HIV-positive women find support in struggle to date again
Like many women with HIV/AIDS, Nicole Price worried about love and life, post-diagnosis. She now counsels HIV-positive women on forging romantic relationships, knowing each time out that disclosing one's status can be a deal-breaker.|
By Kibkabe Araya
Seattle Times staff reporter
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Brenda Higgins, a BABES peer advocate, left, and Nicole Price, program manager for BABES Network-YWCA, are HIV positive, and are working to eliminate the stigma to dating that surrounds the virus.
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In 2000, Nicole Price's ex-boyfriend fell ill. They had recently ended a five-year relationship, so she went to see him in the hospital. He had AIDS.
She got tested. She was 24.
"It was the longest two weeks of my life," said Price, now 37. "We thought we would get back together because we both had it."
At the time of her diagnosis, Price was using meth and living in California when her mother, a Bothell resident, learned about a Seattle-based support group for HIV-positive women.
Within two years, she packed her bags for Bothell for a fresh start.
Like many women with HIV/AIDS, Price worried about love and life, post-diagnosis. Once she settled here, she became increasingly involved with the support group, BABES Network-YWCA, eventually rising to program manager. Price now counsels HIV-positive women on forging romantic relationships, knowing each time out that disclosing one's status can be a deal-breaker.
"They can stop having sex altogether and never do it again," Price said. "Some of our women have chosen to be in a lesbian relationship. Actually quite a few of our women have. I think they feel that betrayal. They feel like maybe they got betrayed, and now they have issues when it comes to men."
Trusting a sexual partner and dealing with rejection are regular topics at BABES.
Through peer counseling, support groups, educational lectures and retreats, BABES tackles the challenge of maintaining relationships - especially romantic ones - after testing positive. Women take part in mock disclosures, an exercise meant to ease the stress of telling a partner about being HIV-positive.
"I encourage women to date when they're ready. I ask them questions to see if they're ready. When do you want to disclose your status? Are you ready for the response?" said Brenda Higgins, a BABES peer advocate.
"I'm never ready for the response I'm getting," she added. "There's really no way of preparing someone with that."
More than 1,500 women in Washington state have HIV, according to the state Department of Health. Most contracted the disease from a male partner, and for nearly 80 percent, medication has suppressed the virus, meaning it's practically undetectable in their systems.
Some of Price's dating adventures include a man who became upset when she disclosed her status over talks of vacationing together. After learning Price was positive, another man worried about sharing a drink, though HIV is not transmitted by drinking from the same glass.
There have been longer commitments, though. She recently ended a five-year relationship.
Price has met guys on popular dating sites like Match.com and had coffee dates at Starbucks. Sports bars and nightclubs can be flooded with datable men, but once dates might blossom into relationships, the dreaded talk of disclosing her status comes up.
"Everybody does it slightly differently," said Dr. Joanne Stekler, a deputy director at the HIV/STD program of Public Health - Seattle & King County. "There are some people who walk up to someone in the bar and say, 'Hi, my name is this and I'm HIV-positive' or people tell right before they're going to be intimate. Maybe before they decide to do it or when the clothes are coming off. There's not a right or wrong way to tell, but you need to talk about it."
Higgins' boyfriend didn't tell her he had AIDS. His ex-girlfriend did.
"The thought in my mind was I might as well stay with him because nobody will be with me," she said.
At the time, Higgins was living on the streets of Spokane, using drugs and felt stuck. When her boyfriend was arrested for drug possession, she unglued herself to start over in Seattle.
On a first date, she revealed her status to a man, who became anxious since they had already kissed. Another man, she remembers, felt too sorry for her.
Three years ago, she married a "negative" man she met on Myspace.com. "He was another person I was trying to hold onto because I was positive, and he accepted me," she said. They divorced after four months.
After learning about BABES at the 2007 AIDS walk, Higgins became active in the group. She not only interacts with HIV-positive women in the Puget Sound area, but also abroad on Facebook and other sites, trying to be a confidante, especially when it comes to romantic relationships.
"There's really no right time to tell someone you're positive," Higgins said. "If you're getting into feelings and caring for someone, you have to tell them because they're going to see you take your meds, go in to the doctor every three to six months. They're going to see the fatigue."
Every night before bed, Higgins takes her HIV pills: Prezista, Norvir and Truvada, and the positive man she's dating now understands.
While studying to be an office clerk, a 44-year-old woman, who did not want her name used, helps with the BABES support groups.
She, too, knows rejection. "You get the 'pull away, we can be friends,' the 'smile at me and talk behind my back.' It's a reaction out of fear," she said. "If you know I'm positive, and turn and walk away, then you're not worth my time. A lot will ask questions, and some will give you a high-five and leave."
She recently became smitten with a man, and he with her, so she disclosed her status. "It was almost overwhelming, and then it was confusing why it bothered me so much because I've done it so many times," she said.
Her love interest turned out to be a 'pull away, we-can-be-friends' type of guy. It still stung.
"Dating has always been a big issue for me," she said. "We are all human. We all deserve to be loved, touched, held and kissed, not isolated because we're some disease."
Another woman, who also did not want her name used, became involved with BABES in 2009 after emerging from a depression prompted by her positive husband's death. Before he died, she discovered he had juggled her with a longtime positive boyfriend.
When she started dating, stagnant relationships were what she expected.
"I have HIV, and I didn't think we were going to do anything. I'd let guys take me out on dates, dates, dates, dates, dates," said the 33-year-old lab technician. "Since then, I've been dating a lot, and things have been good, I've been surprised."
She didn't waste time on men who wouldn't accept her.
"Now if I meet a guy, I tell him right off the bat, from the get-go," she said.
She is now in a relationship with a negative man.
Price said everyone has a different approach to disclosing their status, but she prefers not to rush.
"Not just first date, 'Guess what?' " she said. "Give them a chance to get to know you at least. Let them know who you are. Not just see you as HIV."
Lornet Turnbull contributed to this report. Kibkabe Araya: on Twitter @kibkabe