In the spring of 1990, Wendy received a call form her physician’s office – the voice on the telephone explained that they had lost her vial of blood and asked her to return to the office for another blood draw. When she arrived, with her little boy in tow and pregnant with her second child, she was pulled into a nondescript office and told she was HIV+. A doctor, whom she barely knew, lied to her to get her to return to the office, suggested she get an abortion and sent her on her way with the phone number for the CDC. “When I heard the words I knew it would be hell – dying before my time.”
Wendy immediately called the CDC and was told that there was a 75 – 85% chance the baby would be HIV+. Wendy could not believe all she was hearing. She made an appointment to terminate the pregnancy. Later that day, she found an HIV testing site and was tested (again) along with her son and husband. She remembers thinking “we’re all dead. I’ve got it. They’ve got it. We are all going to die.”
The next round of test results confirmed that Wendy was infected with the HIV virus, but thankfully, her son and her husband were not. “When I found out, it was right when I had all the things I wanted, and I felt like I was robbed.”
Wendy sought guidance and support from a local mental health center. She was introduced to group therapy, then began counseling with her husband, and eventually entered individual psychotherapy. Wendy has had the same therapist for seven years; “I don’t trust many people, but I trust her.” Since her diagnosis, Wendy has been intermittently involved in a support group for HIV+ women. It is very important to Wendy to be with other women like her; “I feel like I really belong there.” Though at times it has been incredibly difficult – in the beginning, Wendy often felt insecure and isolated, feelings that were mixed with immense sadness as she watched others around her die.
One of the most difficult aspects of her diagnosis has been “living a double-life.” Wendy lives in a small town and has chosen not to disclose her status to her neighbors and community. She wonders “has the world really changed? Would I be accepted? Will I get support?”
Wendy decided to disclose her HIV status to her son when he was 7 years old. She felt it was best to tell him at a young age because she knew that when it was time for him to mature, he’d have his own problems and issues to deal with. So, one summer day, just after the school year let out, Wendy sat him down and began to explain that she had a virus. Wendy is so proud of her son, now fourteen, for keeping her status in confidence despite the burden he has to carry. “We kiss each other every morning and say ‘I love you’ and that’s the best part of my day – that’s the real stuff!” Both her husband and son play an integral role in her support network.
Wendy did not have guidance or advice from others when she chose to disclose her status to her son and others. She has learned very valuable lessons and now offers a bit of advice she never had. “Before you tell people your status, you should think about how it will benefit you – you alone. Don’t tell them for them, tell them for you. And remember, it can be the most unexpected people who will support you. And the ones you thought would support you may not.”
Living with HIV disease has taught Wendy what’s it’s like to be the underdog. It’s taught her to ask for help when she needs it and to prioritize the things in her life. Living with HIV disease has also broadened her perspective on other people, helped her to better appreciate hugs and kisses, and compelled her to maintain many things at the same time – her health, her mind, her family. “I can’t let things slide – if I let things slide it would be an avalanche!”
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