The National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV honors women living with HIV, who too often face physical, emotional and psychological abuse from their intimate partners.Up to 42 percent of the deaths suffered by women living with HIV are at the hands of their abusers. (As Plus reported last year, gender-based violence is a leading contributor to HIV in women around the globe,)
There is no doubt that the long-lasting and damaging impact of abuse makes women more vulnerable to HIV. We need to end violence against women, but we also must raise awareness in our community about intimate partner violence, how to identify it, and how to treat it in all health care settings for women living with HIV.
Bearing witness to the stories behind these statistics is a critical first step in creating the conversations that will lead to change for women experiencing intimate partner violence. Sometimes the violence is emotional abuse, and our society turns a blind eye. The abuser then has free rein to isolate and brainwash a woman until she believes she is alone and he is the only one who cares about her and will love her despite the fact she has HIV.
That is what happened to me.
I was diagnosed with HIV on February 26, 1996, at 2:00 p.m. Even 20-years later, I remember the exact date and time and where I was when I learned my life would change forever. From that day forward, I would no longer see the world through rose-colored glasses; now I see the world colored gray.
I had heard people talk about AIDS, but only in a whisper, never outloud. It was never a conversation that happened over dinner. In my family, we never spoke about the cousin who died from complications of AIDS in the early ’80s. If anyone asked how he passed away within only a year’s time, we were instructed by older family members io tell everyone he had cancer. Because of the shame and fear in the early ‘80s about HIV — and the stigma that’s very much alive today for people living with HIV — my family hid the truth of his passing.
Fast forward 16 years, I was living with HIV but still didn't have accurate information or real support in my life. My partner said he accepted the fact I was HIV-positive; little did I know that acceptance would come with a high price.
The man I thought loved and cared for me ended up emotionally and spiritually abusing me for four years straight. During the last three of our seven year relationship, that emotional violence graduated into physical abuse. I had no voice in the relationship. When I tried to express how I felt about his abuse, he said, and I quote, “No one is going to want you anymore because you are damaged goods.” In other words, I’d better do as he said and tell no one about the violence in our relationship.
I was lost. I knew I needed to get out of this relationship before he killed me, but being financially dependent on him, I had no idea how to get out safely. I prayed a lot, asking for the answer. One night I made one of biggest mistakes a woman can make when trying get away from her abuser: I told him I was leaving him and never coming back.
He began crying. He begged me to stay. When that didn’t change my mind, he said if he could not have me, I was going to jail. I didn't know what he meant.
As I began packing my belongings, he came in the room with a knife. I was terrified. All I could think was, He’s going to kill me!
Then he turned the knife on himself, slahing a deep cut into his arm.
It scared me and I screamed, “You are out of your mind!”
He picked up the phone, called 911 and said I'd cut him with the knife and that I was crazy. Then he pulled the phone out of the wall.
When the police arrived, my nightgown was soaked in blood from trying to stop the bleeding from his arm. He told the police I had cut him and was trying to kill him.
I was arrested and spent five months in jail. As I was waiting for my trial, broken and lost, I spent hours upon hours deliberating how to make the judge believe the truth: that I had not committed a crime, that my abuser had cut himself, that he was the one who had been done the abusing.
All about power and control, my abuser had the nerve to visit me in jail and tell me he wouldn't press charges if I would come back home with him.
By then, I had joined a support group of women in jail who were all survivors of abusive partners. That had helped me grow strong in my conviction I would never go back with him, no matter what the judge decided in my case. I received support, and for first time in years, I felt alive, despite being in jail.
My prayers were answered. I ended up being released with three years of probation. In tears, I went home to my family, who my abuser had isolated me from for years, and continued my healing process. Today I am a strong woman living with HIV, with a network of supportive friends. And I am now married to a loving man.
I will always advocate for other women in abusive situations. The first thing I would advise is this: if you are going to leave your abuser — and I recommend you do — just have a clear plan first. And never, ever, tell your abuser you are leaving. Intimate partner violence is all about power and control (which is why its so dangerous to tell your abuser you are leaving, it takes away their control and they will do anything to reassert it). I want you to get out safe to share your story of survival with another women living with HIV and dealing with an abusive partner, to give her hope and let her know she is not alone.
For more information on recommendations on identifying and dealing with intimate partner violence, visit Positive Women’s Network-USA.
Teresa Sullivan is a board member of Positive Women’s Network-USA.