As a young girl growing up, my life began with the "normalcy" of being sexually molested by my step-dad, waking to the sounds of seeing him beat my mom, waking my brother and I up (he is 4 years younger than myself) and making us watch as he ripped clothes off my mom, breaking her nose and blackening her eyes.
However, my life's journey actually started on January 29, 1961 in Clayton, Missouri. I was born to a single mother. In those days it wasn't made known if you were an unwed mother. If so, you were definitely looked down upon. However, love and family prevailed. My mom and I lived with my maternal grandmother. My mom often worked 3-4 jobs to make ends meet and to assure I had everything I needed. If my grandmother babysat, my mom diligently paid her for doing so, after being raised to always pay her way.
By the age of 4, I had acquired a stepdad, as well as a baby bother. This is the earliest recollection I have of the molestation. As my brother and I grew older, we would wake up many Friday nights as my stepdad came home drunk, and hear him screaming and yelling among other things… dishes being thrown as the dinner my mother had worked hard preparing wasnt good enough, or her screaming in pain as he beat her.
Although I wasn't raised in a Christian home, I always knew SOMEHOW, SOMEWAY, there was a God. When I was asked by friends in my preteen years to go to church, I was allowed but this was on a sporadic basis. Very possibly this was when I was introduced to God.
In 1972 my stepdad got a job transfer from Missouri to Florida. I was 11 years old, hated leaving friends, but hoped for a fresh start for our family… new surroundings and new beginnings. A new "normalcy". It didn't take long for me to realize this was a fairy tale wish, only in my dreams. The drinking, yelling, beatings, and molestation continued. By this time, my stepdad beat my mom so badly she miscarried. On several occasions, I prayed to God for the chaos to stop. There were also times my stepdad would wake me up during the night, chase me around the kitchen table naked, while my mom was away. I threatened to pick up a stereo speaker and hit him with it, and he stopped. After my mother learned from a girlfriend of mine that my stepdad was molesting me for years, he left to go back to Missouri. Before doing so, he threw $30 down onto the kitchen table for my mom, my brother and myself to survive on. We never saw him again. He later died in Missouri, probably a very lonely man. My mother turned to a pastor and police official for some help. After sharing our situation, both advised not to pursue the issue of him molesting me as it could get "really ugly" and make not only local but national news. So I suffered in silence and continued to hide my feelings.
Our family of 4 had dwindled to 3. My mother had been a stay at home mom for years, sought employment and took the first job she was offered. She got hired at a convenience store working nights, while my 12-year-old brother and I, at 16, stayed home alone. What a perfect setup for a promiscuous teenager. I would sneak my boyfriends in, stay up all night, go to school and thought life was great. Also, I portrayed the role of a "goody-two-shoes" type of a girl.
Growing up, I knew there had to be more… so I went searching. I got married in my junior year of high school. My mother signed for me to do this. I played "the game" and played it well. I was "in love", a wife and a straight "A" student. I was still a baby myself, but at least it took me away from the home life I had. My mother continued her life, going from man to man. I still longed for something that was missing from my life.
As my journey continued, I hit my lowest of lows, and was unfaithful to my husband. I was married to one man and pregnant by another. After my oldest son was born, I divorced my husband and married my son's father, even though I knew he was an alcoholic. He was still a good guy and I was going to change him, right? He would drink, go on binges for days, leaving me home alone with our brand new baby boy. There were times I would give him my last few dollars to buy beer, enabling his addiction. I would cover up for him when he didn't go to work. I started thinking, "Maybe if I were a better wife, mom, kept the house cleaner, cooked better, etc., etc., etc." Looking back now, these were all co-dependent behaviors.
Then, the dreaded letters H-I-V were introduced to me. Not only was my husband diagnosed with HIV, but myself as well. Our son had been spared. My life was over, or so I thought. Twenty-two months after my husband was diagnosed with AIDS, I planned my first funeral and buried my husband. I was only 26 years old, a widow, a single parent of a beautiful 4 year old baby boy, and jobless. After the company I worked at found out I had HIV, I lost my job of 8 ½ years. Yes, I hired an attorney, but he was ignorant, he wouldn't even shake my hand. We settled out of court. In the settlement, I received one year's wages and they had to pay for 6 months of schooling for me to be trained for another career. (Great way to show appreciation for a dedicated employee!) In addition, I was to tell NO ONE about the deal!
Years after divorcing my first husband and burying my second, I remarried my first husband (yes, the same one I cheated on…if it didn't work the first time, why did I think it would work the second?) I was pregnant again and ready to do the right thing. Over the next four years, we had three beautiful children. Our daughter, Lesley, came first, followed by two boys, Daniel Jr., and Casey. Since being diagnosed with HIV many years prior, I had been in denial, not really believing I had it. It was during my pregnancy with my fourth child, Casey, that I stepped out of this denial and confirmed my HIV diagnosis. After "fessing up" to my obstetrician, she tried to convince me to have an abortion. HIV+ or not, this was not an option for me.
Before Casey was born, I knew my other two children, Lesley and DJ, needed to be tested. Two weeks after having their blood drawn, I sat in a tiny office, waiting on the nurse to come in. I was ecstatic to hear the nurse announce my son was HIV negative. Then the pause…the long…awaited…dreaded pause...then the words, "But I'm sorry to say your daughter is HIV+." WAIT! WHAT! Can you repeat that?! There MUST be some mistake! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not only myself, but one of my children. NOW my life was over…or so I thought. God continued working in my life and heart. I worked hard once again to be the best and do the best. I was miserable. Marriage wasn't anything I expected it to be. It was during this time I added "being a Christian" to my many titles. I went to church faithfully, taught a preschool Sunday school class, helped with the children's choir, but once again went searching to fill the void in my heart. I was once again unfaithful in this marriage and the destructive path continued. (About this time, I met my current husband, Tim.) I was eventually kicked out of the church, not only for the unfaithfulness, but also the HIV issues. I had to resign from all my church duties as the pastor and staff didn't want me "fueling the fire" with HIV. I was given a seven page letter informing me I should lie if someone asked why I resigned and tell them I had a lot going on now, having to deal with four children and was told to show NO ONE the letter.
In February 1996, I was introduced to Timothy Harold Dannemiller. Years before, I remembered hearing about him and his prior family in all the local media. They had moved to the Lakeland, FL area from Maine. He and his wife had AIDS, as well as one of his two step daughters. Their doctor advised them to move to Florida because the warmer climate may be beneficial to them. They were the first family in our area living with HIV and faced insurmountable controversy. The KKK burned crosses in their front yard and set up a hotline number. Things got so bad the Sherriff's Dept. suggested he put a loaded shotgun by their front door. School wide meetings were set up, announcing this little girl had AIDS. Parents, among others, got irate and things quickly spiraled out of control. Some support was gained from individuals and organizations but did not even come close to outweighing the negativity. In fact, they ended up moving back up north due to all the controversy. His wife later died. Since he hadn't legally adopted his step-daughters, he didn't get custody of them and they went to live with his deceased wife's family. He eventually came back to Lakeland, Fl. to die after feeling life had nothing else to offer him. He had given up, had nothing to live for and moved in with his dad and stepmom. He continued abusing a pain medication called Stadol, and continued to try to kill himself. It was during this time of living with family, he saw this beautiful little girl on the news. She lived in Lakeland, Fl., had just gone public about living with HIV which surrounded the time Magic Johnson had gone public with his diagnosis. Tim just so happened to be passing through the living room. Tim's stepmother was taking care of an elderly woman where her hospital bed was located in the living room. After seeing this little girl on the local news, his heart went out to her. He proceeded to connect with his media contacts as he wanted to be a support to her and her family. Upon our initial meeting, media went CRAZY!! After traveling the road himself, he knew it could be one bumpy ride and wanted to be there to offer support. Television stations and newspapers jumped on reporting the families meeting. We spent hours together on that first meeting. We laughed and cried together, ordered pizza and reminisced sharing stories. I quickly saw the pain among his face and eyes but knew there was something intriguing about him and there was so much good to be unleashed if given the chance. My mother said she saw the chemistry from the "get-go!" As my marriage was deteriorating once again, it was during this time Lesley, Tim, and I had ice cream and horseback riding dates. We DID have a lot in common. More specifically…HIV. So, after meeting in February, we started living together in March and married in April, 1997. In between, I had divorced my husband, again. Tim continued to use but I still adored him and had hope.
On Christmas day, 1997, God gave us a beautiful baby boy, Timothy Harold Dannemiller II was born. Tim said all along, before Timothy’s HIV results were back, he would be HIV negative. His birthday was "a sign". After multiple HIV tests, it WAS confirmed… he was negative. Then, less than two years later, God gave us our first daughter together, Taylor Alexis Dannemiller was born on August 10, 1999. She completed our family and once again, our child was spared from HIV.
After completing our family, Tim continued using. I lived my life in denial. I knew it was extremely bad one winter when Tim found me outside beside our home, butcher knife pressed up against my wrist, ready to end my life. How selfish of me!
My marriage to Tim has weathered the most brutal storms. Tim went through four rehab facilities, facing drug addiction, rebellious children, a stillborn granddaughter, a premature granddaughter, and hardened hearts. We now have hearts that are willing to sacrifice and to serve others. No longer do I focus on myself, but rather what pleases my God. Many days I still fall short. If you don't believe me, just ask my husband and children.
Life can be miserable, scary, and uncertain but the road is a lot more easily traveled when you have others coming along beside you, to love and encourage you, not to shame or judge you. We're all a mess, trying to figure out how to do life.
From the valleys of my choices, came the mountain tops. My husband Tim and I travel to share our story, a message of hope, encouragement and to educate people about HIV.