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.
I was never careful, I’ve never been safe. The drugs and the needle came first. I didn’t care about anyone or anything but getting high. It is such a miserable way to live. I don’t know how I ever did it to begin with. It’s not fun. It’s like living a lie. Actually it’s not living at all. It’s meaningless. But as long as I thought I looked good, I never believed that I had a problem.
The only reason I got tested for HIV in prison was because it got me out of my room for a little while. They gave us food, some attention and we got to watch TV. At the time I was surprised to learn I was HIV positive. I took my medication in prison, but that’s because they made me. The minute I got out and started using again, I stopped taking my medication.
My name is Anthony, I am a heterosexual, white male and I am living with HIV. I’ve lived a life filled with hard choices, many of them wrong.
I left home when I was just 8 years old. I either slept on friend’s couches or on the street. Not long after, I began sleeping with prostitutes. I was homeless, a thief, a liar and just a bad guy. In 1984 I left my hometown of Massachusetts for Florida because I had destroyed relationships with everyone I knew. I was screaming for help from the inside, but not in a way that anyone would hear. It was during one of my stints in the Department of Corrections that I tested positive for HIV. The days of unprotected sex with prostitutes finally caught up with me. Soon after that, due to HIV related thrush and rashes, I began to look as horrible on the outside as I felt on the inside. I tried to hide it: I wore long-sleeved shirts in the blazing Florida heat, and was embarrassed to tell people about my HIV status. I rarely went to doctors, and never took any HIV medication. I hated myself so much, I couldn’t imagine anyone else wanting to help me or care for me.
I always had a dream of starting my own family, getting married, having a husband, kids, pets, everything. Then, in a matter of seconds all those dreams I had for my life came crashing down. That’s what it felt like when the doctor told me I tested positive for HIV, like my life had ended. I am a 36-year-old Hispanic man living with HIV and for 10 years I wasn’t able to talk about my status with anyone other than my doctor – until now.
I come from a Hispanic background, my mother is Venezuelan and my dad is half Spanish and half German. In Venezuela, the HIV/AIDS stigma is very big; it’s like a taboo thing. Just by being gay, people already think you’re HIV positive. Coming out to my family was hard enough, especially my mom, she didn’t speak to me for three years. It took her some time to start a relationship with me again so when I was diagnosed with HIV, I couldn’t tell my family because I thought it was going to hurt them even more. I decided to keep it to myself.
My name is Miguel. I am a 52-year-old Latino Male. I was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 back in the Midwest. I thought I was in a monogamous relationship with my partner until I found out he was cheating on me. We hadn’t been using condoms, so I knew I needed to get tested. Right after I was diagnosed, when I should have been taking care of myself, I put my needs to the side and moved to Florida to take care of my cousin who had just suffered a stroke.
One night, after many bad decisions and poor life choices, I was arrested. The Judge sentenced me to an outpatient program but I knew that was not going to work for me. I now realized that in order for me to really make a change, I needed to be in a residential treatment program. I understood I was powerless and that my life had become unmanageable. I asked the Judge and thankfully he agreed to my request. I had a goal. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny and not let this virus inside of me take control.
I always knew I was different. Growing up, I was an alien compared to other boys my age. I remember when I was eight, my Mom had this beautiful dress and I would always encourage her to wear it because I thought she looked so pretty in it. She knew it was my favorite dress of hers, but what she didn’t know was when she left for work, I’d put that dress on and walk around the house like I was living my best life!
I felt like an outsider but as I got older the transgender community welcomed me with open arms. I loved being part of that world, especially the nightlife. Unfortunately, there’s an ugly side to that lifestyle and because I was the type to try anything once, my curiosity eventually led me down a dark path filled with parties, sex and drugs.
When it came to love, I didn’t know what it meant to be in a healthy relationship and I ended up in this vicious cycle dating men who were no good for me. There was one toxic ex that would unfortunately alter the course of my life forever.
My name is J.R. I don’t hang out and do crazy things, but I did almost die in the Emergency Room not long ago. I’m usually very healthy, but I suddenly and unexpectedly became really sick, and I began looking real bad too. I had become terribly skinny, and my skin had started turning into scales. After the ER doc ran a few blood tests, he came into my room and announced I had HIV! He explained that the virus had already begun attacking my lungs, which is why I had COPD and pneumonia too.
It was a trying time because I didn’t know too much about HIV. I also didn’t know where to get help and I wanted to start HIV meds because I found out I needed them in order to get healthy again. By this time, I had lost my apartment because I was too sick to work, but God blessed me with an angel.
Take a deep breath and pray. I found out I was HIV+ in jail and I was distraught. I knew what HIV was, but I was in shock. Then I got mad. Then I started crying. I felt like falling to the floor. Like time had frozen. I knew I had to talk to my parents after finding out my status. When I called, my father answered, and I said “Daddy I just found out I’m HIV+”. He asked if I was okay and my mom and dad, no matter what I did, never gave up on me.
I had to tell my daughter; “Mommy’s HIV+”, and she asked me “Mommy, what happened?” I said to her “Well, mommy was out getting high and one night I got into the wrong car, and a guy raped me. I found out that he raped a lot of girls in the area. He always told them, “You’re going to remember me.” He knew he had it and he gave it to me on purpose. I was using protection even when I was out doing what I was doing in my past. It just took that one time.”
There is a stigma about not asking if you're HIV+ or asking when you got tested. That's the twisted thinking that I had. Because my ex-partner didn't ask me about my HIV status, so I assumed that he was negative, and I guess he assumed that I was negative also. I was diagnosed with HIV after learning my then partner was HIV+. I went in and got tested and low and behold, I was HIV+. At the time, I felt that I fell into a black hole with nobody around; and then like the whole world just stopped around me and it was just totally black.
I started on drugs because I didn't love myself and I felt like my life was over after my diagnosis and I was pretty much vengeful. I didn't care about myself, so I didn't care what other people had to say. That was because I felt like the whole world was against me because of my sexuality. The stigma was strong because of my family upbringing.
There was a time in my life when I could barely get out of bed. I was always tired. When my mom was alive, we went to get medical advice to seek out what was wrong. That's when I got my diagnosis that I was HIV+. They linked me to a great doctor across the street and he got me to an undetectable level, where antiretroviral treatment has reduced the HIV virus to such small quantities that it can no longer be detected by standard blood tests, within nine months.
When my mom passed away, my insurance suddenly stopped. I had to figure out what Ryan White benefits were. I quickly ran out of my HIV meds and was trying to figure out, “What do I do here? How do I get myself linked back to care?” And you know, the phrase, not every helping hand is there to watch you succeed? That's what happened. I went back to a friend’s place and started a very deep drug addiction where I didn't leave his space again for another five weeks.
How am I going to care for myself?
How am I going to get treatment?
What am I going to do?
Those were my biggest fears when I found out that I was HIV+. Not about having HIV, but how to take care of myself. I have always heard about how expensive it is. That was the scary part for me. I'm the type of person, whatever is in front of me, I just stop and don't dwell on the problem. I'd rather find a solution. I'm a person of faith. So, I'm like, “Okay, God, you gotta show me right now.” I Googled HIV care in Florida and found a local organization to help me navigate through these challenges. Someone from the organization came to the hospital in an hour. That same day I was discharged and the very next day, I started free Anti-Retroviral Treatment.