Linda Scruggs, 39 • AIDS educator • Baltimore • HIV diagnosis: 1990
When I got my HIV diagnosis, I was surprised. I was 13 weeks pregnant. I have never used intravenous drugs. I didn’t realize the drug I did use, cocaine, put me at risk because I was trading sex for coke.
I had been a victim of incest at an early age. By the time I was 18, I had been raped twice and didn’t even tell anyone. I took on the blame as if I had put myself in the situation.
Life was ugly. I felt no value in myself. Instead, I turned to drugs to fill me up and got into relationships with abusive men. Then one morning I thought about my grandfather, who had really loved me. He had died when I was 10. But I felt him speaking to me, saying, “What are you doing? Get out of that bed,” and I did. I walked 14 miles to get home, and with my parents’ help I stopped using.
When I tested positive, I had been in recovery for two years. In my first post-recovery relationship, I got pregnant. At a prenatal appointment they told me I was HIV positive. They said I could terminate the pregnancy and probably live for five years, that if I had the baby I’d probably be dead in three.
I decided to have the baby. My son is 19 now, and he is negative.
Between him being born and me trying to figure out how to die, I figured out instead how to live. A friend’s sister was dying of an AIDS-related illness, and I watched her family being ashamed. What a legacy to leave your kids! And I decided that was not OK.
In my HIV clinic there was a beautiful 7-year-old who couldn’t go to school because her mom was afraid of what the school would say about her HIV. That didn’t make any sense, so I started working with kids, going with the clinic’s nurse practitioner to schools to talk about HIV.
Women are vulnerable to HIV because we compromise. We turn ourselves into Barbie dolls trying to find that Ken. We search for that artificial something that will fulfill us.
When that friend’s sister died, I thought, “If I have just three years to live, I want them to be my best.” So I began to be honest with myself and others, telling people about my HIV. I lost some friends. But every time I tell somebody, I feel a key turning in the shackles. I had some pretty heavy secrets for a little girl, and HIV became one more. I have to be free.
HIV has brought on a new sisterhood. With HIV, it doesn’t matter your height, race, education—none of it matters. What women want is to heal, be whole, find their path on life’s journey. If it had to be HIV to get me to the place I am now, where I’m whole, then I’m grateful.
I tell young women, “If the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ isn’t in the reasons why you do something, don’t do it. You are valuable.”
The government won’t combat stigma for us. It’s a battle we have to fight. And you can live rejoicefully and be healthy. In the midst of taking care of the rest of the world, we have to learn to take care of us.