Pam Goodrich, 56 • LGBT education and training coordinator • Staten Island, NY • HIV diagnosis: 1989
When I got my HIV diagnosis, I wasn’t surprised. I kind of expected it. I had been using drugs since I was about 12 or 13—smoking weed, drinking and then taking acid and using heroin. Everybody I was using IV drugs with was falling to AIDS. But that didn’t stop me from sharing needles with them. I was caught in the grips of drug addiction so it didn’t matter. I was running amok in Harlem where they had $2 bags of dope. I was in shooting galleries where you shared syringes out of a dirty jar of blood mixed with water.
I had been going to jail since I was 16, and it might sound crazy, but when I was incarcerated, I felt like I had arrived. My substance abuse had been a coping mechanism, reacting to a dysfunctional family—not wanting to be home, having two parents who were alcoholics, coping with all the volatile behavior. My mother is 76. She has stopped drinking for 25 years, and all my siblings had substance abuse problems.
In 1989 I finally decided to take a look at what was going on with me, and I got tested and realized I had contracted HIV. I decided to get tested because I was just tired—really, really tired of my life. I had 58 arrests and 28 convictions. I was just sick of me, and I wanted a better life. I was tired of where I was going.
But after I tested positive, I still continued to get high. I realized I had a problem, but I continued to rationalize the most insane thinking—telling myself, “It’s not that bad.” And I kept going to prison. It wasn’t until the last time I got out of prison, in 1996, that I stopped using drugs and found organizations that would help me. I got out of my way and gave myself a chance and sat still. I made sure to be around people like myself, with substance abuse histories, incarceration histories—people who guided me and mentored me. They could call me on my stuff. Then I started mentoring others too.
The first time I disclosed my HIV status was when I was a peer educator. As a peer educator, it’s not a requirement that you disclose your status, but one day I met a very young individual who had contracted HIV. I was trying to comfort him, to give him hope and inspiration. I was trying to let him know how vulnerable everybody is.
Until eight years ago, I was very against HIV meds. I wouldn’t take them, and I progressed to AIDS. And I talked bad about the meds. I had friends who were taking the meds, and I’d say, “Why are you doing that?” I ran on about the drama of AZT—how in the old days people were given too high doses and the side effects were awful. And every time my doctor would talk to me about taking HIV meds, I wasn’t open to it. So she stopped talking to me about it until I had no other alternative. When my CD4 count was 20 and my viral load was really high, she said, “Pam, I can’t help you if you don’t want the help.” And I realized I wanted to live. I know HIV is very toxic. The medication is toxic too, but it has to be a checkmate. Self-preservation came up, and I clung to it. So now my viral load is undetectable, and my CD4 count is 757.
Women are vulnerable to HIV because they’ve always taken care of everybody but themselves. They are unable at times to see that they’re very important too. We put ourselves at risk because we need to feel wanted, needed and loved. And some single mothers are running two households—their own and another one for a loved one who is incarcerated. I’m not saying your children are not important. I’m not saying your parents, your family, your community are not important. But none of that is going to make a difference if you don’t have you.