Joyce McDonald grew up in the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, New York with her mother, father and six brothers and sisters. Joyce’s father had a major impact on her entire life but especially growing up. She said, “My dad wanted all of us to expand our horizons. He would bring us to the different neighborhoods in New York so we could experience the cultures. He wanted all of us to have a positive image and he used to call me his ‘Beautiful Princess.’”
Even with her parent’s best efforts, it didn’t protect Joyce from the predators that exist in society. A neighbor molested her as she was going up the elevator to her home when she was just five-years-old. “My dad was waiting for me on the 12th-floor but the elevator stopped on another floor first and my dad didn’t know it. That’s when I was molested. I never told anybody and that’s when I started a life of hiding,” says Joyce.
Joyce wanted to be a nurse so she volunteered at a hospital working with the terminally ill when she was in high school. She had forgot that she had a spinal tap needle with her when she left the hospital and was showing it to an interested classmate when somebody called the police and she was arrested. She said, “They took me to a paddy wagon where they held me and then I spent the night in jail – after that, my complex grew and I began hiding more.”
When Joyce was introduced to heroine, her decades-long downward spiral began. It started with missing so many classes in school that she knew she wouldn’t graduate. Again, wanting to hide that from her parents, she ran away from home and fell into an abusive relationship.
Joyce said, “I was abused every day for 3-years, my dreams were shattered, I became a prostitute, was raped, kidnapped, had one daughter that was born with a coke habit and my other daughter was born with a methadone habit. My wonderful parents and family always gave me unconditional love and took care of my two daughters.
“In the 80’s I was going to ‘shooting galleries’ in Harlem. You’d pay $3 and get a needle – a lot of people were sharing them and the ones that were supposed to be new were sometimes used once before. I became aware of AIDS but I knew nothing of HIV. I knew 50-people who I had shared needles with who had died. Between having sex with many partners and sharing needles, I felt hopeless. I knew nothing of praying other than to get drugs.”
Joyce became convinced that drugs were her life and there was no way out when she experienced what she calls her “Most hopeless Sunday.” She says, “A voice told me to go to church. I heard voices back then and talked to them. I told the voice I was going to buy from a drug dealer. I don’t know how, but I wound up in church. They asked if anybody wanted to change their life and I gave my life to Christ that day.
“On my 43rd Birthday, my daughters asked me to get clean and on February 27th, 1994, I went into detox for 100-days. During that time, I drew 13-pictures of the deepest, darkest parts of my life.” Joyce had always been creative, even making clothes earlier on to support her drug habit, but these pictures are really when her art, and healing through the art began.
While Joyce was in detox, she was asked if she had been tested for HIV, she hadn’t but agreed because of her previous lifestyle. She got the news that she had tested positive on January 13th, 1995. “By then I realized all the things that God had got me through and I knew that everything was going to be alright. That night I drew a picture of a woman praying.” She said.
Joyce decided to educate herself about HIV and saw an HIV specialist immediately. Her doctor told her that she most likely contracted the disease in or around 1985 when she was involved with drugs and other behavior that put her most at risk. She said, “It’s important to build a relationship with your doctor. I still see the same doctor today.”
She also started immersing herself in her art. In a 4-month period she made over 130 sculptures that were mostly scenes from her life. They helped her move through her feelings. She was encouraged to start showing her art and began at Visual AIDS, a New York based organization dedicated to supporting HIV positive artists, where her work won a $1,000 prize and a spot on their calendar. She also had her first showing at her church.
“My pastor introduced me as the artist and wanted me to explain one of my pictures. As he waited for me to explain, I don’t know what came over me but I told the whole church that I had been a prostitute and was HIV positive. A hush fell over…and then everybody stood up and clapped, then a line formed and everybody…my pastor and family included, kissed and hugged me. The love just blew my mind.” Said Joyce.
Joyce’s HIV status was announced in a more public way through an article in the Daily News and then on television. “The article was titled ‘AIDS Survivor,’” said Joyce, “I told my daughter I was never going outside again. But then I decided that people needed to hear my story. I began sharing my story and people started coming to me.”
Inspired by her pastor, the Reverend Doctor Mark V. C. Taylor at the Church of the Open Door in Brooklyn, in 2009, Joyce became a reverend and began spreading the gospel. Also in 2009, Joyce began her HIV medication. She said, “I was monitored the whole time and it was strongly suggested I take them. I’m glad I started taking them. Today my T-cells are around 860 and my viral load is undetectable.” She’s also been sober for 20-years.
“When people are educated about HIV, it just changes things.” She says, “I’m glad I didn’t sell myself short. I find myself grateful to have been on both sides. A lot of young people today are not educated about HIV and they need to be.”
Today, nearing 63-years-old, Joyce continues her ministry, having become a New York State Chaplin in 2012 and participates in art exhibits at schools, colleges and churches. Most importantly though, Joyce cares for her mother who is an 86-year-old cancer survivor and just enjoys life with her daughters, son and 10-grandchildren.
For more about Joyce and her story, you can see her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Joyce-McDonald-From-the-Shooting-Gallery-to-the-Art-Gallery/148166952524. Or at Visual AIDS at: www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/joyce-mcdonald#.UkzGRfaMuTg.facebook.com.
Copyright 2016, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
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