In 2007, 53,200 new cases of HIV were reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though that number would drop off by more than 5,000 cases come 2010, signaling a welcomed shift in the fight to eradicate the disease.
But while black women have benefited from that shift more than any other group, experiencing a 21 percent decrease in new HIV infections, according to a new report by the CDC, 2007 will forever be a life-changing year for 41-year-old Andrea Johnson.
Here, she shares her story of love and life after being diagnosed with HIV.
As told to HuffPost Black Voices:
July 11, 2007. I found my status out on July 11, 2007. I contracted HIV from a man who is now my ex-husband.
I was doing a community event to raise money for a few [fashion] designers in Philadelphia and he came in as one of the models. He was wooing my sisters and I. It was really nice. He pursued me seriously. I hadn’t dated in a very long time -- the reason being because I was trying to get my career together back then -- so I decided to open myself up and date again.
I wanted someone, but it wasn’t pressing. It was like a dream date. He did everything right. We did things, talked a lot, communicated what we did and didn’t want and I thought everything was fine.
As months went on, things really started to change. I was still having protected sex, but it was like this person was working on [me], just learning every bit of [me]. And as I look back at it now, it was not for any good reason, but to make [me] one of his victims. It was to a point where he learned everything about me, how to manipulate me in a whole lot of ways. I never experienced anything like it, so I didn’t know how to deal with it and I was too embarrassed to even tell my own family about it. I was too scared to say anything.
Everything started to change when I physically saw him cheating with another woman in our home, in our bed. From then, my life has turned around.
I went to my doctor and she said “I’m going to run every test on you, including an HIV test.” He looked 100 percent healthy -- he was an ex-football player -- and I got tested every year anyway. My results always came back negative and HIV was the furthest thing from my mind. But I got tested, and my doctor called me feverishly saying, “I need to speak with you.”
I suffer from anemia, so I’m thinking maybe there’s something with that, so I kind of put her off. But she called me one day and said really sternly, “Get in here now.”
I went into the office and she was crying before I even got there. I’m thinking maybe I have some type of cancer or something. I wasn’t thinking anything about HIV and she looked at me and said, “Andrea, your HIV results came back positive.” I’m looking at her like “Oh, we need to test again” and she said, “I already sent your blood work to be retested and it came back positive.”
My initial everything was shock. I’m very responsible; I don’t sleep around; I do everything I can for my family. My initial thing, like everyone, is “I’m going to die.” I started preparing to die. I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know if I was putting my kids in jeopardy of being exposed as well.
Once I found out, I called the only person that I know that I could have been infected from and his response was like, “Oh, is that it?” So I’m finding out in the most horrific way, from this man who I thought I was in love with forever. This is how I found out that I had HIV and that he knew that he had it -- he apparently had this virus for a number of years and had been having sex with many other women throughout those years -- and he continued to just pass it on without informing me of it and giving me a choice.
For the first three months, I went through a low, but the first three weeks of finding out I think I went through a serious depression. You just don’t know. You don’t know what your future is going to hold, what’s going to happen, how people are going to perceive you, are you going to be looked at differently, are you going to lose your job, who do you have to tell? So many things are running through your mind. You’re thinking, "Am I really going to die?" It’s so unfair. You go through the phase of, “Why me? Why did this happen?”
There were so many red flags. I've talked to a lot of the other women, at least ten of them who he infected as well, and we all have the same [story] -- single mothers, kids, just wanting to have a nice relationship. A lot of these women are not ready to speak up given where they are in their lives. Some of them are executives. He knew exactly what he wanted and the type of women he wanted to go after.
When you are going through something, you don’t see it. I always said, until I developed a relationship with this person, that I would never be in a relationship with an abusive person and I ended up with everything that I said I didn’t want.
One of the first things that I say to a crowd of women who were in abusive relationships is, “I am sorry. I am so sorry that I judged you, not realizing, until I had to go through that, what it all entails.”
One day, there was a cell phone ringing in his gym bag, a cell phone that I didn’t know he had. I opened the phone up and saw all these names. There weren’t just one or two names, there were 20, 30, many many more. I started calling these women randomly, as many as I could before he came back, and told them, “This man has HIV. You need to go get checked.”
Some of the response I was getting were “You’re just mad, because I got your man.” But then he came back through the door and now, I’m looking at him like he’s a monster. It was my wake up call. That was my last abusive incident with him and he ended up in the hospital this time. That was the breaking point in regards to making sure that this man never did this to another woman again. I saw it as an injustice to be quiet.
Three months after I found out my diagnosis, in October of 2007, Hillary Clinton invited me out to speak in front of Congress. They had an issue in regards to how women were being affected, the rise in women who are getting it, who are not out here as prostitutes or on drugs. These were mothers, these were women in committed relationships, church women, many women were being infected through their spouses, and they were trying to figure out how to classify us. Where do we fit in to funding for education and empowerment? We didn’t have the same risk factors. Our risk factor was sex, but you can’t tell a married woman to wrap it up with her husband.
From there, everything just exploded and I started meeting up with other advocates.
Being silent about issues that affect you and infect you does equal death these days. Even though they tell us that HIV and AIDS is not a death sentence anymore, it really still is, especially for the African-American community. We’re not being tested, we’re not speaking up, we’re hiding our status because of fear, we suffer in silence.
I’d like to give a new look to that and say, you don’t have to suffer in silence. I am thriving. I am living. I am here. The worst thing in life has already happened to me. There’s nothing no one can say to me or do to me that hasn’t already been done.
Are you living (and thriving) with HIV? Show us what HIV looks like. Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org and help put an end to the stigma associated with the disease.