My life has been marked by traumatic events—homelessness, molestation, discrimination, rape, domestic violence, and child abuse. However, I never actually thought about how past trauma “caused” my diagnosis by creating an environment of risk. Yes I was insecure, sexually confused, depressed, and feared abandonment, but I had overcome all of these things. I made the best of my past experiences and put them to good use helping others. I needed mental health therapy to work through it all, but I was on a path to recovery. I had no idea that my past was still a huge part of my decision-making process, because I thought I had overcome those obstacles. I was wrong.
On February 10, 2015, the link between my past and my diagnosis hit me square in the face. I was forced to look back and understand it all. I was sitting at home, it was late, and my husband and children were asleep. I was awake because I wasn’t feeling well and my cough was keeping me from resting. My husband’s phone started to beep over and over, and I got tired of hearing it, so I picked it up to turn the ringer to silent mode. Upon picking it up I realized that it was his email, and I thought maybe it was his boss trying to get a hold of him. This was normal for him because he is a land surveyor, and when it rains he is called out (even in the middle of the night) to get water samples. So I opened his email, but what I saw was not a message from his boss.
His email was loaded with messages from him to other men seeking sexual connections. I read and re-read the emails, going back and forth in disbelief. My husband of ten years had been secretly sleeping with men, several men, on countless occasions.
I was shaking beyond belief. I was in such shock. I woke him up, and asked him for a divorce. He asked me why and I showed him his phone. He had no words, nothing. I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt alone trying to pick up the pieces and to figure out what just happened.
After several days I realized that I had overlooked several red flags prior to and during our marriage. You see, before I started to date my husband I was his boss in the military. I remember in 2004 our Commanding Officer asking me to bring him in to talk, and then he disappeared for two weeks. When he returned, he simply explained to everyone that he had had a family emergency, but all was well. Later that year we started dating, and, in 2005, he moved in with me and my two daughters from a previous marriage. We were happy and in love, but looking back opened my eyes to things I had seen and had failed to respond or react to.
I noticed that initially he never went to sleep with me, and he stayed up late on the computer. I found out that it was because he was on Craigslist looking at pictures of transgender individuals, planning meetings with men, transgenders, transvestites, and transsexual individuals. Then in 2007 I was diagnosed with HIV. Even after the diagnosis I failed to do anything about any of it.
Even when I was pregnant with our first child, I found out I had an STD, and I still looked past it. He admitted, after I found out about the men, that he knew he was HIV-positive and knowingly gave it to me, along with several other things from his past that I did not know—but now I knew the truth about everything.
How did I not see all of the signs and red flags? What kept me from making a sound decision? This is when I made the actual connection. The abuse in my childhood and adulthood had an effect on my HIV risk-taking behaviors. I was unable to see the signs because my complex traumatic experiences affected my ability to develop healthy relationships. My physical health, emotional response, behavior, cognition, and self-concept and future orientation were also greatly affected.
I shut down entirely, or internalized feelings; when I was faced with stressful situations, I became depressed. I remained emotionally numbed to threats in my environment, which caused me to be vulnerable and victimized over and over again. Even though I didn’t trust my relationship with my husband, I felt powerless to change the circumstances. I felt incompetent as a woman, destined to face negative situations for the rest of my life. I was damaged and hopeless. All of these complex traumatic effects are directly linked to me ultimately being diagnosed with HIV.
So where do I go from here? First, I need to understand that trauma affects others in the same way it affected me. What people don’t know is that my husband faced similar traumatic childhood experiences, which affected his risky behaviors too. Just like me, he had limited ability to develop healthy relationships and make good life decisions. Can I judge him for his faults? Do I leave and abandon him when he has been struggling with the same issues I have? Can people change?
These are questions that many people have asked me, and I am not sure I have that answer. I think we all have faced a different struggle and we all heal differently. We each need to figure out what that answer is for ourselves because only we know how to move forward and make that change. Both my husband and I are just starting this journey of recovery, but it is only the beginning.
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.