I…have…AIDS. There are no words to describe the coldness that permeates through your body when you hear those words. How do you catch your breath? Why is the room suddenly spinning as you try not to scream at the top of your lungs “NO!”?
“Did I hear him correctly!?” I asked myself as my mind tried to process this horrifying information. It was the day my life tilted sideways forever.
HIV/AIDS is not an individual disease. It affects the patient, their families, and communities. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 50,000 people are newly infected with HIV/AIDS per year. Of that, 1 in 8 are positive and are unaware of it. If that isn’t alarming enough, 1 in 4 new infections are aged 13-24. Roughly 44% of all infections occurred in the Black community. Among Black, White, and Hispanics, females made up the majority of new infections (source: CDC and AIDS.gov).
Unfortunately, it is still viewed as ‘the gay man’s disease’ when it should be seen as a human race epidemic. It is this kind of apathy that allows AIDS to run rampant throughout our communities—especially the Black community. Atlanta currently has a population of about 54% Black and new cases of HIV are actually diagnosed as full-blown AIDS by the time they are tested. Blacks make up 12-13% of the entire US population. The facts are undeniable.
My new reality was fraught with shock, depression, anger, medication, and prayer. I had to educate myself with words such as ‘adherence’, ‘viral load’, and ‘cd4 count’. Knowledge about HIV/AIDS was so limited in the 80s and 90s and the stigma behind it was absolutely horrifying. Parents were putting their children out, gay bashing was on the rise, and the world was in a state of panic.
After I got off the phone with my oldest brother, I cried. My brother—my right arm, my hero and protector—had just told me “Kim, I have AIDS”. I had to pull myself together and go tell my father and the rest of my family. Once they learned about his disease it then became their disease too. They had to deal with the pain and terror of possibly losing a loved one to AIDS. We all had AIDS.
My brother kept his diagnosis from us for years because he’d seen his friends suffer the fall-out from their loved ones. He feared we would turn our backs on him as well. While we were unaware, Butch (Henry) continued to work until he was too weak and had to go on disability. His friends and boss nursed him when he was sick. I’ll never forget how his boss cried when he finally told us. She had been begging him and reassuring him that based on how he’d described his family in the past, she knew we wouldn’t let him down. I was just glad he had her guidance (he was like a son to her). I immediately moved him into my apartment. As he walked through the door, I hid the shock of seeing this young man—who used to be muscularly built like a bull and equally as strong—weighing less than 100 pounds. As soon as I got him settled into his room, I went into the bathroom and cried.
The only way to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS is to come to the realization that if your loved one has it, then you have it too. It is not a ‘disease for one’. March of 1993 wasn’t just a shock, it was a death sentence that continues to reverberate through our family on every birthday, holiday, new birth, or life experience. There is no room for the continued stigma and ignorance that prevents people from being tested until it’s too late.
Stopping the spread of HIV is possible but extremely difficult. It is currently on the rise in China (of all places), Africa, and various parts of the world after experiencing a decline in the early 2000s. The apathy experienced toward the disease is fueled by unprotected sex and an attitude that “it can’t happen to me”. Again, our youth ages 13-24 continue to be the leading numbers of new HIV diagnosis. Please don’t be the next diagnosis:
- PLEASE GET TESTED
- Wear Protection and practice safe sex
- Practice celibacy until marriage
- Stay monogamous
- If you have it, keep your appointments and don’t skip medications
- If you have it, come out of the “closet”, go into schools and share your experience
- Understand that oral sex IS sex (reverse the Clinton factor)
- RELEASE THE STIGMA—love without judgement
The stigma of AIDS is dangerous. Actor Charlie Sheen is a prime example of how dangerous staying silent can be. He was black-mailed for millions of dollars to keep his diagnosis silent. He continued to have unprotected sex. This scenario should not occur in our society. Patients are being shamed unto death in our closest circles. They turn to drugs, alcohol, and other reckless behavior to run from their new reality. This is where we test our mettle as human beings who have compassion, empathy, and support. Without it, the disease continues to spread. They need a soft place to land.
New HIV medications and cocktails are not only preventing AIDS-related illnesses but are also enabling patients to experience zero detection in their blood (viral load). HIV is no longer a certain death sentence as it was in the 80s and 90s. Good news for sure but the fight isn’t over until there’s a cure. It is still a very serious illness—ask someone who has to take those medications and they’ll tell you there are still terrible side effects. They still get sick and are hospitalized. It is still an uphill battle and one which we should avoid.
The day my oldest brother uttered those four words was the day it became my diagnosis. After convincing him to move in with me, I (along with my family) took care of him. I was angry with him for not telling me sooner. The year prior, we’d just lost a childhood friend (Norman) to the disease. He died—alone—in California and to this day my heart aches when I think of him because he felt that was the only option open to him. I was determined that my brother knew how much we loved him and were unafraid of “catching AIDS”. He wasn’t a stigma to me—he was my everything.
Just three months after moving in with me, Henry Ruffin Rosemon III lost his battle with AIDS on August 2, 1993 at age 31 on a beautiful afternoon as my father, youngest sister Denise, and I sat by his bed. As we reminisced about his childhood exploits I, with my head on his leg, felt his life dissipate like a flutter in the wind. I raised my head and knew he was gone. It was a terrible moment for my father because no parent should ever have to watch a child suffer and die the way he did. From that moment, it became a disease I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
It is my hope that writing his story on World AIDS Day will inspire others to not take their health and relationships for granted. Don’t be so naïve to think that your life has no effect on those who love you. I implore you: Get tested, Be safe, and Stop the Spread of HIV/AIDS.