Sylvia first visited her present place of employment as a client in 2003. Newly diagnosed with HIV, her doctor recommend she visit a local AIDS Service Organization to learn more about her diagnosis and gain support from service providers and other HIV-positive women. One month later, Sylvia attended her first retreat with a group of HIV-positive women which affected her dramatically - the event “immediately took me away from what I was experiencing.” “I decided I was going to leave shame; I wasn’t going to be ashamed about living with HIV. If I can beat crack addiction, I can beat this.”
Shortly after her retreat experience, a Peer Advocate position opened at the very organization Sylvia was a client of. She applied and was awarded the job. Sylvia was pleased and excited, but knew it was best to start off slow and began working for 20 hours per week. She had previous experience as a substance abuse/mental health advocate, having herself beat an addiction to crack-cocaine six years prior. The Peer Advocate position was a natural transition for her: “what else should I do but work for and with other HIV-positive women?”
Sylvia has been in recovery for 6 yeas. Since this life milestone, her family has become more dependent on her. So, like many HIV-positive women, Sylvia was worried about how her family would react to her diagnosis. When she disclosed her HIV status, she was welcomed with support and upbeat, positive attitudes. Sylvia believes her own attitude helped her daughters cope: “since I don’t have the shame, they don’t either.” Sylvia’s family is proud of her efforts to help others by becoming a peer advocate; she often finds that telling her story helps her clients deal with their own diagnosis. “I like meeting a newly diagnosed woman because I have the ability to say to her the first things that were said to me.”
Sylvia is thankful for the support she receives from her Narcotics Anonymous (NA) support group. She also credits NA as the source for teaching her how to retreat and “get away.” Sylvia recalls being tested for HIV once while she was addicted to crack-cocaine, but she never went back for the results. She predicts that if she had tested HIV-positive during the time when she was using, she would have slipped further into her addiction.
Another source of support and inspiration for Sylvia is her church and minister. Because the church is such a pillar of influence in her community, Sylvia believes that only those churches which address HIV/AIDS will be the ones that will make a difference in the African American community. “We have a long, long way to go with education in the black community,” but those that show compassion for the HIV/AIDS community and for individuals infected with and affected by HIV, will help mobilize past the stigma.
Today Sylvia juggles her work life with her personal life. She oversees a case load of 12 HIV-positive women – individual women with individual needs. It’s a challenge; Sylvia works with women who are deeply depressed and cannot disclose their status – women who feel like their life is over. She tries to help all her clients see “the positive side of being positive” and is reward when she witnesses the evolution of a newly diagnosed woman. Several of her clients have now completed peer education trainings, are now involved with public speaking, and enrolling in college. They have surpassed the shame they once felt.
It’s a busy and intense schedule; often Sylvia has to remind herself to take care: “sometimes I have to remember I do have this virus.”
“I want to live a normal life; I don’t want everything in my life to be about HIV.” Sylvia is not sure what is next for her on her path, but she is excited to see where it goes. “I feel like I’m right where I am supposed to be right now, and that’s the most important thing.”
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