Uncovering the truth about HIV.
HIV/AIDS had never occurred to her. She thought he just had a really bad cold or the flu, maybe bronchitis at the worst. She was stunned.
Emma's test came back negative. Her children all tested negative as well. There was relief, but she was left wondering who her husband really was.
"He was 10 years older than me," Emma says now, "and I think he took a little advantage."
A kind, quiet woman with cocoa skin and soft eyes, Emma seems familiar and accessible, like a neighborhood librarian who helps you find the right book, measuring each word so she's sure you'll understand.
"We married within six months of knowing each other. He was financially secure, and looking back, I think he used that as leverage. At that time I was financially unstable and had children from a previous relationship. So to me he was this Prince Charming coming to sweep me off my feet."
Tragically, what happened to Emma could happen to anyone. She knew at least some HIV information and wasn't promiscuous. She simply chose to trust the man she married, when the person she should have trusted was herself.
"It's amazing to see low self- esteem in grown women," says Danielle Parks, director of the Women's Anonymous Test Site (WATS) in Center City. "We think of it as a teenage awkwardness thing--something you get over. When you're 32 and still don't feel good about yourself, you're in a relationship where you're not exercising your power, you're putting everything you have into a man because you think that without him you're nothing--I see that a lot. Even with older women."
Parks' first job in the context of HIV/AIDS treatment was eye-opening. She realized even she could be at risk.
"Black women's perception of risk is way off," she says. "We use certain barriers, like: 'Well, I'm married.' 'I'm in a relationship and don't need to worry about it.' 'I'm not on drugs.' 'I have a degree.' Using these excuses can give HIV a 'them and me' feeling."
Parks had what she calls her "a-ha moment" with the first woman she had to diagnose. "She was in her 50s," Parks says. "She'd been married for a very long time and didn't know her husband was shooting up. When he died, she got the death certificate that said the cause was Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome."
Emma didn't need to wait to see her husband's death certificate, yet her denial and her dependence on him ultimately led to risky behavior.
The two of them didn't have a heavily sexual relationship, but her husband wanted an emotional connection. At first, the two practiced safer sex, given that she was HIV negative. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, he'd want to have unprotected sex. She'd battle with him, even going into the kids' room to get away.
She tried to avoid unsafe sex with him for as long as she could, but her resistance to it became more complex. They had decided to be a team, to approach this struggle together, and his emotional need for her as a partner gratified her. Plagued by a low self-image, she couldn't imagine being without him. She felt she had to hold onto him as long as she could. So she took risks.
"I think I tested negative at first because I hadn't had enough exposure to the virus," Emma says. "I was working a lot, had just had a baby, so sex wasn't a priority for me. And it just seemed like when he started to get sick, he wanted to make sure he had someone to share this with."
She found out she was HIV positive on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was at the Third and Girard Ave. health center when the planes hit. I was in consultation with one of the counselors when the news came over the radio. I will never forget that day. Each year it's a built-in anniversary. They made everyone leave, and I was right there in the midst of the Center City chaos dealing with the realization that I had HIV. I was devastated. I was like, 'Oh good. The world's ending right now. Why don't they drop a bomb right here? and that way I can get it over with right now.'"
Emma and her husband eventually separated. She's rebuilt her life and does what she can to live in a healthy way. She's now an advocate for a local HIV/AIDS organization and tries to "spread the word, not the disease," as the saying goes, while raising her three children, all of whom are still HIV negative. She understands now the importance of staying true to herself and bonding with those close to her, to ensure that what happened to her won't happen to anyone else she knows.
More than a few voices caution that in the decade-plus since effective antiretroviral meds have transformed HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable infection, too many people have lost their fear of the virus.
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