Long Island, New York
Positive since 1998
Can you believe it’s been 19 years since I’ve been living as a positive female? I’m sitting here on my bed, just rewinding my life over the last 19 years. I had my ups and downs, my mountains to climb and my oceans to swim. I hit rock bottom, but I got myself back up again. I found the strength in me. I found the strength in the Lord. What a trip this has been. People ask me every day, “How did you get here in life?” I respond by telling them how it all began.
At age 18, I was raped and beaten by someone I thought was a friend. Someone I trusted and had faith in. Well, he turned out not to be a friend. He was the devil, as evil as they come. He kept me prisoner in his house, raping me and beating me over and over for three long days until he finally passed out. I ran so fast that I wasn’t looking back. I ran for blocks with no shoes or coat, just a button-down. As I ran out the door, I realized it was cold and snowing. I didn’t care. I wasn’t stopping. I kept running until a police officer saw me and took me to the hospital. After being examined, the police officer came in and started asking me so many questions. I was scared. What was my mom going to say? And my boyfriend, how do I tell him? I couldn’t think straight. I was going crazy. In the end, the guy was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. About four years into his sentence, the Brooklyn district attorney called to tell me he had been killed in a prison riot. I didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t happy or sad. I felt cheated. I had to live life remembering what he did, but he didn’t have to.
A few months passed, and I found out that I was pregnant. Because of the timing, I was unsure if the father was my boyfriend of a year, who stood by my side throughout the whole ordeal, or the guy who raped me. Back then, I was a devout Catholic, and I decided that I would have the baby. My boyfriend said it didn’t matter if he was the father or not. He said my baby was his, and he would raise the baby as his own.
Five years later, we gave birth to another baby, a girl. We were the all-American family. We both had jobs, a nice home and two wonderful children, a boy and a girl. We had it all until my boyfriend got sick and had to go into the hospital. He had pneumonia and tuberculosis. Turns out, he tested positive for HIV. Right away, I was tested. My results came back negative. I chose to stay with him because I loved him and he stood by me when I was raped. Life started to get hard. He couldn’t work anymore. I had to quit working to care for him and the kids. Three and a half years later, he passed away from pneumonia. We had 10 beautiful years together. We loved each other to death, and we had amazing kids. I wouldn’t trade a moment we shared together for anything. I will always have my memories of us.
A year later, I decided it was time for a change. We moved to Long Island in hopes of starting a new life. Two years later, I met someone who I married after dating for seven months. Thirteen months later, I got pregnant with my third child. When I was six months pregnant, I was called into my doctor’s office. She said she needed to talk to me about some tests I had. I asked for an appointment, but she insisted I come in as soon as possible. It was Christmas Eve, 1998. I remember it clear as day. I walked into the office, and my doctor was already there. So was my nurse. I had a seat. I remember my nurse placing a box of tissue in front of me, and the doctor telling me I tested positive for HIV. “What? You’re wrong. I always get tested. You know that you have been testing me for a couple of years,” I said to my doctor. Now, I was six months pregnant and HIV positive. What did this mean? How could this be? I never had sex with any other guys except for my ex, who passed away, and my husband, who—it turns out—knew he was positive and decided not to tell me. My life was falling apart again. The doctors put me on meds right away. Because they did, my daughter was born HIV negative. I could no longer love my husband, and the sight of him made me sick to my stomach. I really hated him for taking my decision away when he had no right. I wanted a divorce, but he would not give me one. He would not let me leave with my daughter. He told me I could go, but she was going to stay. If I tried to go, he would stop me. So for the next seven months after my daughter was born, I lived in hell with him until one day he was stupid and committed a crime. He went to prison for seven years. I was relieved when I sat in the courtroom and heard the judge announce his sentence. I felt a relief in my body because I knew I could get away and start over again.
Now, here I was: a mother of three who is HIV positive and starting over for the second time. I was scared. I felt shame. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know how to tell my family or my friends. I didn’t want them looking down on me, judging me or blaming me. My mom cried when I told her, but she stood by my side the whole time. Most of my family stood by my side, as well as my friends. I couldn’t stay in the house I lived in anymore because it reminded me of my husband too much. So I took my three children and moved to a different part of Long Island.
A couple of years later, I was on my way to work. It was 8:46 a.m. when I stepped off the elevator on the 78th floor of the North Tower of the Twin Towers and the first plane hit us. I didn’t know what hit us at the time. I didn’t know what was going on. All I know was that I was in pain. I was scared. People were crying. There were dead and hurt people next to me. I could hear my children calling out to me saying, “Mommy, please come home.” That is all I remember. I woke up in the hospital. I had a broken shoulder, a broken leg and a lot of cuts and bruises, but I was alive. I think that was because of the will and love of my children. I can’t say I am fully recovered because I always have nightmares. If it’s not about September 11, then it’s about my rape or the betrayal of my husband.
A few years later, I was diagnosed with HPV and vulvar cancer. Then, five years later, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. And just this month, I was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on my spine. Through everything I have gone through, I am so grateful to be here still. I am a fighter. I always was and always will be. I am very active in my HIV community. I am cochair for our Ryan White Part D Program. I have been chair and cochair of a few different Ryan White committees. I am a mentor for other HIV-positive people in my state. I am a certified health educator for not only my state but also nationwide. I have written grants and proposals to receive funding for programs to help support people living with HIV and AIDS. I had the opportunity to attend five different conferences on HIV, and I speak to youth groups as well. I have gone into our high schools to educate teachers on the basics of HIV and AIDS.
I don’t believe I am being punished for anything I did. I believe I am right where I am meant to be in my life. God did not put me here to suffer. He put me here to be His warrior and to fight this until the end. I might have fallen a few times, but I always get back up on my own two feet. I spread the word that you don’t have to feel ashamed or lonely. We are here, and we aren’t going anywhere.
I am doing great with my HIV health care. My viral load is undetectable. I am strong and living a beautiful, blessed life. Please don’t ever give up on yourself. Know your worth, and share it. I am a survivor. I am a warrior. I am the face and voice of HIV and AIDS.