“Ten years ago I smoked cigarettes I found on the sidewalk to keep from spending money for anything but crack,” says Vivian Lee Francis. “I hardly ever ate. Most days I would have a candy bar and a bag of chips. Some days I stood outside a deli or fast-food restaurant and asked people to buy me something to eat.”
Vivian grew up Catholic is a strict but loving family. Her father was a captain in the NYPD, and her mother worked part-time. But when she was 18, her family was shattered by an automobile accident.
“My mother, brother and I were in a head-on car collision,” Vivian says. “Our mother died instantly. My brother and I suffered multiple injuries, and were hospitalized for a couple of months. I didn’t have the opportunity to really mourn or process my mother’s death. My father was in the late stages of heart disease and died a year later.”
“My brother and I bonded together even closer than we already were. He would wake me up in the morning with hot cereal and juice. We inherited enough money to keep living in our family home and finish college. But we also began using marijuana daily.”
“When I was 24 and on my honeymoon, my brother died of a heart attack,” Vivian says. “My husband and I had a very unstable and tumultuous relationship. We partied in clubs in Manhattan. We were drinking, using marijuana, and we began experimenting with cocaine. My husband had several extra-marital affairs. Three years later I had a daughter. I was able to abstain from drugs when I was pregnant and for several years after she was born. But our marriage was in big trouble. We separated when our daughter was three years old. My husband committed suicide four years later. He was addicted to crack.”
“That’s when my drug use really took off,” Vivian says. “Three years after my husband’s death, I was out of control. One day when my daughter was in school I was raped on the kitchen floor by a drug dealer. I was devastated. This was the same kitchen floor where I played with the family dog when I was a child. The same kitchen where my father checked my homework. The same kitchen where we ate big Sunday breakfasts and dinner every night. I didn’t call the police because I felt I deserved it. Besides, what would I tell the police? The truth? That I paged a drug dealer, let him into my home, and he raped me? My self-esteem was already pretty low and it continued to get lower. I became involved in a severely twisted and destructive relationship. I ended up losing my father’s house, the house I grew up in. The dogs went to the pound. I had to ask my in-laws to take care of my daughter. I went to live my aunt in Harlem.”
“I was sad, lonely, scared, angry, rejected and hopeless,” Vivian says. “Over the years I had been in several detoxes and rehabs, but I was never able to stay clean.” Finally, Vivian hit rock bottom .
“One Friday night I was taken out of my apartment at gunpoint by a loan shark to his apartment to wait for the bank to open on Monday. When I got home, my other loan shark was waiting. I owed the same amount of money to both loan sharks. Because I had no money to give the second loan shark, he beat me up badly. And yet I continued borrowing from loan sharks to pay for my drug habit until one threatened to shoot me.”
Weeks later, Vivian entered a faith-based drug rehab called Teen Challenge. Despite the name, it is not a program just for teens but for men and women with life-controlling problems. It was the first program Vivian tried that actually worked. But it wasn’t the end of her trials.
“About a month after I committed my life to God, a group of us went to the health department to have HIV tests,” Vivian says. “I was the only one out of five to test positive. I thought, ‘Oh, great. I’ve lost everything else. Now I’m going to lose my health.’ I reasoned that either this Jesus was the meanest, most unloving God in the whole universe or He was about to unleash the most incredible life I had ever known. The later has proven true.”
“My road to recovery has not been easy,” Vivian says. “I have had a lot of ‘issues.’ But ten years later I can truly say my life has such peace and joy. I no longer walk around wounded emotionally, trying to find peace and comfort in drugs or men. I have taken responsibility for the poor choices that let me to being HIV-positive. I have been healed emotionally and spiritually. I do not hang my head because I am not ashamed. My having HIV is the consequence of poor decisions. It is not because God doesn’t care or because he is punishing me.”
“I take one Trizivir pill once-a-day, and the virus has been undetectable in my blood for almost seven years now. My T-cell count is in the 900s. I am no longer depressed. I walk in wisdom and understanding today because my life is founded on the word of God. I have been working as a staff member for Teen Challenge in Brooklyn for eight years. I serve as the Women’s Intake Coordinator. I also teach and counsel. It is a joy to help other hurting women and to let them know that they can also make it.”
“God has not only restored my mind and health but also my relationship with my daughter who is in her sophomore year in college. I never knew life could be so beautiful.”
Vivian’s advice for someone who has just tested positive for HIV?
“If ever there was a ‘good’ time to be infected it would have to be now, because of the new advances in medications that allow people with HIV to live - and live well! It is wise to be under a doctor’s care. Then you can make the best decision with your doctor on when to start taking meds. We are a blessed and fortunate people to live in the United States because of the availability of medicine and health care here. Even if you don’t have insurance, there are agencies that will provide you with medical care and medicine.”
“Your attitude toward being infected can make your journey a positive and healthy one or a destructive, depressing one,” Vivian says. “Don’t waste energy on how you got infected or any of the details concerning it. You have to move past all that. A favorite author of mine, Charles Swindoll, wrote: ‘Attitude is more important than money, than circumstances, failures, successes, appearance or skill. Attitude can make or break a company….a church…a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for the day. We cannot change our past, we cannot change the way people will regard us, we cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have and that is our attitude.’ He concludes that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% our reaction or attitude toward it. Unforgiveness can damage your health. So can bitterness, self-loathing and anger.”
Vivian also recommends being involved in a support group where you can talk and express yourself.
“Talk about your fears,” Vivian says. “It’s beneficial emotionally and physically to not hold your emotions in. Journal. Getting the negative out is really important.”
We asked Vivian what advice she would give to someone who is still using drugs.
“Drugs and HIV do not mix,” Vivian answered emphatically. “Drugs and HIV equal death. But HIV and sobriety equal life! I found out I was positive when I was in rehab. I had already made a conscious decision to stop using drugs. The shock and fear of testing positive sealed that decision. It was a done deal: no more drugs for me, no matter how much I craved or desired them.”
“Let’s face it,” Vivian says. “The quality of life when you use drugs is not healthy or uplifting. Addictions are filled with despair and darkness. If you make a decision to stop using drugs and live, your life can for the first time in years – or for the first time ever – be filled with peace, significant relationships, fun, contentment and happiness. You can do it! There is help, you are not alone. The community of infected people is very supportive. It’s like our own private club!”
“Always remember,” Vivian concludes, “what seems impossible to man is easy for God! Connect with your spirituality. Doctors say meditation is healthy – and prayer is a form of meditation.”
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
This magazine is intended to enhance your relationship with your doctor - not replace it! Medical treatments and products should always be discussed with a licensed physician who has experience treating HIV and AIDS!