Who Am I?
One Among Many, We Need No Longer Be Isolated or Disconnected

by Heather Arculeo

Photo courtesy Heather Arculeo
Photo courtesy Heather Arculeo

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] would like to start my column by sharing who I am with readers, and why I am relevant to the HIV/AIDS community. I was your typical All-American small-town girl from Kansas, raised on a farm. I never remembered being educated about HIV, and I never felt like I needed it because it was a topic not relevant to us Kansans. I was wrong.

I joined the United States Marine Corps as a firefighter straight out of high school, and married within a year. I had a daughter, but then divorced because I was in an abusive relationship. I remarried my best friend and had another daughter, but divorced again because it wasn’t the kind of love we needed. After the second divorce I decided to change my relationship views and rededicated myself to finding a special person that would love me and my girls. I didn’t want to make a third mistake, so this third time I waited to have sex and lived alone until I knew it was a sure thing. After two years of dating, I married my third husband. Everything was wonderful, and I was in love, but that all changed when I was told I was HIV-positive.

[pull_quote_right]This was far from the stereotype I had of individuals living with HIV and AIDS.[/pull_quote_right]I did not understand how this diagnosis was possible. I was married, had children, didn’t do drugs, and was definitely not sleeping around. This was far from the stereotype I had of individuals living with HIV and AIDS. Other questions that went through my mind were: How much time do I have before I die, did I give it to my kids, and how did I get it? Obviously, I lacked knowledge and understanding of what HIV was, or how it affected individuals, so I was immediately scheduled to attend a two-week class at the Naval Hospital in Balboa that would give me insight into my new diagnosis.

When I arrived at Balboa, I was escorted into a room where other military members, who had recently been diagnosed, were seated. I was the only female, and eventually learned that I was the only heterosexual, too. I felt alone, isolated, humiliated, confused, but most of all I was scared. I still didn’t have the answers to my questions, but I went back to my usual life, pretending that my diagnosis did not exist. I was in extreme denial. I continued feeling detached from everything around me, and continued thinking I was the only woman with HIV. I resumed feeling this way even after I decided to leave the military.

[pull_quote_right]I remained alone and disconnected. It was not until my five-year anniversary of being diagnosed that I saw a Christie’s Place flyer…[/pull_quote_right]I thought maybe I would meet another female with HIV once I got out because I would be going to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in La Jolla, but I was still the only female patient getting treatment for HIV there, too. I remained alone and disconnected. It was not until my five-year anniversary of being diagnosed that I saw a Christie’s Place flyer, describing a women’s retreat for women living with HIV and AIDS. This was the first time that I became aware of the possibility that I may not be alone in this journey. A weight was lifted off of my shoulders, and immediately a sense of belonging overcame me.

I signed up for the retreat, holding a little apprehension, but when I arrived at Christie’s Place I knew I had found the place where I did belong. At the retreat I learned that many other women were in the same position as I was. They had gotten the virus from their husbands. I knew this was how I got it, but what I didn’t know was how he got it. It wasn’t until this year that I got my answer. I had done what most suspecting wives do—looked through my husband’s phone. What I found was that my husband of ten years had been secretly sleeping with men, and knew he was HIV-positive before he even met me.

So this is why my voice is relevant, because I am a positive woman with real knowledge surrounding a woman’s life with HIV. We all have faced a different struggle in the HIV community, but we all want to know how to move forward and create change. I am here to educate, advocate, inspire, and empower HIV-positive people to start that change and fight to make a difference, and, if you are already in the process, knowledge is power. Knowing the issues that positive women face adds to the HIV community’s success in conquering this disease.

Heather Arculeo, a positive woman since 2007, works to educate, advocate, and empower others to make a change because “change is possible even if the transformation seems impossible.” She wants to continue to make a difference in the HIV community because she is not only a peer, a mother, a sister, a wife, an aunt, and a daughter, but also an example to other women living with HIV.