Elizabeth Mercado’s story is one – like many others – is one in which HIV infection and drug addiction are intertwined.
“I started smoking marijuana when I was 14,” Elizabeth says. “I quickly escalated to heroin, cocaine, etc., etc., etc. I was already on methadone maintenance at the age of 20.” In 1987, Elizabeth went into a drug rehabilitation program in the Bronx, where an HIV test was mandatory. She came up positive.
Elizabeth finally broke free from drugs on February 2, 1994, when she was incarcerated for a felony.
“I was arrested for breaking into a house while the owners were inside. I know that sounds crazy – they could have shot me. But in a way, that’s what I was looking for. I attempted suicide once before, in 1986, and this was really another attempt. I was looking for someone to put me out of my misery,” Elizabeth says.
“Prison saved my life. I was 34 years old and so out of control at that point that I could not stop. Prison for me was a kind of sanctuary, a safe haven, the one place where I couldn’t hurt myself anymore. My sentence was eight years, but I was released after eight months for good behavior. I came out totally drug-free, and I’ve been drug-free ever since, going on ten years.”
Breaking free of drugs changed Elizabeth’s life totally. Today she has a stable marriage, and a 20-year-old daughter who is her pride and joy. “I’m so proud of my beautiful daughter Tiffany, who is HIV-negative in spite of having two infected parents,” Elizabeth says. “She saw what drugs did to us, and she has never even smoked or taken a drink. She is working part-time at Washington Mutual Bank while she goes to school at Baruch College. She is blessed without a shadow of a doubt.”
Today, Elizabeth is taking Sustiva, Epivir and Viread, and her HIV is under control. Her most recent CD4 (T-cell) count was an excellent 720, and her viral load is just 409. But, of course, after a lifetime of drug abuse and seventeen years with HIV, not everything is roses. She has been diagnosed with polyneuropathy of both legs, arthritis of the hip and a herniated disc. In February she was also diagnosed hypertension and diabetes. “My blood pressure shot up to 222/120, and I thought it was all over,” Elizabeth says. “My jaw locked, I couldn’t move my shoulders, and I thought I was having a heart attack. I was scared. But it’s not over until the Big Man says so! I’ve learned many times in my life, if it’s not your time, you’re not going anywhere.”
Through all the bumps in the road, Elizabeth maintains her sense of humor. For example, she was recently commuting from her home in Staten Island to Manhattan for peer education training. During that time she had a pain in her groin area. It was eventually diagnosed as a fracture of the pubic bone. There was no trauma, so Elizabeth asked the nurse, “How do you fracture a pubic bone?”
The nurse said, “Maybe sex?”
“Yeah,” Elizabeth answered, “With a gorilla, maybe!”
“I see life in a totally different light today,” Elizabeth says. “I want to educate young people who feel they are invincible and it can’t happen to them. They’re playing Russian Roulette with their lives. Yes, we can educate those who are already infected, and that’s important. We can help them understand their labs, take their meds, eat right, exercise and change their behaviors. Above all we can remind them to keep a positive outlook on life and never give up! But we also need to focus on those who are not yet infected. We need to instill some kind of fear: play with fire and you’re going to get burned.”
Elizabeth is getting ready to enroll in a pre- and post-test counselor training program offered by the Staten Island AIDS Task Force. “I want to meet with women on their own terms,” Elizabeth says. “Many are afraid to go to a facility for fear that someone will see them. Women need their own support systems, because there are things we need to talk about that we might not be comfortable talking about in front of men.”
There’s a special story behind the clothes Elizabeth is modeling in the photos that accompany this article.
“I have lipodystrophy, which is a redistribution of body fat, including lipids – the fats in your blood stream,” Elizabeth says. “This is a common side-effect of HIV and HIV medications. My daughter says I look like an ice-cream cone: big on top and thin on the bottom. There isn’t much that can be done about it as of yet except for eating right and exercise.”
“This becomes a self-esteem issue for women,” Elizabeth continues. “If I put on slacks, it makes me look really thin on the bottom! So I say, ‘Dress it up and keep going!’ Alexandria Lightly, a gifted clothing designer Elizabeth calls her “Sister in Christ,” designed and made the clothes Elizabeth wore in the photo shoot specifically to camouflage the effects of lipodystrophy. The two hope to find a way to make these designs available to other HIV-positive women.
“If I let lipodystrophy hinder my spirit and I get depressed, it’s going to suppress my immune system,” Elizabeth says. “And I can’t afford that. It’s all about how you deal with circumstances. Spirit, mind and body – they’re all important. I say to my sisters who may be embarrassed by their appearance, dress up, come out of your homes and live! Don’t sit at home and die.”
Elizabeth has a special message for the families of people who are struggling with addiction. “I want to say that the reason I was able to pull through this was I have a great family that never gave up, never closed their doors on me, never turned their backs on me, never lost hope that I would turn my life around. I want to encourage anyone who has a family member with addiction not to give up on them. The person you see today will not be the same person if you hang in a little longer. Love can conquer all.”
Elizabeth asked us to provide her e-mail address so you can contact her about your problems. “I want to help,” Elizabeth says. “If someone wants to get in touch with me, I will talk with them.” The address is: EagleSoul1860@aol.com
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
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