In 1985, I was incarcerated at the women’s correctional institution in Columbia, South Carolina. And during intake they take your blood and they run these tests, and then usually after two weeks your blood tests come back and you go out on the compound. Well, I stayed down almost four weeks, and I’m like, “What’s goin’ on? My blood work isn’t here?” And then one day they called me down to medical, and the doctor had a mask on his face, gloves on his hand, a paper gown, and the paper on his shoes, like he was in surgery. And he looked over his glasses and he told me I have AIDS and I was going to die, and don’t tell nobody. I would love to find him and look him in his face and say, “Here I am, almost 27 years later. You told me I was gonna die, and I’m still here.” And I plan on being here another 30 years.
I basically didn’t tell anybody for a number of years. And because I didn’t tell anybody, I wanted to disappear. Keeping it to myself drove me to alcohol, drugs. I mean, I was using somewhat, but I really went full force because when I got ready to die I wanted people to think I died from drugs rather than from AIDS. So I kept it for a long, long time.
Several things helped me move through that, but number one, first and foremost: a support group. A support group where I listened to people tell how they didn’t care what other people thought about them, they could shout it from the rooftops. Just to be able to be in a group with other people like me, and say I was living with HIV at that time really freed me, even though I wasn’t outspoken right away. That nurturing environment brought me back to life. It made me feel like a human being, and not hopeless and unloved. It was in New Haven, Connecticut. I went through drug treatment, and my counselor got me into this support group. Because I did feel confident enough to let her know, and I told her that it had been long enough, and I really needed some help dealing with it. This was in 1994.
People knew. I was a IV drug user, so I was watching my friends just disappear. And because I was in that association, they just assumed, even though I didn’t tell anybody. My kids father? I’m pretty sure that he knew, even though we never talked about it, because he was positive, and he died in ‘93. But even when we both know we was taking medication that same time, we still never had that conversation. I think that for him, he felt as though he was the reason? When he went into the hospital for the first time I took a picture of him. He was very pensive, and to this day I do believe that he knew his status at that time, from that look in that picture, and he just did not share it with anybody. Finally he became open and was tellin’ everybody, but we never had a conversation.
My life is easier because I don’t have to hide. I don’t have to worry about what people are saying about me or whispering behind my back. My service work that I do keeps me alive, and if I can help one person overcome that barrier of living with that stigma and discrimination and be able to disclose their status and get free? You know, because once you give it away, it’s out there, you ain’t gotta worry about it no more! That’s their problem!
On the whole my health has been excellent. I have never had any signs or symptoms living with HIV in all these years. But as I’m aging I’m gettin’ the aches and the pains and the, ya know. I gotta chalk it up to age. I have negative friends, they have aging problems, too. I mean, one has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The other has some problems with his legs. Another one has that, um, blood clotting, you know, so – they all have something going on!
I think that it’s a wonderful growing time for me, because I’m being enriched, I’m being a part of something in the South that I don’t think would come forth so quickly if me and my group had not been working towards making changes for the South when it comes to living with HIV. I’m here. You know, I’m alive. When they said I wouldn’t be. So, that’s PHENOMENAL for me. I have a grandson in college. He’s a sophomore. I have a granddaughter who wants to be a pediatrician. You know? And I’m like, “Wow! This is great.” All the things that I do? All the travelling and everything that I have done? The most important thing that I do is take care of me. My time, my meditation, my close down, don’t- answer-the-phone, don’t – you know. Relax. And I learned how to do that. Take care of me, and put me first.