As the owner of her own eponymous music management company in L.A., Dena Michelle knows what it’s like to be in control. But when she found out she was diagnosed with HIV in 2008, everything changed.
“I was diagnosed on April Fools Day,” she says, noting the irony. “I was an IV drug user and shared needles with someone who was HIV-positive. My immune system was [already] crazy. When I was told the health department needed me to test, I didn’t want to wait two weeks for my results so I went to BART.”
Becoming a Responsible Teen (BART) is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention risk reduction program for African-American teenagers. Michelle was neither of those things, but they didn’t turn her away. Initially, she wasn’t that worried.
“Never in a million years did I expect that I would be told I was HIV-positive,” she recalls now. But, as she was waiting for her rapid test results, she started to worry.
In 2015, there were 39,513 diagnoses of HIV in the United States due to injection drug use, according to the CDC. Of that number, 41 percent were among women. If the current rates continue, one in 23 women who inject drugs will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Those were the kind of statistics that started streaming through Michelle’s brain.
“As I sat there waiting, my entire life flashed in front of me,” she remembers. “When the man came out, I knew by the look on his face it was all bad [news].”
After that, she had some tough years.
“I have cried buckets due to uneducated ugly people,” Michelle says about the HIV stigma that seems to pervade social media — and much of the music industry. And, she admits, she wasn’t compliant with her meds at first because of that shame and social stigma. In response, her T cells dropped to 42 and her viral load spiked to over half a million. Doctors told her that her HIV had escalated to stage three.
Michelle was able to come back from that AIDS diagnosis, and adds, “I am now undetectable and my T cells are staying at 142. [HIV] is not a death sentence. If you take your meds you will be OK. I know now that HIV was my path.”
That path led to her to a new place of happiness.
“I am engaged to my soul mate,” she says. “My fiancé is a very well-known musician and has truly been my rock, my best friend.”
That’s more proof that HIV doesn’t stop you from finding love, even with a rock star who gets adulation as part of the Los Angeles-based band, Slash’s Snake Pit.
Read more from our Long-Term Survivor series here.