Michele A. grew up in a middle class suburb of San Diego. Early in her teenage years, Michele drank alcohol and took some pills too. But then she decided to change her life. She decided to straighten out and attended Alcoholics Anonymous to help her through.
A lot of teenagers come through difficult periods like these armed with bad memories and some hard-learned lessons. Michele seemed to be one of them. Then Michele learned she had AIDS. Later, she learned she had gotten infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from sexual contact with a boyfriend when she was only 16. Here is her story: I got married in March 1990 when I was 21. Everything was going real well. I was working full time and going to college, too.
Then in mid-November, I noticed my tongue was real white, which seemed really strange. I had been having a lot of little infections the last six years, but the doctors would give me medicine, and they would go away.
In December I went for a checkup and showed the doctor my tongue. She said, “It looks like you have thrush, but it’s usually only common in babies and persons with immune system disorders, such as HIV infection.” And I said, “I’m not either one of those, so I’m sure it’s something else.”
The doctor gave me a battery of tests, but I didn’t worry about it. I knew I wasn’t one of the at-risk people. I had done some drugs in high school, but only amphetamines just like everybody else around here who did drugs. I never did heroin or needles or anything like that.
A week later, the doctor called me at work and said she needed to see me right away. I asked why, and she said she’d rather not tell me over the phone. She said she’d like to see me at 4:30 because all of her other patients would be gone and we could have some private time. I knew right then and there.
I barely made it home. I was so angry and thought to myself, I’ve been sober for seven years. I’m married now. Why did it have to be me? I could think of other people who deserved it. Now it gives me the willies to say that, but that was my first reaction.
My husband was at home to meet me. He kept saying that it must be something else. Then I called my mom and she said the same–it’s something else. Then my husband’s brother called and we told him. They both rushed over. And there we all sat for three hours, just waiting and crying and hoping it was something else–but knowing. It was the longest three hours of my life.
As we all drove to the doctor’s office, I thought: After this drive, my life will not be the same. We sat down in the reception area, and all I could think was: How long have I got?
Then the doctor came out. She looked so solemn–it was like someone had already died. Then she said, “I suppose we all know why we are here.” With that, my mom’s head fell into her hands and my husband collapsed. I was the only one who seemed under control at that point. I was numb, I guess.
The doctor said I was HIV positive, and from what I had told her she thought I had had this for a long time. Her guess was about six or seven years. So I was about 16 when I got it.
Then I gave the famous line: “How long have I got, Doc?”
And she said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “Is there anything…?”
And she said, “No, we can help stabilize your T-cells for some time on AZT [a drug used to slow the development of AIDS and to prolong survival in some persons], but chances are, you are going to die.”
Here I was. I wasa 22 years old. I had just been told I had a disease that’s going to kill me. This was my week of finals at school (I ended up dropping out). I WAS SPINNING.
The family was great, though. I guess I was lucky. I’ve heard some real horror stories. But I decided to keep the news within the family. I wondered: Should I tell people? Am I in the mood to find out who my real friends are? Don’t I have enough to deal with?
Then I got a call from a guy I had met when I was 18. He had AIDS and had somehow heard about my situation and called me. “It’s workable,” he said. “New things are coming out every day.”
Here was someone giving me hope. At the time, I didn’t know anything about AIDS other than believing that gay people get it along with people who shoot up drugs. The doctors themselves were telling me I was going to die, but they didn’t say when or how. This guy was bringing me out of the abyss.
Then he said, “You know, you actually have a responsibility.”
I thought, a responsibility to whom? Give me a break!
He said, “There are people who have walked before you who fought really hard for the rights and things you have available to you now. And you have an obligation to the newcomer. Sharing your HIV status allows others to be honest and not ashamed. And it helps people not be afraid.” He almost made it sound like a mission.
And I thought. That’s it! Why else would this happen to someone like me? I am not a risktaker. I am not a heroin addict. I did not shoot up with needles. I am not gay. I am not bisexual. Maybe it was because I am the type of person who can get a message across–to educate people about AIDS.
So I went to the administration of a local high school and asked if they wanted me to talk to their students. I started out at their health class. Then I went to other high schools, colleges, work panels, and workshops. In fact, I’m now on a year’s medical leave from work so that I can do even more.
My big message is that being a teen doesn’t make your immortal. Your actions can catch up with you later. And no matter how strong a person you think you are, AIDS doesn’t care about you being safe once in a while. It doesn’t care what color you are, what area of town you’re from, your sexuality. That kind of stuff just doesn’t matter anymore.
I look really young, so sometimes when I got into a high school, the kids think I’m a new student. Sometimes, there are evey guys who wink at me. And when I get up there to talk, then finish by saying I’m HIV infected, their jaws are on the floor. At least I’ve got them thinking. I know I can’t save the world. But if I can save someone by putting my little baby face out there and letting people know that I was in my teens when I got infected, well….
How do I think of the future? Well, sometimes it seems real bright. I’ve gone out there and made a name for myself. I am always talking about being HIV positive. Anybody who knows me knows about it. That’s my way of dealing with it. If I were to keep it inside of me, I’d explode. I figure if I let it out, almost embrace it, then it wouldn’t have as much power over me.
Other times, I get really depressed. When you come from a family where everyone has college degrees, you really get pressure that you should be somebody when you grow up. Sometimes I think I don’t really want to be in school this semester, but everybody’s going to be disappointed in me. Then I think, Oh, my gosh, if they had the things I need to deal with, would they even be around?