Every agency needs them: they're the successes that keep you going, that make the fight worth fighting and drive you to do better every day. Here are some of ours.
Stephanie (Updated 12/15!)
"Maybe I still need to help a lot of people: that's my purpose. That's all I see."
Stephanie was in trouble. When her mother died in 2005, she lost a friend, a mother and a drug buddy. She'd been drinking, using cocaine and smoking marijuana since before she was an adult, and that led her into a downward spiral. Since the age of 13 she'd been on the street,using drugs, relying on survival sex and not worrying about protecting herself. "I had so many unprotected partners, I figured I must be immune to HIV! If it could have happened to me, it would have long before now," she rationalized through most of the 1990's and early 2000's.
However, when her mother died and she was under eviction proceedings, she nearly hit bottom. A friend and occasional sex partner offered her a place to stay, but it came with a cost. Survival sex was the price of a roof over her head, and for two more years, her own private party continued. No one was as surprised as she was in February 2007 when she was diagnosed with AIDS. "He'd been HIV+ for years, but never told me until his illness became too much to hide." Stephanie stayed with him and nursed him through his illness until he died in 2009. By that point, she new she had to make other choices, and moved into an apartment with another longtime friend and sex partner, who was HIV negative. Their different HIV statuses didn't bother him, and they got her into treatment and started working on getting her healthy. It wasn't easy. She'd sometimes sell her medications and needed to get onto a DOT (Directly Observed Therapy) program, where a case manager would watch her take her meds each day. She still struggled with treatment adherence: she'd seen her mother struggle with prescription medications and was scared that she was already on the same path.
In 2012, a case of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) had her coughing up blood, a continuing 103 degree fever, and living in so much pain that she couldn't lay in one position for very long. She had 34 T-Cells: it was her wake up call.
Stephanie started to attend support groups and work with a case manager to get her life back on track. She knew changes were in order, and a stable home environment was key. "I had fifteen cats. I'd sit in my room with my cats and not leave it. I had become a hermit." Working with HASA to manage her living situation, and another non-profit to get her finances under control, she started to figure out what she had to do to turn her life around.
In 2014, Stephanie came to Iris House to participate in our Harm Reduction Programs. "I have to keep myself occupied, and not so isolated, and in groups, I can do that and help others through their crises."
Through her work at Iris House and with support from other programs, Stephanie now has 257 T-Cells and an undetectable HIV load. She's got two cats, and spent the winter of 2015 working at Macy's.
"I've been there and done that," she said. "Now, it's time to help others, strive in life, keep taking my meds and get a full-time job."
UPDATE, DECEMBER 2015: Stephanie is now working as a part time staff member at Iris House for our Food and Nutrition and Administration departments and spoke from the stage of the Apollo Theater on World AIDS Day about her experiences and the need to keep funding women's support services! She was even featured on Fox News talking about the work of Iris House!
Read the text of her speech here!
"In 2003, I weighed 87 pounds. I was so skinny I had to tie knots in my panties to hold them up: that's what AIDS did to me."
SB was diagnosed in 1998, but figures she contracted HIV sometime in the mid 1980's. "I was smoking crack, weed, drinking beer, doing angel dust. Even when I got pneumonia in 2001 it didn't stop me: I had two T-Cells!" Five more bouts of pneumonia over the next ten years nearly killed her, and crystal meth didn't help, but in 2011, she heard about Iris House.
"It took me a while. I stopped crack and heroin on March 5, 2012, but I didn't make a full year before using again. July 2, 2013: that's my real 'clean' date. It took Iris House to help me believe in myself, and in turn, it's given me the ability to help others." SB has been part of our Scatter Site Housing Program since November 2013, and is an active member of our Harm Reduction program, attends emotional wellness groups at Iris House and often eats lunch with friends she's met in the program.
"I attend meetings every day, I stay busy. My son is back in my life -- and my grandchildren! I've got an apartment, a bank account and almost 400 T-Cells," she says. "I don't use people now. And I don't let people use me."
Coming to Iris House Since: 2004
Programs: Women’s Supportive Services, Harm Reduction, Food and Nutrition
What Does She Do? Diane recently retired after more than 20 years working in the food and nutrition industry.
“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know the difference between HIV and AIDS, but when the tears dried, I realized that I needed education. A friend I met at another agency brought me to Iris House.”
“I really appreciate the love that I get from staff and other clients that I’ve known for years. I can go away for a while and come back when I need the support: it’s like I’ve never gone away.”
“Iris House has really helped me to stop feeling shame. I come here and am encouraged to have feelings, to express myself and to talk about my issues.”
“It’s sad, but true: I’m a recovering hoarder! Iris House has helped me deal with periods of stress and depression, and given me the strength to face my challenges. After fifteen years of being a shop-a-holic, now I’m a sell-a-holic! I’m going to flea markets and
“I get better as I get older. I am not in denial: I love myself despite all these things I’m going through. It will pass and I’m determined to live a quality life and do all the things I want to do.”