I remember when I was first diagnosed. I was court ordered to go to rehab. It was either that or face jail time. I didn’t want to be there and just wanted to do my nine months, graduate and leave. I was so full of pain during that time and I just wanted the pain to go away.
After the first week or so, it was announced during a group session that Dallas County was providing free HIV testing. Since the group was boring, I decided to go ahead and take the test. I figured what the hell, it’s free and I can get out of group. Never once did I ever fathom I would be HIV positive. HIV didn’t speak to me. It was a white gay man’s disease and well, black folks just didn’t get it.
About two weeks later the test results would come in and I was told it doesn’t look good. The tester left from the room and never came back. “I am going to die!” I was ashamed and embarrassed by the thought of having HIV. I was enraged and angry. I blamed myself for my infection and just wanted to get high again because I knew that would remove the pain, even if it was temporary.
I remember thinking of my children having to have to continue to grow up without their mother in their lives and now I have to tell them I was dying. I called my mother. “Mom, I have something to tell you. I have HIV.” She replied, “That’s what you get for doing what you were doing!” She hung up the phone. As I hung up the phone, I slumped over and began to cry a cry so deep, it felt as though my soul was leaving my body. “Who is going to love me now?” were the words I kept saying over and over again.
A few months would pass and I still found myself in rehab. The entire unit was locked down and in focus groups all day long. It was routine on the unit for our counselors to go and inspect our living quarters for the day to make sure we had done our chores. A counselor announces, “There is blood on the commode in room D! Michelle, I want you to go clean it up!” With forcefulness I replied, “It’s not mine!” It didn’t even matter, I was given the bleach kit to go and clean it up. Out of the 60 women on the unit, why was I chosen? Was it because of the HIV? I felt shame and humiliation and swore from that day on, I would never share my diagnosis with anyone. And I didn’t. For the first time, I had experienced stigma but it would not be the last. Stigma had wreaked so much havoc in my life that I could not breathe. Every step I took to piece my life back together, stigma would be waiting. The fear of being alone and unloved was something I could not bear.
Why even share my diagnosis? Why should I be made to feel like a monster, a less than human individual? Disclosing caused me pain, hurt, and anger. Ya’ll tell me I have to tell, screw that. I ain’t telling anybody! If this is something I have to go through at every hand, forget that! I might as well go out and get high because I can’t deal with this!
I would live for years without saying a word. As time went by, I moved into a supportive housing complex with people like me. I began to learn through them, how to really come to terms with my diagnosis. I saw life and laughter and although there were some who lost everything, they were still happy. It became contagious. I wanted that kind of life. However, it would entail the sharing of my story. So one day I did just that at an event where I would share to hundreds of bike riders. For the first time in my life, I felt peace and freedom. I received love, hugs and well wishes from people who were not afraid to touch me. It moved me to continue to share my story until this very day.
I’m writing this to share a piece of what my life was like disclosing. It hasn’t been an easy task. I had to learn stigma was nothing more than ignorance of the unknown. It didn’t mean I couldn't achieve my dreams or the impossible! Please understand, through sharing our story, we are able to educate the ignorant, console the newly diagnosed and find that level of peace and freedom from stigma.
I challenge you all to continue to share your stories, rise above the social standards placed on HIV positive persons and achieve the impossible! I did and you can too! We can eradicate stigma one story at a time. Let’s do this thang together!
Peace and Love……