July / August 2011
by Regan Hofmann and Willette Francis
Dottie Rains, 35, Educator; Mercer County, New Jersey
I learned I was HIV positive during a routine checkup. They asked if I wanted to take an HIV test, and I said sure, because I was having unprotected sex. You know, to be honest, I was educated about [how to prevent HIV], but I guess being a teenager, you think: It can’t happen to me. So—’cause you know how they say teenagers think they are invincible and that nothing can happen to them—basically I felt that way at the time. I felt that things like HIV happen to other people, not me. I was diagnosed at age 16.
Even though I had learned about HIV/AIDS from sex education in school, I still didn’t know how to negotiate safer sex. I didn’t have the necessary skills to apply what I had learned to a real-life situation, when you’re hot and heavy and your
hormones are raging.
And when you’re growing up in an urban area with a dysfunctional family structure, condom use is not high on the list of priorities. My mother was a drug user. She went through programs for her addiction, but I think she was still getting high. We were focused on those basic things that you need in order to survive—getting food, clothing and shelter. Those were more important than worrying about protection.
I wasn’t even living at home with my mother. I was living with a family friend in North New Jersey. I called her my aunt, and she was my legal guardian. Even though she accepted me in her home like I was one of her children, provided food and shelter, it still wasn’t home. I felt rejected by my mother, and I really needed to feel loved and accepted. The process of trying to find that brought along a whole bunch of other issues—becoming HIV positive. I always dated guys who were older than me. I don’t know who infected me. You just find yourself in a situation where you’re like, wow, you were searching for one thing but you wind up with something else.
I did not start HIV treatment right after I got my diagnosis. I didn’t feel sick, so I didn’t feel like I needed medication. Almost two years later, I started treatment because I was pregnant with my son. I was now responsible for my baby’s life, so I needed to do everything I could to make sure that I wouldn’t transmit the virus to him. My son is HIV negative.
By this time, I had left my guardian’s home. I moved to Trenton and began living at Rainbow House, a group home. There I started to get on my feet, finished school, gained parenting and life skills and blossomed. I started to do work around HIV and AIDS, telling my story, educating people—trying to lessen the stigma around HIV.
I believe having better self-esteem and understanding who I was as a woman would have helped me stay negative.
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