Empowered: Tonya Lewis Lee in Conversation w/ 5 Women about HIV & Intimate Partner Violence (22:45)

February 15, 2020 0 By Jose Scott

I never looked at it like I was a person who
had experienced domestic violence, I just thought I was a chick who got beat up sometimes. This had been going on for years, and I didn’t
connect it, and I realize that he’s done that, he’s done that, he’s doing that now. Unfortunately because of my past and my childhood,
I found myself in that cycle of finding what was normal to me, which was violence. Sometimes you believe the lie that we’re told
growing up that you stay in a relationship and it’s abusive, because you don’t tell nobody
your secret. I can, even though I’ve been through what
I’ve been through, I can have an amazing life. We’re all on a journey, and we’re all experiencing
different things and working through them. Well, hello you guys, it’s wonderful to be
here with all of you, such a powerful uh, beautiful group of women. We are here today
to talk about the intersection of HIV and intimate partner violence or IPV and how it
affects women. Despite the fact that these issues are affecting many women, and they
are often connected, these issues are not discussed. So we want to start with a big
picture. Gina, can you just provide a snapshot for us of the issues and what is going on? The 300,000 women who are living with HIV,
half of us have um, or are currently experiencing intimate partner violence in some form. That
can be physical, emotional, psychological and it’s something we don’t talk about. Graphic: The Connection IPV impacts HIV in a way that, it can either
drive the epidemic by when we are with these men who are abusive and they don’t want to
use condoms. Or it can impact our health in a way that they don’t want us to go to the
doctor, we are in a depression — if you are depressed already, you don’t feel good. To even have that conversation about using
the condom, because you know, then that would mean that he’s doing something wrong and I
don’t want to risk getting beat that day. So yeah, I might put up with some of that
stuff. I might put up with him doing what he does, just for the safety of myself and
my children. I know for me personally, I didn’t even identify
with being in a violent relationship because I thought it was — that was right. I never
looked at unhealthy relationship and saw myself. Yeah, I thought it was normal as well. That’s
all you know, that’s all that’s happened to you. That, when you do become positive and
you get — and it’s reinforced through the people that, again, that you are dating, you
know, saying, well, you know, be lucky that I’m with you. I’m thinking is well, some love is better
than no love at all. So, I’m willing to accept that kind of love, no matter how much — how
much I see that it’s not good for me. People want to separate those of us living
with HIV as if we’ve deserve what we have. As if you have done something wrong. It is an illness, that it’s treatable and
we can live a normal lifespan and none of us did — and it doesn’t change any of our
worth. At all. The more that we show our faces, the more
that we humanize this condition of HIV and maybe we could empower other women to see
that this can affect them and it is affecting them, communities of color especially. The highest population of HIV positive women
are black women. And we are not that big of a population to start with, you know? Um,
and it — breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because HIV is preventable. I believe the Latino um, community is second
as well communities of color and this is a huge problem. HIV didn’t speak to me, you know? Back then
it was just — you know, I assumed it was a white gay man’s disease. And that black
folks didn’t get it. I often tell people, HIV doesn’t care how
much money you have in your bank account. Or what your zip code is, you know, HIV is
a disease of opportunity. And as women, we often give it the opportunity to come in and
it even — the dynamic switch even more when it’s intimate partner violence involved in
that. We know that the person may have said — we
may have asked the person to wear a condom and because of that power dynamic in that
relationship they said, no. And we let it go. Or we are afraid. And to that point, how does that impact your
health and your getting treatment? When you are in these abusive relationships,
you are stressed and you are depressed and your t-cells go down. Your immune system goes
down. And I said to myself, why, if I am very — I am very adherent now to my medication,
why are my t-cells always so low? And that is because of the stress and the depression. You know, I can remember days when I wouldn’t
even eat. I was so depressed. How can you take your meds if you don’t eat? Intimate partner violence took my dignity
away from me. You know my self-respect. I was afraid to take my medication, because
on some level, if he saw me taking it, then it was a reminder for him. When I moved away
from that relationship — well, actually, I took off running, but you know — I started
to treat myself better and I started to take the medications and — and start becoming
educated about it. And I think we are sometimes predisposed to
this by the simple fact that some of us have experienced some childhood trauma.
And we did not get help for that trauma. I feel like you know from what I understand
about all of you all — at some point in your young life, you experience some sort of abuse
or violence around you. Everything starts from, as everyone says,
from their childhood. It– it has impacted me, and even though I had tried to always
be composed and be this strong woman because a lot of people see me as an example, I need
help. And I’m still going through it and — and I have to show this side, because I never
do. I didn’t really connect it when I got older
and found myself being very submissive in every relationship. Like, oh, I have to listen
to you, that’s my role, that’s what women do. My father is in prison because the next person
he was with, he ended up killing that woman. And I think about that all the time. That
could have been my mother. That could have been my mother. And it could be me, because
I went and got the same kind of relationship. It could be my daughter, because I chose the
same type of relationship. We’re looking at it from a trauma related
approach, you know? If you don’t deal with your stuff, it is more likely you receive
an HIV diagnosis along the line. If you don’t deal with what is going on. And I tell any
women that I work with, in the substance abuse community — deal with your stuff because
that hurt little girl is going to make every single decision in your life and she is gonna
make it from the place of hurt and pain. And its not that she wants to, it’s that it’s
all that she knows. So how do we get past the shame? It is starting that conversation it needs
to happen in homes and in the community and on a national level, so that everybody feels
more comfortable having that conversation and to begin to have that conversation and
know that — living with HIV is nothing to be ashamed of. I came from a community where you didn’t go
get — you didn’t seek help, because you are not crazy. Well, you know what, I have a therapist.
Because I am gonna take care of me. It’s about me being healthy. It’s about me
being well and me getting what I need out of all of this. Gina. How did you get to that point? How did
you get to the point where you realized you needed that help and you were able to get
it? I had hit rock bottom. I was holding my baby
in my arms and I was into it with her dad, my children’s father and he cocked back to
hit me, with this baby in my arms. And I knew I had to leave him at that point. I started
thinking that, this pain is just too much for me. I can’t do this. We have this thing where we all think we have
to be so strong. So we — we wipe the tears away or we — we stuff ’em down and — and
then we get to a point where we break. Something is gonna break you eventually. And then you
break. I broke. And I said, I can’t do this by myself. I need help. It was a process, it didn’t happen overnight.
And that is what I want people to understand. That, number one, we gotta stop saying, what
goes on in this house, stays in this house. We gotta stop giving those messages that reinforce
the silence. We have to stop that. Number two, if you are experiencing any kind of trauma,
any kind of abuse, reach out to people. People are there. Number three, learn to love you.
We all — because we were molested and we had low self-esteem and we didn’t really know
how to deal, it was hard for us to love ourselves. Sometimes it still is hard. It still is. Sometimes I look in a mirror
and I do not like what I see. And other times I look in the mirror and I’m like, what! Just like she said — you know, I had to have
the tools. And I was willing to be vulnerable, to go out and seek it, and that’s exactly
what I did. To realize that all those years — [crying] that I was not what people told
me I was. That I was not this bad girl. But I was a girl who just wanted to be loved.
That allowed me to begin to love me and start the process of looking for information and
tools to equip me to begin to live a life that is happy, joyous and free. Free from
the stigma of what society has placed on me. Of what people has placed on me and even what
— the stigma I have placed on myself. It’s changing those — the voices in your
head. Because when you are repeatedly told that you are stupid, that you are no good,
you begin to repeat that in your head. And it’s changing that language and being able
to replace that with a positive message for yourself, and that is a long process and you
need help doing that. You need a good therapist. You need a good behavioral therapist that’s
going to address those issues for you. There was a time in my life where I got tired
of being tired and I took the power back and I said, “I am going to break the cycle.” It’s tiring to carry all of that baggage day
in and day out. You have to drop those bags. You will feel so free. Find somebody you can
talk to. You know, a lot of times it’s easier to talk to a stranger than to the people we
know. So, do that. Reach out. We have all made it out and I found that there
is life outside of this diagnosis.. It was just waiting for me to find it. My understanding is that often when you are
at that point, when you are ready to leave, that that’s the risk — that is the riskiest
time, when you are ready to leave? Are there resources to help women figure out how to
get out of that situation? There are agencies that specialize in helping
people deal with intimate partner violence and get out of an intimate partner violence
situation. The first step is recognizing that the situation
is not okay. There were two separate relationships that I ended up in that ended with violence.
One of them — it was a pretty fresh relationship where I ended up being physically beaten and
— at that moment, while that was happening, I had to act right then and there, because
I knew if I gave him a chance to say, “I’m sorry.” If I gave him the chance to say, “I
didn’t mean to do it! Oh, you know I just lost my temper!” If I gave him a chance to
try to explain hisself, then I would probably still be there today. And I made sure I had backing to help me.
Like, my backbone wasn’t strong enough on my own. So, I had to get those people behind
me to tell me, “You can do this.” I waited till he went to work. I acted like
nothing was going on. I cooked, I was washing clothes, I was cleaning the house and everything.
By the time — and I knew his time schedule, when he was gonna be home and what he had
to do. And as soon as he hit that door — I waited for an hour and I got out. And I didn’t
look back. Baby, I was on a plane. I left. When I left, I left. It can be really difficult to trust new relationships
after you have experienced intimate partner violence. But, you can have really great relationships
after the fact and I know both Vickie and Michelle, you guys are in — well, you are
in a long term relationship — what? How long? Eleven years. Eleven years. And Michelle, you are a newlywed. I’m a newlywed for two months. We met in class and I thought he was just
a fine specimen of a man. And — and so um, he was pretty much educated on HIV, but he
understood the stigma. In our first phone conversation. I told him that I was HIV positive.
I didn’t want him not to have that information. I didn’t want him to ever have to go through
what I went through, and so I was at a comfortable place of being able to disclose my status
to him and he got real quiet and he said, “And did you think that was going to scare
me off?” And then second, he told me that from that moment on, that he knew that he
was in love with me, because um, he could trust me. He knows a good thing! That’s right, baby! That’s right! You just touched on the — you were talking
about disclosure and disclosing one’s HIV status can be dangerous for some people. Gina,
do you have some basic thoughts or facts on how one should go about disclosing their status? So as ways you can disclose — you know, um,
role play is great, with your friends. You know, like, pretend like you are the person
I’m disclosing to, because you have to be able to say it. I will often tell people,
is how you react to your own HIV. If I’m broke down and crying when I tell you, you are gonna
break down and cry. But if I’m someone that is coming to you and telling it to you with
some knowledge, with some facts, with education, then I’m giving you something and you are
going accept it and receive it a lot better than if I was a broken woman. You want to do it with other people around.
You want to do it in a public place. I often talk to women and I tell them, um, before
you get into a relationship with someone, talk about HIV with them. You know, talk about
it. If you say, “Well, what do you think about HIV?” And they say, “Oh, I hate people with
HIV and if I saw somebody with HIV, I would slap them or something.” Then you know that
is the not the person for you. You also — if it’s someone that you care
about and you don’t know your status and you don’t know their status, get tested together.
You know, I’m not in a relationship. I’m not looking for someone, but if someone comes
into my life, if Mr. Right comes into my life, you’ll already know. You’ll already know.
But I’m so open with my status that they will come into my life knowing that I’m HIV positive. So tell me, how did that — how do you guys
keep your partners healthy, how is your — how are your relationships? My guy is absolutely amazing. He learned as
much as he could about HIV before we started dating. We have to talk about safer sex and
make sure that I keep him safe. And by me adhering to my medication, I can keep my viral
load undetectable which reduces my risk of transmitting it to him. We also practice safe
sex. I found the love of my life, my wife, um,
we have been together for nine years. She is HIV negative and it showed me that — what
a healthy relationship was. We are there to support each other and to continue to grow
together. And Michelle, what about you? We have open discussions about you know, our
sex life and again, me taking my medications as well so that I can continue to have undetectable
viral load, so that I won’t be able to transmit the virus to him. We are also talking about
him taking Prep, and he has gotten the information that he needs to facilitate that, if that
is something that he chooses to do. Gina can you tell us a little bit more about
what prep is? Prep is pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a once
a day pill that a negative person can take who is in a relationship with a positive.
It’s like birth control pills. You know, birth control pills keep us from pregnant, Prep
keeps you from getting HIV. I have been living with HIV for almost 20
years, I choose today to be the best I can be. I choose to live my life outside of the
diagnosis of HIV. HIV is a very small facet of my life and does not have to dictate the
outcome of my life. I got things to do, people to see and places to go. That touches right on to the other thing I
was gonna ask about how you maintain — I mean, you are in such a great place. And I
know, Gina, you mentioned that you are in therapy. What kinds of things do you do to
keep yourself in that head space of living well, being in the moment? Well, first, I take care of myself. I eat
very healthy, I am very adherent to my medication. I try to live — I would say as normal of
a life that I can live. What advice would you give to family or friends
How can they be supportive? I understand that is very hard news to get,
but you know, with new treatments there is hope. They should have compassion and empathy.
We live long, productive lives if we do what we are supposed to do. We are just human beings
that happen to have the condition of HIV. Lyneea, I know you are sort of in a — certainly
with the intimate partner violence piece, I mean, you are in a new space in that you
just — Smack dab in the middle of it. Yeah. So how are doing? How are you managing,
taking care of your health and staying strong throughout the process? Trying not to cry right now, because I’m not
— I’m not and it’s not okay. I’m not there yet and I’m working on getting there. You are in the process. It’s a process and it’s okay. It’s okay that
I’m not there yet, because that doesn’t mean it’s not coming. And I see it, looking in
the eyes of these beautiful women around me that it’s possible. It’s just — I needed
to be here. And I really feel like I needed to hear these stories and get that hope. Now
that I have my baby and I know she needs me, I pray. I pray every day. And I ask God to
provide me with the strength and the courage and the wisdom that I need to protect that
child and make sure she is okay and that she doesn’t see Mommy broken. And that when she
does see Mommy broken, Mommy is able to explain it to her. And let her know it’s okay and
it’s gonna get better. And I mean, like I said, I’m not there yet. I’m still trying
to figure out how to be okay every day and just get past the — the stress of everything,
but I understand it’s a part of my growth and I accept it. That’s great. That’s great and you will get
there. [cross talk] You guys are all — again, I keep saying it
over and over again, but I’m so inspired by all of you. Even as we are in process working
through everything that we are going through. You guys are amazing women. I really appreciate
you sharing your stories, some of the difficulties that you have been through, but also the triumphs
that you have been through. So, thank you guys very much for a wonderful conversation.