After Domestic Violence and HIV, a Beautiful Life
Looking for Love in the Face of Domestic Violence
My sister was born soon after. Growing up, my father played a major role in my life, but when my sister was born all of that stopped. I assumed my father had stopped loving me, and I began looking for love in all the wrong places.
I eventually would be molested by a janitor on the military base where we lived in Germany. He changed my life forever. I grew up being uncomfortable in my own skin. Molestation became a normal way of life for me. I believed that if you weren’t touching me, you didn’t love me.
Everyone in my family was beautiful and thin. And then there was me. I felt I didn’t belong, unwanted and unloved. My relationship with my parents was turbulent, which fueled my drive to look for the love and acceptance I thought I didn’t have.
The More I Hurt, the More I Used Drugs
I quickly began having children at a very young age. I dibbled and dabbled in alcohol and drugs. They took me to a place where I could escape from the life I hated. Eventually I would suffer homelessness and domestic violence. I stayed after the violence. Some love was better than no love at all. The drugs began to take over my life. Being a mother took a back seat, and this would cost me my children — all three of them.
Soon I ran out of money to take care of my basic needs, which included obtaining the drugs to keep me numb. I was introduced to sex work and crime to sustain my survival and my drug habit. Because of this, I was thrown out of cars, and beaten within an inch of my life and beyond recognition. I was stabbed in the chest, pistol-whipped, and finally sent to jail.
“Well, at least I can rest,” I told myself.
I was court-ordered to attend drug rehab. A few weeks into my stay, it was announced that the county was going to be providing HIV testing. I figured, sure, why not? I took the test. Two weeks later, on April 11, 1999, the results came back. I was called back into the nurse’s office, and the lady who tested me appeared.
“What’s my result?” I asked.
She said, “It doesn’t look good.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t look good?”
She got up and walked out of the room. I knew then I was HIV positive.
HIV Never Spoke to Me
At the time, I was hearing that HIV was a gay white man’s disease and black folks didn’t get it. I never identified with any of the risk factors associated with HIV. I thought, “I am going to die. Who is going to love me now? I am fat, black, and ugly with three kids by three different men.”
I immediately went back to the drug-rehab unit and reported I was HIV-positive. At first, I assumed I was accepted and everything was going to be okay. But I was met with stigma, and even made to clean blood that didn’t even belong to me off of a toilet seat . I thought, out of 60 women on the unit, you made ME do this? I was humiliated and swore I would never tell another soul.
I graduated from the rehab program and got my GED. But I left plagued with the trauma of my childhood, the feelings of being unloved and unwanted, and now, shame and blame. In 2002, I lost my job; I couldn’t feed my kids or pay my rent. Everything was falling apart yet again. I relapsed.
Living With HIV
In 2005, I stopped using drugs and moved back to Texas to face my demons and get my life in order. I started to learn about HIV and began to reach out to services that could help me to regain my life.
I moved into supportive housing with people like myself. I was amazed to see how happy people there were. I asked, “Don’t they know they have HIV? How could they be this happy?”
Because of them, I learned that I too can live with this diagnosis. I reached out to other organizations that could help foster my growth. I found myself getting involved in advocacy, and I found my voice.
One day, I figured I would do something different to raise awareness about HIV and African-American women. One of my friends had entered the Texas Plus America Pageant and thought I should also. At first I was a little apprehensive because it would mean I would be disclosing my HIV status on a national level. I decided to do it anyway, and besides, I wanted to be connected to those women who felt as I did many years ago about HIV infection -- that they were exempt from such a diagnosis. I didn’t win the state title, but I was still able to compete in the national event as a delegate at large.
Finding My Voice at the Ms. Plus America Pageant
I never thought I would win, but on July 9, 2011, I became Ms. Plus America 2011. When I heard my name, I knew that this was a huge win for women and those who still suffer in silence. I was very proud. We did it!
My relationship with my family has been renewed. But most importantly, I was able to face those traumatic experiences and finally allow that little girl who made every single decision in my life based on her hurt and pain to finally rest.
I’m glad my dad gave me my old passports. Today, I can see where I was then and how far I’ve come. Years of trauma led me to an HIV diagnosis. I learned that I did not do anything wrong or different to become HIV-positive. I was able to find out how I became positive. I was in a relationship with someone for two years who had never shared his diagnosis with me. Love trumps knowledge every single time.
HIV is nothing more than a diagnosis, and I will not allow it to dictate the outcome of my life. There’s life out there, and I am going to live it boldly and out loud!
Michelle Anderson is 44 and lives in Dallas, Texas. She has an associate's degree in substance abuse counseling, and is active as a community mobilizer. She is a state-certified peer recovery coach for the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction, a consultant for the Afiya Center in Dallas, treasurer/board member for the ADAP Advocacy Association, and blogger for A Girl Like Me! Anderson is also an Ambassador for National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.
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