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Women Ex-Offenders Celebrate 'A Day With HIV' 

Women Ex-Offenders Celebrate 'A Day With HIV' 

The Medea Project

The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women HIV Women's Circle will make you think twice about what this day means.

A Day With HIV is a social media-driven anti-stigma campaign started years ago by Positively Aware, which captures a single 24-hour period in the lives of people affected by HIV. Organizers of the annual event encourage everyone to post a picture to social media with a caption that mentions the time and place of your photo, what inspired you to take it, and the hashtag #adaywithhiv. 

For this year's A Day With HIV, Plus is proud to showcase four theater pieces written by HIV-positive women. Culled from Cultural Odyssey's The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Women's Circle,  the prose and poetry comes from formerly incarcerated women from the San Francisco County Jail.

The date for A Day with HIV changes from year to year because A Day with HIV coincides with the Autumnal Equinox. It's one of the two days out of the year when night and day are the same length. The equinox represents balance and equality, but it also symbolizes the coming of change.

In a recent story on NPR, Dr. Edward Machtinger calls the therapeutic aspect of the performance workshop peer empowerment. An internist and director of the Women's HIV Program at the University of California, San Francisco, Machtinger says, "The strength and healing [these women] have gained from processing and sharing their stories this way is profound," and can serve as a model for helping other patients deal with psychological trauma.



(A Letter to My...) Younger Self, by Cassandra Steptoe, a Monologue.

I didn’t understand what the words meant to me, but I’m going to explain it to you. I wonder if anyone who’s heard the words “You have HIV”, or “You have AIDS” felt it as a single defining moment of their lives like I did. For me it was a watershed. A rupture in time that divided my life into “Before” and “After”.

I was in jail, standing in line for a blood draw, glancing down at the sheet listing all the things they were checking. My eyes stopping on three letters: H.I.V. Even though I had been diagnosed already, that moment in jail stayed with me. I have HIV. That was my name on that list of lab tests. I couldn’t imagine even moving beyond feeling a bomb had been dropped on my life. Unable to imagine how such a big, overwhelming void could ever be filled. I don’t ever want you to have unprotected sex and go down that road.

I am able to look back now, and by experience and encouragement from some very wise women living with HIV/AIDS they helped me find my way. Here are some lessons of my journey: I couldn’t forgive myself for getting HIV, but someone said to me a long time ago, “If you’re looking for a reason to feel shame, you’ll always be able to find one.” I learned to look for something else. Forgiveness. I had forgotten that forgiveness is something you choose and it only happens if you choose it.

I learned HIV is a health condition, not a crime. People living with HIV aren’t doing anything different than most people I know. The only thing separating people with HIV and people who don’t, or people who have had sexual intercourse with a man or shared a needle but didn’t get HIV — is that I GOT HIV.

There was a time that I thought I wasn’t worth much or deserved much because I had HIV, which seemed a little silly. There’s always someone willing to judge you. But if you’re struggling to accept that there is more of you to love than HIV/AIDS, you can take a page from the book of our friends in recovery: “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

I love you so very much, my little girl.


You Cannot Live My Life by Shanikka

You cannot walk in my life, Cause you haven’t been stabbed in the arm three times with a knife. You cannot say you’re just like me, Cause you didn’t test positive, HIV.

You cannot say you feel my pain. Because, you ain’t never hold up in the rain.

You cannot do what I did ‘cause, I did four years in the pen.

You cannot have my glory. ‘cause, mine has been one hell of a story.

You cannot live my dream. ‘cause, you ain’t been beat by your own damn momma

You cannot say I’m gonna live long, Do you really think I’m that damn strong?

You cannot live my life…



Two Worlds by Marlene

Sometimes I don’t know anymore who I am and where I belong to. Growing up in a fairy tale village far from here, living in a happy family with loving parents. No violence ever, no shouting ever. My dad’s wisdom taught me about equality, peace and standing up for the weak, vulnerable ones. No better way to start life. Now I’m living with HIV. It just happened. It doesn’t matter how I was brought up, I couldn’t escape it. There is constant fear to lose my job and therefore my health insurance and also my visa. I’m a bit trapped. But I feel safe here, and I’m more open to my condition. I’m going to live with it and stay happy because I have a choice. I’m choosing to live my life, I’m choosing to have fun as I always had, I’m choosing not to be miserable. I’m choosing to be with a great bunch of people who have far harder lives than I will ever have and without my condition, I would have never met them. But still, going home to my fairy tale village now doesn’t seem like a fairy tale anymore. There’s no awareness about HIV/AIDS. It doesn’t exist, only bad people get it. Do I look like a bad person? I want to scream out loud. I feel a slick wall around my body. Can I judge them? Are they bad people? No. because they don’t know, they don’t understand. What can I do? I can slowly start to do my part of reaching people, help them understand and hopefully one day I will be able to combine both of my worlds.



O Heaven I am your Bird by Deborah King and Lisa  Frias, A duet

LISA: I have left the basement. Abandoned autumn. With all its smoky leaves like dry crackers and coarse salt against the dirt. I raise my arms, tilt my head – ready and frightened.


DEBORAH: I was tired of being out there on the street smoking my life away. At one point, it was chaos. I went to jail for a week, got OR’d out and went on Drug Diversion. I went back to the program by court order. “Did they had a bed for me?” They said “yes”.  I went with the clothes on my back, tired of smoking crack and selling my body for money and drugs.

LISA: To begin you must let go, and letting go is the hardest thing of all.

DEBORAH: I went to the doctor. Every time I’d breathe I’d grab my lungs to hold it. It hurt to breathe when I talked. When I tried to smoke crack I could feel nothing. The doctor had to give me four transfusions. I did not have enough blood in me. I had fluid on my heart and in my lungs.

LISA: Here’s an irony: When you stop needing to land, the ground re-appears. Like a stone. Like a pillow. Her name is surrender.

DEBORAH: They put me in ICU for 2 to 3 days and I had a 102 degree fever. I did not know what was going on with me. They ran some tests: I had PCP, MAC, and TB all at the same time. That’s when I found out I had full bloom HIV/AIDS. As I was lying there my mother and my aunt came to my bed side and I was pretty much out of it. I heard the doctor say, “Deborah you only have 5 minutes to live.” They rushed me into the operating room to get the fluid off my heart and lungs or else I’d die.

LISA: He abandonado la cuneta. I have left the ditch. I stopped sobbing, yes – that thick blanket of exhaustion and unanswered questions like soldiers lined up. No more ditch.

DEBORAH: The last thing I remember seeing was my mother sitting on the bench saying “my baby, my baby, my baby.” As they put me to sleep, I could see my grandmother saying “it’s not time yet.”

LISA: lifting my heart on its fragile chair, I smile. New. Slyly.

DEBORAH: The next thing I see is my mother smiling, saying “Thank You God For Bringing Her Through.”


DEBORAH: They took me to my room and that’s when I woke up. I said “Thank You God. I can breathe again.


DEBORAH: I thank God for giving me another chance to live and to tell my story.”

BOTH: I get up like a child in the morning. Hungry so hungry at last for breakfast.

The pieces here were used exclusively with the permission of the Cultural Odyssey's/Medea Project. For more information, contact Rhodessa Jones or Idris Ackamoor.




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