On National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NWGHAAD), Marissa, Marnina, and Kneeshe talk with Greater Than AIDS about living and thriving with HIV, the changing epidemic, and what they want others to know.
“Thankfully, my doctor was very proactive in making sure that testing was always part of my regular routine care.”
Because her doctor made HIV testing a part of her routine health care, Marissa was diagnosed early and connected to care quickly. With ongoing treatment she has been able to achieve an undetectable viral load, which means she stays healthy and she also won’t pass the virus to partners.
Marissa explains, “Viral load is the HIV virus and CD4 are the helper cells, your white blood cells, that fight off any kind of infection. What that medication does is it helps to bring back your CD4 count while decreasing the amount of virus that’s in your body.”
While treatment has kept her physically healthy, Marissa acknowledges it hasn’t always been easy. She experienced depression after her diagnosis. “Therapy was not one of those things that were talked about in our family or culturally.” When she was able to sit down with a therapist, it was a huge weight lifted off, “I felt like I wasn’t holding a secret anymore.”
“Just talking about all the emotions of not only being diagnosed with HIV but being in a toxic relationship, not having self-love, not knowing my worth, not making informed decisions,” she says, was life altering.
”I want people to know that HIV is something you can live with and you don’t have to feel ashamed or afraid.”
Marnina also struggled with feelings of shame after learning she was living with HIV. “It was a lot of guilt I was putting on myself.” Once she was connected to a mental health therapist, she was able to focus on the medical treatment that keeps her physically healthy.
“Having a health care team that was able to address my depression, able to address my anxiety, propelled me to be able to address my HIV diagnosis.”
Now, living with HIV is just part of her life. Marnina says with a big smile on her face, “I have friends, I have a partner, I have a son, I go to school, I work, and I take a pill to manage my HIV.”
In speaking out, Marnina hopes to encourage more women, in particular women of color, to join her in eradicating the stigma of HIV.
“I believe you can win regardless of a diagnosis.”
Kneeshe has been living with HIV for more than 20 years. She has seen first-hand how much has changed since those early days. She keeps her HIV in check by taking antiretroviral medication every day as prescribed.
“I feel amazing today. When I go and get my labs they let me know each and every time that I’m still undetectable and that my CD4 count is doing well.”
Accessing care can be a challenge, especially for those without insurance. Kneeshe worried in the beginning how she would pay for her medications. Getting connected to the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, as she puts it, “basically saved my life.”
She explains the program, which works with states, cities, and counties, is set up to help people with HIV who need help, whether it’s paying for medication and labs, or other needs, such as dental, food, transportation, and mental health.
“If it had not been for the Ryan White services I would not be where I am today.”
“Whether you’re in a relationship and partnered, or whether you are single, PrEP is a tool in the toolbox.”
The women also talk about PrEP – the pill to prevent HIV – and why women need to know about it.
Marissa explains, “PrEP is something that is taken on a day-to-day basis to prevent HIV. So, similar to birth control, you just take a pill a day and it reduces your chances of becoming HIV positive.”
PrEP empowers women to take control of their health, and it’s an option Marnina wants all women to have. “It’s something that you could just take for yourself to make sure that you are protecting yourself and make sure you stay empowered.”
Watch. Share. And empower others. To see the full series, as well as to get more information about living healthy and well with HIV, click here.