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August 31, 2007
by Juliana Shulman
Four years ago, Brenda Chambers was newly diagnosed with HIV, addicted to alcohol and methamphetamines—and in jail. Today, she is in recovery and the program director for the Indian Walk-In Center’s HIV and STI program—the only organization that brings prevention messages and testing to Utah’s large American Indian community. This 44-year-old mother of four (and grandmother of five) has forged her personal experiences into a tool to connect and educate others.
How did your HIV diagnosis prompt you to change your life?
Soon after I was diagnosed, I realized that I didn’t want to keep on existing in a fog as I’d done for 30 years, when I was drinking and using. I realized I wanted to live my life. At first I assumed that I wouldn’t have much time to live, so I thought, “I’m going to pack all I can get into that time.” And actually, [the diagnosis] has been a positive experience—kind of a blessing, because it got me on the right track.
What kind of support helped you overcome addiction?
I was in jail for three months after I was diagnosed, and I started going to 12-step meetings every chance I got. I also went to church and studied the Bible every morning. I had always believed in God; I just thought that I had blown any chance of His loving and helping me.
When I got out of jail, I attended online meetings at Recoverychat.com—a network of people who cared whether I stayed sober. The woman from the Salt Lake City health department who gave me my test results became my biggest supporter and friend. She directed me to Recoverychat.com, made sure I had clothes for work and was always a phone call away with support.
I also went to an outpatient drug-treatment program and graduated three years later.
I still attend meetings almost every day and am involved in service work. My family have all been really supportive, once they could see I had changed and was serious about recovery. My four kids had no idea where I was for about three years [while I was on drugs]. They didn't like who I was and didn't want much to do with me. That has changed. I talk to my daughter every morning, I am at one of my son's houses every Saturday night and I am developing a relationship with my 18-year-old, who was taken from me by the state in 1998 when I went off the deep end into addiction.
I haven't really had a hard time staying sober, but that I attribute to having made a decision that I wanted to live my life. For me, getting rid of all the old "friends" was the hardest thing but after a couple of bad experiences in sobriety with them, I did it.
What challenges do you face in your work?
The native community doesn’t talk about sex at all; it’s a very taboo subject. I’ve been very fortunate that people on the reservations have accepted me and listened to me. Because of this, I’ve been able to test over 100 people since October of last year. Among those hundred, there have been two that tested positive.
What would you say to women out there struggling with both addiction and HIV?
Not only is recovery possible, but if you get involved, you can go anywhere. There’s always something you can do in the community to help educate about HIV so that some of the stigma goes away. I think that’s the biggest problem we face—the stigma.
And I think it’s important to have a positive attitude and use our experiences with HIV to help others who are going through a hard time. Although our experiences may not be the same, the feelings behind them could be. So we may be able to help somebody get through it.
Helping people is key to my staying sober, my job—everything. Reach out and volunteer! Help somebody! It helps you get out of your own crap.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’m going to school to be a social worker. I am at the Salt Lake Community College getting my associate’s degree [equivalent to completing two years of a four-year college], and soon I will be going to the University of Utah for my bachelor’s. After that, I have an offer from Vocational Rehabilitation [a state-run program in Utah] to work while getting my master’s degree. I will help people who have problems like addiction or physical handicaps be rehabilitated and enter back into the workforce.
You are a proud mother and grandmother. What do you tell your family about your past? What messages do you have for their futures?
My kids see my recovery as the most important thing in my life. I know that I am just one drink or drug away from the hell my life was while I was using and drinking. I talk to my kids, who are between the ages of 18 and 27, about the dangers of allowing a drug to take over your life or drinking too much. They know that I am going to school for social work and that I like helping others. They also know that it is never too late to pursue your dream.
My grandkids are 8, 4, 2, 10 months and 4 months, so only the oldest can remember me being high. He and I pray together. He knows that Grammy has a sickness called HIV and that it made her very sick for a while, but now she is better and she loves life.