One day in 1986, I arrived at my babysitter’s house after school to find her sitting on the couch with her younger brother’s head in her lap. She was cleaning his ear with cotton swabs because it was severely infected and bleeding. I remember watching as she set aside bloody swab after bloody swab and feeling so scared for him while at the same time dying to know what was happening. There were a few weeks of whispering and hushed conversation amongst the adults from which we were able to garner only a very few details before they told us anything. In the end, I suppose they decided that his illness was simply too severe to hide it from us.
So my mother and babysitter sat down with my best friend, my babysitter’s children, and me and explained that he was very sick with a disease called AIDS. They did not tell us much more, in part because they believed we were too young to know, but mostly because they knew very little themselves. However, we were old enough to know that it was very serious and to fear he would die. Over the next four years, we watched as he contracted illness after illness, often reaching the brink of death before fighting it off. After each, it seemed as though there was a little less of him and by the end of his fight, he was a pale shadow of the strong, handsome young Marine he had been — a sallow bag of bones, deaf, blind and seizing in a wheelchair. As I recall, he was just twenty-four when he was diagnosed, and twenty-nine at the time of his death.
By the time I was twelve, the field of medicine had learned a lot more about the Human Immuno Virus (HIV), which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). I learned that it was most frequently contracted through unprotected sex or sharing needles and although these demographics had a higher risk, that anyone could. However, many were still ignorant and of those who knew, there were many who believed it was a “homosexual” disease and heterosexuals had nothing to fear. I never wanted to see another person I cared about die that way. So in my freshman year of high school, when I was told to give a seven-minute impromptu speech on a topic of my choosing for my JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) class, I chose AIDS/HIV.
I told them about watching Sam battle illness after illness, and how he lost a little bit of himself after each, until there was nothing left. I dispelled all of the myths, told them they were at risk despite whatever they may have heard, and fought back tears as I told them to practice safer sex. I was not naïve, and I knew that this speech would wring me through the rumor mill, since I was giving it to a bunch of teenagers. True to form, a girl I did not get along with joked about it to so-and-so, and so on, until I had full-blown AIDS. I did not care because I knew there was a chance that it might save one of them. I shrugged it off, and they soon moved on to someone/thing else.
A few months later, my school held an HIV/AIDS awareness assembly. I told my teacher that watching Sam die was all the awareness education that I would ever need, and I was allowed to stay behind to counsel another girl who was distraught about the assembly. She told me she had been raped at a party two years prior, and was afraid to get tested because she had been getting ill more often, and taking longer and longer to recover. I was able to calm her down and [I think] I convinced her to get tested. I have no idea what happened to her, as she stopped attending classes shortly after.
I began dating my first boyfriend near the end of that school year, and spent the following summer with him, and volunteering at Auntie Helen’s thrift shop doing laundry for HIV/AIDS patients. Between my past experience and my daily interaction with HIV positive individuals, I was always conscious of the importance of getting tested regularly, and of practicing safer sex. Naturally, I was adamant about the use of condoms when we started having sex, and we even went to get tested together. Although he was my first partner, I was not his. Having unprotected sex was never an option.
So it was that when I met my next boyfriend, and began having sex with him, we also went to be tested together and used a condom every time we had sex for the first year. Our relationship was very intense, and by then, everyone including my mother, who hated him, had accepted as a given that we would get married when I was 18. I do not recall the circumstance under which we stopped using condoms; accept that I was also using an oral contraceptive. A few months later, we broke up for several weeks because I developed Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), and could not have intercourse for six weeks, a sentence not well received by my boyfriend.
As I later learned, he had unprotected sex with a stranger during this time. We reunited a few weeks later, and were together for an additional six months before the relationship ended permanently. Approximately two months after the breakup, I came home and was greeted at the door by my solemn-faced mother, with a message to call him. I said I was going to ignore it, but she insisted. I called, and he informed me that he had contracted HIV and that I needed to get tested and inform any sexual partners I may have had in the interim. The next year was one of the most stressful of my life, as I tested and retested, until they told me that the likelihood of my being HIV positive was virtually nil, since I was still negative more than a year after exposure.
Although my next partner was female, and the risk of transmission between two women is very low, we used dental dams and gloves every time. The next time I had unprotected sex was with my husband, years later, and then only after we started trying to get pregnant. I had the importance of safer sex reinforced the hard way, but I got the message.
Fifteen years later, I am all too aware that many remain undereducated about the risks, have never been tested, and regularly engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners. While there can be no denying that latex free sex feels better, sex with it is a whole lot better than slowly dying from a string of increasingly severe bouts of illness until there is nothing left, and you’re dead. Please take the time to get tested, educate and protect yourself. I was extremely lucky to escape it. You probably won’t be.