This is the story of Tranisha, a young woman who was born with HIV. Tranisha is going to change the world one day through her advocacy work in the HIV youth moment.
23 years ago, my mother and father were living together in Seattle and about to have a baby girl. My future wasn’t the brightest; unfortunately things turned downhill quickly when they both started relying on alcohol and drugs. My mother became infected with HIV while she was pregnant with me. She got connected with a well-known children’s HIV specialist at Children’s Hospital who then probably prescribed her AZT (zidovudine), the first antiretroviral drug available to treat HIV. It was pretty unsuccessful because it made people even sicker, but there was nothing else. I don’t know why exactly (but most likely because she wasn’t stable), she stopped taking her medications correctly or at all, which allowed the virus to duplicate in her blood cells which then gave it a chance to get into my blood.
I was born in 1990 and was diagnosed with HIV. I took AZT as soon as I was born to control or stop the virus from spreading; it made me very sick for a long time. My parents had two other children, both boys, even after everything they had been through with me. My mother died a terrible death with full-blown AIDS in 1994, and during this time my sibling also died of AIDS. I was almost five when they both passed and I remember going to the hospital and seeing my mother for the last time, I was disconnected from it all, upset and confused. I felt like I was being abandoned. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to my brother. After that, I was taken to a foster home with my other brother (who was born HIV-negative) because my father wasn’t capable of caring for us now alone. My grandmother tried making sure that didn’t happen, but she didn’t have much control of the situation because she was also positive and dealing with drugs. I think the doctors assumed I would get sicker and eventually die too, because so many people did back then.
But I didn’t. I survived just in time for better medications to come along. Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) a new type of protease inhibitor drug became available to treat HIV. It wasn’t until I was about 7 or 8 that I learned about my diagnosis and what happened to my family. I went to therapy, where they helped me the best they could to understand what I had using pictures of a body and the different things going on inside it. I was so young; I don’t even remember what my initial reaction was. I do remember comforting my brother a lot. I think I did this not just because I cared so much but because it redirected my anger and fear somewhere else. He was just a toddler; he was all I had left. I would say to him, “Everything is going to be okay, Mommy had to go somewhere, but she wishes she were here with us.” As I got older, I became bitter towards my parents, hating what they did to me and my brother, and for leaving us alone and scared. I never felt like I deserved anything or belonged anywhere. I moved to Port Townsend, WA, and soon after my foster mother adopted me. I remembered how I was so nervous, anxious, scared and excited all at the same time that I would finally have a sense of a real mother. Not much changed between us and sometimes it got harder. Yet looking back on it today it was one of the best things that happened to me.
Before I moved to Port Townsend, I got connected to Inspire Youth Project (formerly named Rise n’ Shine). The mission of Inspire Youth Project is to provide the missing social and emotional links for at-risk children. It wasn’t until I went there that I didn’t feel alone in my experience. The coolest part was that I got to experience this with my brother. He stayed in the program until he aged out and then got the chance to come back as a teen camp counselor. I left the program before my teen years. I was lucky to have a really tight-knit group of friends, one of them being the first I would disclose my status to. It was during a sexual health HIV 101 class in fifth grade and I got so emotional that I walked out. My friend followed me out and asked “What was wrong?” I don’t remember the exact words I said but I must have gotten those three letters out because she understood. She said, “I am here for you and please let us know if you ever get sick so that I know and can call you.” She became my best friend and never rejected me because of my status. That being said, I have experienced stigma but it was from an adult and fortunately she later apologized.
Years after, I graduated from high school and moved out on my own for the first time to Bellingham, WA. Living alone as a young adult with HIV was a huge struggle. I was struggling with balancing being a young person, living on my own and being HIV-positive. I was stressed so much that I unfortunately went out of care for a year or so. I didn’t know who to turn to and I didn’t really want to talk about it. I was stuck on the idea that I could live a normal life without the medications. Sadly that was not true. I was in denial for a while until I got sick. Before it got worse, I reached out to a family friend who then searched for some sort of support system.
Who would know what to do and what I was going through other than other positive women who have experienced this themselves? We continued research and found an organization in Seattle, WA. In 2010, we drove down together where I was introduced to one of the Peer Advocates at a place called BABES-Network YWCA. It was a Seattle based peer support program for women and families affected by HIV. The first meeting went fine but I don’t remember talking much. The Peer Advocate invited me to an upcoming Annual BABES Retreat in July, which was a weekend with other positive women. I got signed up eventually and went to my first retreat that year. I was the youngest person at the retreat, which naturally had its pros and cons. But the most important thing was that I had a safe space to be vulnerable and completely me. I finally got the kind of support that I always wanted. They understood me and didn’t judge me for who I am. I wouldn’t have made it this far without the amazing support system of friends and family in my life, then and now.
Now I know it’s also up to me to determine what my path looks like. I educated myself and went to an AIDS Walk each year. I slowly started talking about my diagnosis and learning about my past. It truly wasn’t until I met people through BABES that I started to see my light. I started taking value in my story and embracing it. I survived! Not everyone can say that and I should be proud of myself. It’s been nearly three years living in Seattle and almost a year anniversary of working as a Peer Advocate at BABES-Network YWCA. Though I have encountered challenges, life has treated me well. I am honored that I work in the HIV community and proud of what I have accomplished over the years. One of my biggest achievements happened last year, when I was selected out of 600 other youth around the US to attend the 2013 United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) as a Youth Scholar in New Orleans. I have new found love for conferences which give me many opportunities to learn, network, teach and tell my story.
Today, I want to share my story with you all. I want to raise awareness and let people know - especially young people - that I have a wonderful and healthy life, and so can others who live with HIV. It sure takes a lot of work but it’s worth being alive today. Speaking out about one’s diagnosis is extremely important; it shows others, positive and negative, that things are different now. I have lived with this long-term chronic condition for almost 24 years and have seen many people in my family die from it. But HIV has never defeated me. I will continue to fight and live my life to its greatest potential. There are so many things that make me who I am today. HIV is just one part of me.