It wasn’t until February 10, 2015, that I truly realized the profound connection between trauma and HIV. I always knew about a correlation, but what did that really mean to me? It meant everything I had read regarding past traumatic experiences having an effect on one’s ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships with themselves and others was real. This means that individuals living with traumatic pasts, regardless of whether it was child abuse, sexual abuse, or domestic violence, may partake in risky behaviors as a result, sometimes unknowingly. I understood all of this, but how did it pertain to me and my diagnosis?
My life was filled with traumatic events that included homelessness, molestation, discrimination, rape, domestic violence, and child abuse. However, I never actually thought about how these past events “caused” my diagnosis. 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 sought out Mental Health therapy and worked through it all. I started college, was doing wonderfully in the military, and had met the man of my dreams. 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.
Like I stated before, 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 again, 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 looking further at the unknown Outlook email, 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 to see if it was his boss, and what I saw was further from that.
The inbox of his email was overloaded with emails from him to other men seeking sexual connections. I read and re-read the emails, going back and forth. I could not believe what I was reading or seeing. My husband of 10 years had been secretly sleeping with men, several men, on countless occasions.
I was shaking beyond belief. I was in such shock that tears were not even possible. I walked over to him in our bed, woke him up, and asked him for a divorce. He asked me why and I showed him his phone. He had no words, nothing. He walked out of our bedroom and went outside, smoked a cigarette and then came back. 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 of thinking, piecing things together, and looking back to our past, I realized that I had overlooked several red flags prior to and during our marriage. This is where my past affected my diagnosis. 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 saw and 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. One night I snuck downstairs and saw what he was looking at. He was on Craigslist looking at pictures of transgender individuals. Another time he left his email open and he had been meeting some girl named Sara, and when I called Sara’s number a guy answered the phone saying <i>he</i> was Sara. After that incident I Googled his name and found several websites with his profile seeking men, transgender, transvestite, and transsexual individuals. Then in 2007 I was diagnosed with HIV. Even after the diagnosis I failed to do anything about any of it.
I lived like this for 10 years, seeing things and knowing things that should have raised some red flag in my mind. Even when I was pregnant with our first child, I found out I had an STD, and I still looked past it. My husband even admitted 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? Why would I continue to let these things go on and turn a blind eye? Was it my past? 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 when I was faced with stressful situations, and became unresponsive and detached. I had difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing my emotions, and was unable to voice my feelings. I internalized stress reactions and became depressed because I remained emotionally numbed to threats in my environment. This caused me to be vulnerable and victimized over and over again. I continued to engage in the high-risk behavior of having unsafe sex with individuals that I knew were harmful to me. I had lost the ability to think clearly, reason, and problem solve and then act accordingly. I did feel shame and guilt, and had low self-esteem and a poor self-image. Even though I didn’t trust my relationship with him, I felt powerless to change the circumstances. I felt incompetent as a woman, and I felt like I was destined to face negative situations for the rest of my life. I was damaged and hopeless, and pretty much operating in survivor mode. 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. The one thing I do know is that CHANGE is possible, even if the transformation process seems impossible.
Information on Trauma and Women with HIV
PWN-USA Congratulates UCSF Women’s Health Clinic on Landmark Study of Women, Trauma and HIV Disclosure
Healing Trauma and Ending Violence Against Women Are Crucial for Improving HIV Health Outcomes: Moving From Recommendations to Action – Fact Sheet (PDF)