Do you have any idea what it’s like to have no teeth?
The most impactful decision of my life happened in a split second the day I decided to shoot up meth for the first time. It led to my addiction and the reason why all my teeth fell out. I’m also HIV+ because of it.
Whenever I was getting high, I was having a lot of anonymous, unprotected sex with other men. Using condoms isn’t something that comes to mind when you’re high, and even after I found out I was HIV+, getting high was all I cared about. It allowed me to feel free being gay, and I wasn’t so stuck on my hang-ups. Meth may have temporarily relieved my discomfort with my self-acceptance, but in the long run, I paid a very high price of not only losing my teeth but having to live with HIV for the rest of my life.
I have always had my own fascination with this time period. As I was beginning my own journey of self, the book nerd I was, I read tons of fiction on the gay experience. Books like Tales of the City, Angels in America, And the Band Played On. Authors like Edmund White, Felice Picano, Alan Hollinghurst all stories about sexual awakening, coming out and many with an end result of an AIDS diagnosis. Even 20 years removed from the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS was at the forefront of my mind. I watched movies that depicted the treatment of AIDS patients, families taking partners from partners, people left to sit in their own filth because medical staff was too afraid to touch them. It did and still does give me goosebumps to watch or hear these stories discussed. I was never directly impacted by AIDS or HIV, but I always had a sympathy for and awareness of what it must have been like to be a gay man during an epidemic widely affecting gay men. The stigmas and hate this generation of men faced both shocks me and makes me super proud of their resilience and strength. They paved the way for me and many others to be able to come out comfortably. To wear platform sneakers, hold my boyfriends’ hand in public and get married to a man. Here is a piece of their story.
Misinformation, Mistreatment and Lots of Myths.
From all accounts it started out of nowhere and spread quickly. At the time, it seemed to have its sights set on a specific type of person and it was lethal. In the early 1980’s, men began checking into hospitals with uncommon medical conditions and failing immune systems. Gay related immunodeficiency disease (GRID) first used in a New York Times article, quickly became the diagnosis or “gay plague” because the main population initially affected by the disease were gay men. During this time of uncertainty, medical professionals were untrained and unaware of what was causing this new disease and how to keep it from spreading. There are stories, books and movies reflecting on the ways in which patients were mistreated during the earliest times of the epidemic. It took over a year for the disease to be renamed to AIDS.
It's been 26 years since my sister passed. My sister got it from a guy that came out of prison. She was 33 when she passed, I was 34. My sister was the first. My hero was the second, that's my dad. Then my dad’s brother, my uncle and then my stepmom. I guess what hurt me the most was for my father to get it. Being into the church and making us go to church 24 seven and you go out and do this to yourself and then you give it to someone else. Gosh, that's a hurtful thing to do you passing it on to someone else. My stepmother passed maybe about five or six years after he passed.
It became a passion for me. I used to, I questioned God, why me? Why me to do this fight for HIV/AIDS. Then I prayed about it and I said, why not me? That was the journey.
I was searching online for where I could get an HIV test. That's how I found out about Broward House. I called up and got some information to see if I needed an appointment and what the process was. Broward House was open for walk-ins, so I went there. I had not been tested for probably a year before this. I had been in a relationship, but at this point, I am not in a relationship with anyone. I have multiple partners and I want to protect myself from HIV.
During my testing appointment they asked me about PrEP. Before this, I heard that if you take a pill, it will basically create a protection in your body. If you're having unprotected sex or you're having multiple partners, it could prevent you from getting HIV. The process at Broward House was very simple to get signed up for PrEP.
I honestly cannot remember ever being tested prior to attending Broward College. I used to be a student there and Broward House came to campus to do free HIV and STI testing. I didn't know much about testing, except basic sexual education class information from high school and they didn't provide much information or, places to go. At Broward College it was easy because they used to have huge signs throughout campus saying testing will be available on these days at this time. I saw the signs a couple of times before, deciding to get tested. I thought, why not?
They were at campus on a regular rotation of every three months or so, doing testing. Between classes, when I had enough time, I would stop by and get tested. At the time I was consistently tested. When I left college, I found it difficult to find information on places to get free testing.
I just wanted a little bit more control over my own sexual health. At the same time, I also knew there are other people out there that deserve the same protection as well. I look at it as a kind of a double-edged sword in a way. I wasn’t sure how to go about getting this extra protection.
The process to get tested and prescribed PrEP was rather quick. I went in to get tested, only waited a little bit and after the wait, they brought me back. The person doing my testing was very friendly. I was in and out much faster than I thought it was going to be. During the testing process they asked me basic health questions. Essentially, what my sexual health had been like and they made sure I knew how to administer the STD testing and since I've taken the test before, I was easily able to navigate the test process.
I was driving down Andrews Avenue. I was leaving the Boardwalk Club and then, I saw a sign that said free HIV and STD testing. It included testing for everything. In that moment, I just decided to take advantage and that it was time to get my periodic check and make sure everything was fine.
When I walked into Broward House, they gave me some easy paperwork to fill out. I waited for about 10 or 15 minutes for someone to be available to do the testing. The entire process was very quick and painless to be honest with you.
During the testing process the tester took me through each step of the process and how long it would take for the results of each test.
One day, I was driving down Andrews Avenue and I saw a sign outside of the Broward House building for free HIV and STD testing. I decided to stop in and get tested. I usually try to get tested at least twice a year. I didn’t know much about Broward House or what they did, but the sign kind of called out to me. I am a 31-year-old, African American female and live in the Fort Lauderdale area.
The process for getting tested was super easy. I just signed in, then filled out some paperwork. During the HIV and STD testing the tester asked me some questions about my sexual history. Given my sexual activity, I'm at higher risk of contracting HIV. The tester asked me if I had heard of or knew about Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). I didn’t know much about PrEP except from the commercials that I had seen on TV. That was about it.
I was born in Dominican Republic. I always believed that I had a problem before I picked up the first drug. I always knew that there was something off. That, because of family circumstances and poverty, I was chosen to be messed up.
I found out I was HIV positive in 2017. You know the buses set up in parking lots where you can donate blood? It was that type of thing, a mobile testing site. I saw they were giving away free movie tickets and I wanted one. The testing place called me back and told me to go to a treatment center back in Miami where I was living at the time. They would need to do more blood work. That's how I found out. It was shocking. I thought I was untouchable. I always thought, that’s not going to happen to me. At that point I felt that I was dead. Everything just came down.
It was my second week in bootcamp for the United States Navy, in 2017. I got called to the office for a private meeting with the Commander of the bootcamp. When I walked into the room I sat down at a table and the Captain, his medical, legal, and clerical teams were there as well. That’s when they told me I was HIV positive. They told me this news and then they sent me home the next day. If you're leaving the military, it's usually a whole process, unless you have a reason or what they call an immediate out. If anyone tests positive for HIV, the military will discharge that person.
It felt like I had no idea what I was going to do next or, at all. I knew that they were going to send me home. I knew people don't die of AIDS anymore, that I wasn't going to die. I had no idea what type of medication I would have to take.
By Cayetana Maria Cruz-Dona
Hi, my name is Cayetana Maria Cruz-Dona. I was born Matthew Steven Dona on November 191984 at 10:30 A.M. in Detroit, Michigan.
I came from a painful, broken, abusive home and background. A child of the streets, foster system and abandonment that drove me for so many years. A life of fighting, running and survival. I developed patters and reactions that were protective and served a purpose. Growing up, I was on the streets more than I was at home. It felt safer to be in danger. This thinking led me to some dark and dangerous places. I hurt a lot of people along the way, never settling in one place for to long.
By Ricky Dorvil
I guess I could tell you how hard life has been, how depressing and overwhelming the world seems. I could tell you about how my father died when I was 15 or I could tell you how I became HIV+ at the age of 19. But, no, I will save you the time and empathy. I may sound blunt or even rude, but do not judge me just yet.
Here I am with a mind filled with thoughts and a stomach filled with knots, or maybe it's the gas; or maybe it's the thought of sharing a piece of myself with you guys, and my eyes constantly filled with tears. As a young man I managed to learn the values of working because of my mom. We (my sister and I) would go meet up with her to help her clean several classrooms she had at an elementary school. Did I like it? Hell no! But did she need the help? Hell yes. She was doing that for us. She was always trying to give us what she didn’t have and there were days I felt like it was never enough. I was a major spoiled brat.
I've been introduced to many things that haven't been beneficial for my health nor for my mental stability. And, on the flip side of the coin, I was also introduced to things that have been beneficial. The USA was presented to me in 2011 as a place to find a better life. I lost my job after a major recession hit The Bahamas. l couldn't continue my mission of obtaining my associates degree as a Registered Nurse during that time. I couldn’t ask the government for a loan because I was considered a foreigner in the country I was born and raised in because even though I was born there, my family was of Haitian descent. When I moved to the USA in January of 2011, I managed to find a job as a construction worker. No ma’am, I hated that job. A year later, I found a job as a cleaner at a Haitian restaurant. I was saving my money and taking steps to becoming a part of the USA. At this point, I didn't know what a flu or cold was. I had no choice but to take those words out of my dictionary. The only phrase that I became familiar with was “work to survive.”
I found out I was HIV positive when I went to a clinic in the area in early 2000. My best friend and I decided to go get tested. I found out then that I was positive.
I didn't feel any different after I got tested and I still didn't feel any different after they gave me the results. It didn't hit me right away. And I kept the fact that I was positive with HIV a secret, because I didn't want anybody to look at me different. I never expected or thought I would contract HIV. I thought that I was invincible. There was a lot of fear and shame because growing up Christian I was taught; guys are not supposed to be with guys and girls are not supposed to be with girls. So, I just kept everything, my status and my sexuality a secret. I just kept living my life, like nothing happened, which was careless. I've kept journals since I was a little kid. I wrote in my journal, but that was it. The only “person” I really told that I was HIV positive was my journal.
I am a product of the eighties. How I didn't get HIV during that time, I am not sure. Not that it's anything to be ashamed of, but back then people were, sadly, dying like crazy from the virus. A lot of my friends would go to New York City and come back and find out they were HIV positive. By the grace of God, I was able to avoid that. I remember years ago, where you would go for an HIV blood test and two weeks later you would have to come back for the results. There were no rapid result tests. They would sit you in a room alone and the nurse would come and say “hi, how are you?" Even if you were not HIV positive, you would have to go back to the testing center, and you would be a nervous wreck waiting for the result.
I went down Andrews Avenue in Wilton Manors the other day, I always drive by the Broward House clinic located there. This particular day, I saw a sign that said free HIV/STD testing. I had been thinking about getting tested for a while, but I did not know where to go to get this done. I had not been tested in 5 years up to this point. I called the number on the sign and the gentlemen at the front desk couldn't have been more kind, accommodating and welcoming. For someone anxious about testing this made all the difference. I made an appointment and I went in. I had all the blood work done that they offered for HIV/STD testing.
I was transitioning from 16 to 21. During that time my mom passed away and my partner was murdered around the same time. I started using crystal meth and that's how I got HIV, I was shooting up. At that time, I couldn't emotionally deal with what was going on. I had so much loss and I had nobody, no support system, nothing. My mother had been my main support. I went back into the closet about being transgender.
In 2007 I was tested and diagnosed with HIV. From there, it just led me down a bad path. I just didn't care about my life. I would take my antiretroviral meds, but I continued to use drugs. It was an interesting time in my life. During this time, I signed over my power of attorney to my then partner. I mean, I couldn't control what I was saying or doing. I was in a very bad psychosis. The fact that I signed everything over when I was using drugs, that scared me. I ended up in state custody and I had to fight to get out and have my independence. I’ve now been sober for a while and attend Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings. I found a local treatment center to support with case management and medical and I rely on my close friends for support.
I came to Florida from Los Angeles. I used to work in Beverly Hills as a hairdresser. I had a great life working in Beverly Hills; going to the gym, going to fancy places, getting dressed up nicely. I mean a whole different lifestyle. I moved to Florida to be near my mom. I told her that I was only going to stay with her for one year, and then I was going back to Los Angeles. That was the original plan. I was going to come here and stay for a year then, go back to my normal life in Los Angeles.
Then I got sick, the flu.
Then, I began getting sicker and sicker.
That was when the doctor told me that I have AIDS.
My first thought was how would I tell my mother. And, the next was that this is a death sentence.
I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was incarcerated for using drugs, and then found out in jail that I was pregnant and HIV positive. I didn’t know how to feel or what to think. I was in a place all alone with a baby inside me, and I didn’t know anything about HIV. I wanted to die but, I didn’t.
When I got out of jail, I didn’t have support from anyone, including my family. But I was able to get cleaned up and started taking care of myself for my baby. When my daughter was born, she was thankfully HIV negative.
Since then and for the past 12 years, I have struggled with disclosing my HIV status. I have experienced stigma with my family, where they would serve me food from paper plates. When my mother sees me feeding my kid with my spoon, she would say, “Don’t do that! Here, use a different spoon.” My fear has been not knowing how people will react, and I’ve been walking around with that fear.
I had been in the homeless shelter for four months. While I was there, I had a seizure first and then a stroke. My whole left side was paralyzed. I couldn’t move it. The doctor wanted to find out why I had a seizure, so they told me they were going to run some tests and they were going to also test me for HIV.
Later, when the doctor came in the room, I said what’s the verdict? He said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is you’re getting out, but the bad is you’ve got AIDS.” It shocked me and I was in denial. It didn’t hit me for a while what the doctor had said. Just be careful, because I wasn’t careful. I never thought I would get HIV and then this happened. I had unprotected sex with a girl, so just be careful!
Nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. I remember thinking, what's going on with me? I had lost a lot of weight and got pneumonia. My friend who was older and HIV positive said, “Chris, you need to go get tested. I'll go with you.” I said, okay, let's go. Two weeks later, he went back with me and I got the results. I had a feeling I was positive before the results, so it wasn't a shock when I found out that I was HIV positive, more a feeling of relief, but also a little fear. I had let it go for so long and I'd lost so much weight. I immediately flashed back to all this hypersensitive information from the 1980s that the news had put out there, if you get HIV, you're going to die. At the time, I was diagnosed in 2003, I only had one or two examples of people who were HIV positive for years and years, and who were living a healthy, normal life. That's where the fear came from. Wondering how soon am I was to die?
Not long after being diagnosed with AIDS, I moved from Iowa to Florida and stayed with my daughter and two grandsons. My oldest grandson started pre-school leaving my younger grandson Luca home alone with no one to play with. Luca meanwhile could see Papa lying in bed. He would come over and pile all his toys next to me and say, “Will you play with me Papa? You have to get up Papa. It's med time Papa.” This went on for two years!
I've been in treatment since day one of finding out that I was positive in 2014. I was in the hospital and the second day the doctor came into my room and asked me if I wanted to live. I said, of course, I want to live. He put his hand on my foot real firm and said, “No, Michael, do you want to live? Before I put you through all these tests, put you on all these expensive medicines, I need to know this one thing. Are you willing to do your part? If you are not willing to do your part, I will turn around and walk out this room.” This is what changed my life. He made it clear that if I wasn't willing to take these meds and adhere to them daily, I was going to die. All my life, all I ever wanted to do was climb Mt. Everest. AIDS became my Mt. Everest and I grabbed it by the horns.