By Teresa Sullivan
Board Member, Positive Women’s Network-USA
October 23, 2015, is the second National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV (WLHIV). WLHIV often face physical, emotional and psychological abuse from their intimate partners. Among deaths of women living with HIV (WLHIV) not reported within 30 days, reportedly as many as 42 percent are at the hands of their abusers. There is no doubt that the long-lasting and damaging impact of abuse also makes women more vulnerable to HIV. We must raise awareness and understanding in our community of what intimate partner violence (IPV) is and how to identify and treat it in all health care settings for WLHIV, so that the real work of ending this violence can begin.
Bearing witness to the stories behind these statistics is a critical first step to create the conversations that will lead to change for the women experiencing IPV. Sometimes the emotional violence is unseen, and our society turns a blind eye. The abuser is then able to isolate her and brainwash her into believing that she is alone and that he is the only one that truly cares about her and will accept the fact she has HIV.
My personal story of intimate partner violence began 20 years ago with a man I thought loved and cared for me. I was diagnosed with HIV on February 26, 1996, at 2:00 PM in a clinic. Yes, I remember the exact date and time and where I was, because on that day my life would change forever. I no longer would see the world through rose-colored glasses, but through the color gray.
I had heard people talk about AIDS in a whisper in my family, but never aloud; never was it a conversation that happened over dinner. 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 adults in the family to tell everyone he had cancer. Because of the shame and fear in the early ‘80s about HIV, and the stigma that’s much alive today for people living with HIV, my family hid the truth of his passing.
Fast forward sixteen years, I was living with HIV but had no accurate information and no real support in my life. My partner said he accepted the fact I was HIV-positive; little did I know that acceptance came with a high price.
He emotionally and spiritually abused me for four years straight. During the last three years, 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 needed to get out this relationship before he killed me, but being financially dependent on him, I was lost and had no idea how to get out safely. I prayed a lot 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. When that didn’t change my mind about leaving him, he said if he could not have me, I was going to jail.
As I packed my belongings, he came in the room with a knife. All I could think was, He’s going to kill me. He took the knife and slashed a deep cut in his arm.
By then I was scared and screaming, “You are out of your mind!” He picked up the phone and called 911 and said I 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 he had cut himself, and that he was the one who had been abusing me for seven years. My abuser was all about power and control—he had the nerve to come visit me in jail to tell me he would not press charges if I came back home with him.
By then, I had joined a support group of women in jail who were survivors of abusive partners. That had helped me grow strong in my conviction I would not 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.
I ended up being released with three years of probation. In tears, I went home to my family—whom my abuser had isolated me from for years—and continued my healing process. Today I am strong woman living with HIV with a network supportive friends, and I am married to a loving man.
I will always advocate for other women in abusive situations. The first thing I would advise is this: If are going to leave your abuser, have a clear plan, and never tell your abuser you are leaving. Intimate partner violence is all about power and control, and I want you to get out safe to share your story of survival with the next women living HIV dealing with an abusive partner, to give her hope and let her know she is not alone.