B E E N  T H E R E:  H I V  P O S I T I V E

April 1997

From low self-esteem to self-respect

Paula thought that AIDS was a "gay white man's disease." She figured that since she was a heterosexual, African American woman, she didn't have to worry about it. Paula has HIV. At 21 she is also the single mother of two small children. Because she has learned so much about her own strength she is now speaking out to high school students about HIV and self-respect.

The InSite: Paula, tell us about yourself.

Paula: I'm 21 years old now. I grew up in different foster homes because my mom gave us away when I was two years old... she couldn't take care of us. So I didn't get a chance to know my mom. Growing up in different foster homes was hard because I always had this longing for my mother. To know who she is and where she's at. I just wanted to be there with her.

TI: What was it like growing up without a mom?

Paula: I had different problems. I was suicidal. I just had this really bad feeling about things in general. About life and stuff. So I just went from one home to another. From one extreme to another, and Child Protective Services decided to give me therapy to find out what was going on with me. I was about 8 or 9 at the time. I still remember her name. It was Carol. And she was a really nice, tall, black lady. This was something we did every Tuesday and Thursday. I used to hate when my brother used to go 'cause I wanted that to be my time. That I would get to talk to a woman... get to know her and stuff. Kinda like a mom.

TI: Did things change when you became a teen?

Paula: Yeah. Finally I got old enough to where I wanted to find my mom. So I ran away and went to Texas where she was at. I was like 14. I remember being at Greyhound. Sitting in the bathroom smoking cigarette after cigarette because I was so scared.

TI: What was it like seeing her again?

Paula: It was kinda miserable. I hadn't seen her since I was two years old, but I remember her being this pretty person. But when I saw her she was big as a house! She wasn't what I expected in any way. She was like totally different. She cried and cried and cried when she first saw me, you know. But after that things kinda went down.

I was the kinda kid that if you hit me,
I'm going to hit you back!

TI: Were you going to school?

Paula: Yes, I went to high school, but I didn't like the way they were at that school. The principal, he could hit you if he wanted to... with this little paddle. And me, I was the kinda kid that if you hit me, I'm going to hit you back! So he expelled me for three days. My mom never knew because she was never there. It was just me and my brother there, these kids home by ourselves for like a month. Probably you can imagine what our house was like!

I met this 25 year old guy, and I just started staying with him because my mom kicked me out. He was totally cool. He used to take care of me. He didn't like my mom for nothing. Basically he thought my mom should have treated us a lot better. She should have been a mother. She should have been there for us.

TI: What happened to that relationship?

Paula: I guess he got tired of taking care of me. Then I got pregnant when I was 15 by this other guy who was 19. I was so naive, I didn't know I was pregnant until I was four months. I guess I never paid any attention... with all the fighting and hanging out... I was just doing so much I never thought that I was pregnant until it just dawned on me "I haven't had a period in a while!" The only reason I went to Planned Parenthood was because my friend was going. She was having "girl problems." I think she had a disease [an STD, Sexually Transmitted Disease] or something. So she said she was going to get a pregnancy test and why don't I take one too. And I said "For what?" But she wanted me to take one with her so I did.

There is no love here.
I cannot bring my baby up here.

TI: Weren't you using protection?

Paula: No. I didn't think I needed to use any protection because me and this guy, we were making plans to get married. So then I found out I was pregnant. And I cried and I laughed! I was happy 'cause I just knew I was going to have that baby. Then when I told the guy he just smiled and smiled, but we still fought. 'Cause he tried to get me to stop smoking cigarettes. Me, I just still wanted to smoke cigarettes. Oh, God, we were fighting with his mom and with his sisters. And one day I just woke up and I looked around me and I thought, "There is no love here. I cannot bring my baby up here."

So I called my sister, who was still living in California, and she sent me a ticket, and I got back on the bus, and I came back to California. And life was so much better. I went back to school. But I was living with my sister... and she was charging me money for living with her, for using her kids' old baby clothes, for everything. And I couldn't take it after a while. Then when my son was like four he was this cute little button thing... and I though, "Okay. This is the one thing in my life that loves me just because. That's not going to hurt me or charge me money for his love." So I went back out to Texas because I was hoping I could have a family with my son's father. But then I got there, and I found out that he had someone else and she had a baby and her and me would always fight. It was really ugly. If I was looking for family, this is not where I was going to find it!

People already treat me like crap! I can't imagine how they were going to treat me if I was using drugs!

TI: So what did you do?

Paula: One day I just threw my hands up and said forget it. And I got a job. At first I tried working and going to school but I had to be up at 5:30 or 6 o'clock to catch the bus to go to school. It was hard. Especially when you get off work at 1 o'clock in the morning! And sometimes my baby would wake up, and he didn't want to go back to sleep. He wanted to play! But I needed money, you know. Because Welfare wasn't giving me enough money. So I quit school, and I went to work, and I was selling drugs too, because I thought this little paycheck is not enough. I never used drugs myself. I was too scared. And I saw the way that people didn't have any respect for you [if you are a drug addict] and they treat you like crap, and I thought "People already treat me like crap! I can't imagine how they were going to treat me if I was using drugs!" But after a little while I saw that it just wasn't worth it to sell them. So I stopped.

TI: When did you leave Texas?

Paula: Soon after that. I wanted to come back to California. I could make more money out here. And they have so many different programs for people with kids if they wanted to go back to school. And I wanted to go back to school.

TI: So at this time in your life what did you know about HIV and AIDS?

Paula: I heard about AIDS but I never heard about HIV. I thought you could only get it if you were a gay man or if you used IV drugs. Since I wasn't a gay man, and I didn't use drugs I didn't care. didn't work. No matter
how much I tried, it didn't work.

I went back to California. I got in a church. I met this guy, and we got married. In the beginning it was great, and he loved my kid. I never met anybody who didn't love my kid, but I guess [my husband] had a problem with loving me. And he was on drugs, and I didn't know that when I married him. And by the time I found out I was pregnant, he was in jail. So I couldn't even hit him. On drugs! I looked at my step-father, and I thought, "Man, never would I be with a man on drugs!" I used to look at my mom and say, "How can you stay with him? You're crazy." But now I'm in a situation, like oh my God! You know? But I thought I have to try to work things out. I mean, I'm pregnant, and I can't give up now. But it didn't work. No matter how much I tried, it didn't work.

TI: But you wanted to keep the baby?

Paula: Yes! And so I went to get all these STD tests to make sure the baby would be all right. And they asked if I wanted to take the AIDS test. I said, "Man, for what? I'm not a gay man! I don't use drugs." Then they said that it is shown in heterosexual women too. I thought he was talking about a whole different species when he said "heterosexual." I took the test, and then I totally forgot about it.

TI: Then how did they let you know the results?

Paula: I went to visit my grandparents for Christmas, and the following week I had a doctor's appointment to see the labor and delivery rooms at the hospital. At this point I was five and a half months pregnant. As I was walking to the elevator my doctor called me back into that little room I had just come out of. And he told me that my tests came back positive for HIV. And I said, "Oh I could have told you that. HIV, I've had that before." And he looked at me and he said, "What are you talking about?" And I said "I'm allergic to certain foods and I break out. I get these little welts on me."

And I'm crying and he's crying and
we're both sitting there, boo-hoo crying.

TI: You thought he meant hives [a skin rash]!

Paula: Yeah! But then he said, "No. No. Were talking about the virus that causes AIDS." And I said, "No! You're crazy! What?! I've only been with three men in my life. Are you like totally loony? I haven't had these relationships where I had seriously crazy unprotected sex. No!" It was January 12, 1994 3:45 pm. Right then I tried to jump out of the window in the doctor's office. And I'm crying and he's crying and we're both sitting there, boo-hoo crying.

And then, during the pregnancy they gave me medication. I was walking on "neutral." I didn't know what the heck was going on. What they were talking about. I can't remember half my pregnancy, I just remember taking medicine every day and being stuck in bed and people bringing food to my door.

TI: What happened when the baby was born?

Paula: Oh, a blessing. She's so beautiful. She took the medication from the first six weeks of her life. And I kept taking her for test results and they kept coming back negative. And when she got the last one, that scared me, because I thought to myself, "Okay. This is the last test. Four out of five came back negative. Let's hope this will be five out of five." And it came back negative! So she won't have to go through the crap I'm going through.

TI: Did your husband know he was HIV positive?

Paula: I think he did. But you know I still remember they asked me if we wanted to take the AIDS test when we were getting our blood test for our marriage license. It's so weird! [This memory] just came to me. I remember that. And we didn't have enough money. And if we had, and I'd have known then [that my husband was HIV positive]... but I guess God wanted me to have this little girl. But to be honest, sorry, baby, Mama loves you, but you wouldn't be here. You probably would, but it wouldn't be from him! Now I tell kids.... wait. Take a blood test together. Wait another six months and take another blood test. Then you know what you're dealing with.

I went through the same system, and I'm not going to let you put my kids my through that system.

TI: In what way has being HIV positive changed your life?

Paula: It has saved my life. After going through the problems with my husband. Going to the mental hospital. Trying to kill him and me. My kids were taken from me by Children's Protective Services. And I went to CPS and I said, "You know. I went through the same system, and I'm not going to let you put my kids my through that system. I refuse to."

I went to the AIDS legal resource place and I got a lawyer. And this was a doggone good lawyer because she expressed to them that I had never abused drugs. I never abused alcohol. I just abused me. I took doggone good care of my kids. I just didn't take care of me. I'd been suicidal as long as the case goes back, and I need help. And if they want to help my kids, help my kids, but don't take my kids from me. So my kids were gone for a total of a month and a half, and when they back came home I've just fought ever since. I said, "Man, I'm not going to let this disease take me away."

I got a divorce from my husband, and I said, "No more. I've been beat up all my life. Now I'm going to do what I need to do." And that was three years ago and I've just been doing it ever since. I go to school, go to work, go to church, and take care of my kids. That's it. I've stopped wanting other people to love me. I've started loving me for me. I think a lot more of myself than I used to. I have no reason to be bitter. I love life. I have two kids. Man, that's enough to be happy! I forgive their daddy. I don't care! I find they trip over what they've done to me more than I do. [So I say to them] go on with your life. I want you to have a good life, 'cause I bet you I will.

I've stopped wanting other people to love me.

I've started loving me for me.

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