV Positive, Over 50 and Open to Loving Again

An Interview With Ronda Hodges -- Part of the Series This Positive Life

Contributing Editor
This Positive Life

After 31 years of separation from her ex-husband, Ralph, Ronda Hodges reunited with her ex and they became engaged to be remarried. At a routine check-up, they were both diagnosed with HIV, and Ralph passed away six months later. Now, at 50 years old, Ronda is starting her life over as a divorced mother, an HIV advocate and a single woman.

As a white woman, Ronda never knew the feelings of being an ethnic minority. Now, as one of only five positive white women she knows, Ronda has begun to deal with the feelings of isolation that come with her diagnosis, the loss of loved ones and the challenges of starting down a new road in her life journey.

Do you want to talk about some of your recent life changes? What brought them on?

Yes. I've been married twice. When I was 18, I got married. He was 16; his name is Ralph. We got divorced four years later, and I remarried three years later. I was married 31 years. That's where I had my son from. Due to verbal, then physical, abuse I got out of that marriage and, while separated, was reunited with my first husband, which is who I contracted HIV from.

He was a drug user and an alcoholic. I was still in love with him after 31 years, and he with me. We just got back together, and didn't think about all the issues of where he had been through his last 31 years, and putting my life in jeopardy.

While we were together this one year, February the 6th, he found out he was HIV positive. We were also trying to get pregnant, because we were fixing to get remarried. So they tested me, and I came out positive.

What year was this, now?

Feb. 6 of '09. My divorce was final, actually, February the 10th of '09 -- final and legally divorced. On February the 12th, he proposed to me. He gave me my engagement ring. And then six months later, he died.

As sick as he was, his count was higher than mine, believe it or not. My T-cell count was 220; his was 986. And he was the one that passed away. But I am thankful enough to say the doctor had given me a choice to get on medicine. I've been on medicine for two years, now -- right at two years. My T-cell count is 1,387, and I am undetectable and starting life completely over by myself.

Going back to when you were first diagnosed: You and [your ex-husband] Ralph were diagnosed around at the same time? How did you first feel when you were diagnosed?

Angry, depressed. I have a brother that's had it for 30 years. I still cry sometimes. I didn't know how I was going to tell my parents. Worst of all, I didn't know how I was going to tell my son; and I didn't tell any of my family till after Ralph had died. But I still have the love I grew up with. I have my days, but I'm getting healthy, and I'm getting over it. It's a disease like any other; you learn to live with it. And you keep the faith, and you keep going.

I think right now, between the divorce and the death of Ralph, and then my mom passed away six months later, and all of the issues of being by myself, it has made me grow stronger. The main reason for this video is it's not a race issue; it's not a gender issue. It is a disease, just like cancer or any other disease that we have in this world. It is not anything but a people disease. And I want to make it known till the day I die that anybody can get it -- a baby to an older grandma or grandpa, it doesn't matter.

And, yes, you can prevent it by using precautions. People should be cautious. Instead of saying you don't want to do that, or you love me less because you don't want to do it this way -- well, you love that person more because you do want to make a change. If I can show anything, [I want to show] the next generation, which includes my son, to live a stronger life. That's what I want people to hear.

I want to be able to walk in a room and hear, "Well, she has HIV, but you know what? Look how healthy she is." You know? "Look at her. She's got kids. Look at her. She's got a job. She's doing just fine. She goes to church every Sunday like all the rest of 'em. And it doesn't matter what color she is. It doesn't matter that she's a woman. It doesn't matter that she's straight, or she's gay, or anything else." It's, "She's a person. She's a human being." We get diseases like everybody else. Ours just happens to be in our blood. That's all.

How long did it take before you started to come to terms with having been diagnosed with HIV? What got you to the point, first, of being able to share, and then of feeling like you were going to be able to keep going, and be strong, and speak out?

I loved Ralph so much; even the 31 years that we weren't together, I think we loved each other even more. I guess, you know, distance makes the heart grow fonder. In this case, ours did, because we both grew up. We weren't kids anymore. We shared a bond, even closer, because we got this from being in love. It wasn't just an act of ignorance or not knowing. Some people say he knew he had it because he did drugs. I don't think he did. He didn't that day. I mean, you just know when somebody doesn't know what they have.

The day that he died -- because there were people in his family that shunned us and wouldn't let us be around the kids because we found out we were HIV positive -- I vowed to his sister that, since I had to do this alone, I was going to make a difference. And he's watching me as I'm doing it. I'm going to do it.

You said that some of his family were keeping you at arm's distance, because they knew that you were positive. How did they find out?

We had told his family the night that we found out, because Ralph was really sick, with his liver and with his intestines because of the alcoholism. After, I found out he had drowned in his own body fluid -- that was how he died. Yes, he was HIV positive, but he did not have AIDS; it had not turned into AIDS. A lot of people don't know HIV affects your immune system. You get very tired. If you get a cold, it takes you twice as long to heal from it. If you get a cut, it takes you twice as long to heal from that.

Ralph was very sick. There would be nights that he would be throwing up blood. He also had hepatitis C, which we had found out. His immune system, with the HIV, was just totally against everything that he had to get him well. And there would be night sweats from the prior drug use, and the hepatitis C. We had unanswered questions; I guess that's why we were so scared.

But you get stronger each day, as you find out more information. The level of people's ignorance is the problem. Education is power. If you don't educate yourself, and we don't educate those who are not educated about it, how is anybody going to know, and the stigma go away? And that's where I'm at. I want to know and learn as much as I can.

You know, my brother's had it for 30 years. And because of the stigma my parents had, I stayed away from him. That was time lost with my baby brother that I can't get back. Now that we both have it, we're closer than ever and it's just a bond that you have, and that you want to keep. I just want this bond to get out with the people. The world needs to know.

Absolutely. How did you tell your brother that you were positive? Did you tell him right away?

I told none of my family until after the day Ralph died. First I told my son and my daughter-in-law. And my best girlfriend came and met me that day. Actually, three close friends that I have that have stuck by me through thick and thin with my son through the years, again, stuck by me with my situation, and did not push me away. I'm still their best friend -- you know who your true friends are when something really bad goes on. Because usually they only want to hang around for the good stuff.

How has your life changed, since you were first diagnosed, and now that Ralph has passed?

Well, I've been married for most of my life, since I was 18. So the biggest part is now I do live with friends, till I get on my feet; they have taken me in. I help myself and do everything I'm supposed to do to not abuse that trust and that love that they've given me. But I'm becoming stronger because I am by myself, and now that Ralph is gone, I don't have that extra support to lean on and say, "OK, you have it, too."

I guess the hardest part is, yes, I'm trying to meet another dream of my life for the second part of my life. I don't know when and if he'll come about. It's not so easy because, like I said, a lot of people are not educated about it. They look at you different: "Oh, if I fall in love with you, I'm going to get it, too." So I have to overcome a lot of comments and weird looks, or just gestures that they make. I'm not a hard person to open up to. I usually say what I think. And if you don't like it, then you can turn the other cheek. Where you have the right to speak, we also have the right to make a comment or judge somebody. So if they want to judge me, then they don't need to be loving me. If they can't accept the worst part of me, then they sure don't need to enjoy the good part of me.

At first, I thought I had to date HIV people. And that's all the men I had to meet. But the more women that I talk to, it's, you know, your partner does not have to be positive. They can be negative, and you can love each other just as much. So, if God wants me to be with a negative person, then I will be. If not, then He'll send me somebody positive. So, my outlook on it is just to be positive.

I'm very forward, straight to the point. You have your choice, whether to agree with me or not.

So now do you do any kind of work in the HIV community? Because you mentioned wanting to educate people and reach out to people.

I do. My health is just starting to get where I don't stay so tired every day. Because of my divorce, and issues after Ralph died, and where I live (I live far out and do not quite have a vehicle yet), like I said, I'm starting from scratch, just as if I was 18 -- you know, starting all over. I've worked since I was 16 years old and the last three years is the only time I have not worked.

So, like I said, I had health issues. It's taken me a while to get my strength back up where I can pull at least a four-hour day right now. I'm affiliated with Acadiana Cares, out of Lafayette Parish. They have been great to me. They have opened their arms up and have done any kind of help that I've asked for. Again, I'm fortunate to have good friends that I live with so I don't have to ask for housing, but they do take care of that. They help you with anything you need.

I can say Acadiana Cares has given me plenty of moral support. I've got a lot of new friends. As soon as I can get my car (because I live so far out), I want to volunteer with them. I do plan on staying in the Lafayette area.

I think volunteer work would help me just as much as it would anybody else. Most of the people that I have met have been HIV positive, and have been positive for more than 15 years, 10 years. I've only had it for two years. I would like to help educate, or even learn from volunteering.

When I do go back out in the work field, I'm not going to tell everybody in the world, "Yes, I'm HIV positive." But if asked or the subject comes up -- "Why are you taking more medicine? Why do you feel this way?" -- then I'm going to tell them and be honest about it. I just want to get as much education in me so I can get it out there. Like I said, even if it's just to one person, like my son and my daughter-in-law, to where they can educate their kids. The more people that you educate, I just feel like the better it will be.

Do you talk to your son and your daughter-in-law about HIV? Are they open to hearing about it? It sounds as if your family is very supportive.

They're very open. My son is 24. His wife is 25. They're like six months apart in age. They took it very hard when they found out. I am very close to my son. I am very open -- from sex, to drugs, to funny jokes, to when it comes down to cry. I have a relationship with him that a lot of mothers don't have with their sons. I've always been open with him, since the day he could talk. We still are.

I did keep this from him at first, and he held a grudge, the first six months to a year. But he's seen me during bad times when I've looked my worst, which I tried to hide (and it didn't work). And now he's to the point, "Mom, you're single; you and Dad are divorced. I've dealt with that. I'm over with it. You have HIV. You're going to find somebody else. And if you don't, you know what? Go out and have fun and enjoy your life now. You've raised me and I just want to see you happy."

But I also want to educate them so that they're aware of it, too. Because he does ask me questions -- some I can answer; some I can't. Just today, I've learned a lot that I couldn't answer myself. So the more I know, the better I can educate them.

Like I said, we should all be open with our kids. But I realize a lot of parents aren't. But, yes. I'm blessed; I can be open with mine.

You mentioned stigma much earlier in our talk. Do you have any sense of what it would take to break this huge stigma around HIV? I mean, it's an illness.

It's just the education of people. People need to know. It would help if our government would not be so critical on us -- then other people wouldn't get that critical version of it, too. You know, our governor needs to be more educated. Even the president of our country.

I can't tell you how I used to walk into a room and have friends that felt like they were a minority, because they were a woman of color, or a man of color, and we were all white. Today, when I walked into a room, for the first time in my life I felt like I was the minority. I felt that feeling that a lot of people have felt. It's the first time in my life that I have come to the conclusion it doesn't matter what you look like, what color you are, whether you're male or female, bisexual, straight, gay. God put us on the Earth to be us. And if it just takes me the rest of my life to get that point across, to even 10 people that I pass in my life, to make a difference, then I'll be happy.

That's the point I want to make. That's the total point.

That's interesting. Talk a little bit more about being in the minority for the first time in your life. Did you mean because of HIV?

I'm not working and I don't have any income coming in. I'm affiliated with a hospital that gives you quality care as if you had insurance -- you know, where I can get free care, to a certain extent, and I get a discount on my prescriptions.

Of all the meetings that I've been to in the last two years, I have come across five white women. That's it. I can count five white ladies that I have met that are HIV positive. Everybody else is either white men that were straight, or gay. I've met men of color, too, or women of color. And I felt like the minority. Here I am, a white woman. I was raised from a, not religious, family but I was raised to believe in God, be a lady, don't act trashy, don't do drugs. I'm just the girl next door.

And here, I have HIV because I loved somebody. This whole two years has been a lot of depression, a lot of crying. Because I feel like I'm the only white woman out here that's got HIV. What am I supposed to do? Now Ralph's gone, and I've got it all by myself. And every conference that I go to, or try to educate myself, every magazine I read, it's a "people of color" thing.

And I know there's counts out there: More women of color have this; it affects the African-American community. When I walked in today to the conference, there I was, again. I'm looking around the whole room, and there are beautiful women of color at every table.

I see two white women. And these are out of the five that I've already seen. These two other women make my five people that I've seen. I felt like a minority. I have worked in the public all my life. Have friends that are women of color that are my best friends. If I need them, they're right there. But I still felt like the minority -- not just because I was HIV positive, but because I was a white woman.

I feel like that needs to change, too. You who don't mind holding your head high and going to a charity hospital because you're divorced, or you're single, or you're widowed, and you don't have the insurance, you don't have the job, because you're too sick to go to work -- if us few that are out there don't speak out, who's going to speak out for us?

But even in feeling like a minority, did you feel as if you've been able to connect with other women in the community? Or do you feel as if it would be easier to connect if there were more white women who were willing to be out about their HIV status, and open about their status?

I feel like I can connect now with anybody. I really do. I just feel like there needs to be more people coming out and being open about it. Because us few that are out there speaking about it: if something happens to us down the road, which, you know, anything could happen to anybody, at any time, just like this disease could happen to anybody at any time, any disease. If we're not out there to speak out, who's going to speak out for our kids' kids and our kids' kids' kids?

We've got to educate now. We've got to get past the stigma of we're bad people. We're not. God made us who we are. It's healthier to be open and honest about it. Because being alone is the worst thing you can do. It's not healthy and more women need to come out about it. They do. Because they would get more help. And the more we speak out, the more we can spread the word to our government and our councilmen and even our president and his wife, and their kids.

I mean, this could happen to their kids. There is not one person that is not vulnerable to having this. Anybody can get it. No one's immune to getting it. So we just need to open up and let people know.

Thank you so much for that. Do you have anything else you want to add? Anything you want people watching in the studio or reading your words to know?

Just educate yourself. Educate those around you. And if you don't know the answer, don't be shy to ask. There are people out there that know that answer. Just be open and honest about it, like anything else. And stick by each other. Because nobody wants to do this alone. Nobody having cancer, nobody having an eating disorder, alcoholism -- that's a disease, you just can't see it, and you can't see HIV, either. All you can do is feel it. It makes you tired, but it also can make you strong.

I say just, education: educate, educate.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.