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Ross Forman, Windy City Times AIDS: Woman challenges stereotypes about HIV and AIDS
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2011-07-06

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The Maria T. Mejia story is a tribute to her perseverance and pride, filled with anguish, attitude, hardships and a horrendous childhood.

Her first childhood memory, for instance, is when she was 3-years-old, when she was molested by an uncle.

"I was in an abusive household with a father [ who ] was a tyrant. [ He ] abused my mother, and verbally and emotionally [ abused me ] ," Mejia said. "I ran away from home at the age of 13—to the streets."

That's where she met her new family—gangs—and she was eventually the girlfriend of the gang leader.

He's the one who infected her with the HIV/AIDS virus, she said.

Mejia returned home at age 17, to live with her mother. "I decided to get my life together and decided to get in a program in Kentucky called Job Corps," she said.

At age 18, she learned she was HIV-positive.

"My first reaction [ to being positive ] was complete shock," she said. "I was a kid; this was not supposed to happen to me. I thought HIV was a gay man's disease, or for prostitutes, not for a person like me. When the doctor told me I have AIDS, I saw my whole life pass ahead of me. I said to myself, 'I am going to die! I will never have children or marry.'

"I just wanted to go back to Miami and be with my mother and little brother and DIE! People back in 1991 were dropping like flies [ from AIDS ] . It was something very hard for a young person to go through."

Mejia left the gang and returned to live with her mother, who gave her unconditional support, yet they agreed not to tell anyone about her condition, including family and friends.

"I know it came from a good place, but she was trying to protect me because, back then, there was much more of a stigma [ about HIV and AIDS ] , ignorance, lack of education and hate."

So she lied about her status, saying that she instead had another illness.

In her early-20s, Mejia moved to Columbia, along with her mother and younger brother. They lived with her grandparents.

Mejia cared for her grandparents, with pride, until they died.

"I became very spiritual, more compassionate [ in Columbia, ] " Mejia said. "I took care of them until they died and this was very important for me; it made me feel that finally I had done something good in my life. I will never forget it."

Her mother then also opened a health food store, and Mejia took nothing but natural medication to treat her HIV/AIDS.

And, for the first time, she disclosed her HIV status to a partner she had been with for seven years.

"It was hard back then, especially in a third-world country, but he accepted me," Mejia said. "Eventually, [ the relationship ] didn't work out and I returned to the U.S. in 2001."

Now 38, Mejia lives in Miami, where she is a blogger for multiple outlets. She also is a peer educator for Jackson Memorial Hospital and volunteer for the Red Cross and an HIV trainer and counselor.

And she's been together with her partner, Lisa Laing, for four years.

"My life is almost normal today, though with ups and downs," she said. "I am very happy with my partner. We enjoy traveling, going to dance, shopping, dinning [ out ] , etc. I am taking HIV medication now, [ as opposed ] to the first 10 years [ after the diagnosis when ] I was only taking natural medication.

"I'm glad I didn't take the high dosages of AZT that [ doctors ] wanted me to take 20 years ago. They were toxic levels and something in me told me not to take [ them ] , especially when they wanted me to sign a waiver that said, 'This medication might damage your internal organs.'"

Mejia is now an HIV/AIDS educator, helping those infected and affected by the disease. She also works with prevention and education, putting her face out there to try to end the HIV/AIDS stigma.

She blogs for body.com, among other sites, and is regularly speaking about the disease. Plus, she created an HIV group on Facebook for those impacted by the disease, and she's a part of the Ambassadors of Hope, an organization created by Dab Garner, who was infected about 30 years ago when the illness was called G.R.I.D. [ Gay-Related Immune Deficiency ] .

"I help people who are suicidal, or people who think they might have it. It is my job to convince them to get tested," Mejia said.

Yes, Mejia truly has turned her life around, rebounding from her childhood abuse. Clearly, she is a fighter, a soldier—as she calls herself.

"I want so many things," she began. "I want to be everywhere and help others. I want to write a book. I want to grow more spiritually. I also want [ to see ] a cure [ for HIV/AIDS ] in my lifetime."

Mejia has taken a strong public stance, anchored by the death of her partner's sister last November from a brain tumor.

"It was very sad and hard [ to watch ] ," Mejia said. "She was a very strong woman and I just said to myself after she passed, 'Why can people say they have cancer, or lupus, or another serious illness, and yet I cannot say I am HIV-positive?'"

So she decided to come out of the closet—about her status—in 2011.

"I am not a criminal, nor a delinquent. I just thought, 'Why do I have to continue to hide?'" Mejia said. "I am a human being who happens to have HIV/AIDS. I said to myself that now is the time to show my face, to help try to take the stigma away. I want to show my face and tell my story and to educate others, to show a different face to HIV/AIDS.

"Today, I feel as free as a butterfly, and happy."

Her partner, Laing, is negative, and yet is loving and supportive of Mejia.

"You need to get educated [ about the disease ] ," Laing said. "It's a learning process, especially if you're new to HIV/AIDS. [ The disease ] has taught me to be more understanding and more compassionate and to judge less. It has opened my eyes as to what Maria and others go through on a daily basis."

Mejia has dated partners who are negative almost all her life.

"I am very blessed to be with my soulmate, as we call each other," Mejia said. "It feels awesome to have her support, and to be there for each other. It's an unconditional love. When I disclosed [ my status to her ] I gave her the option to be just friends or continue with our [ intimate ] feelings [ for each other ] , and she chose to stay [ together ] . I love her deeply as she loves me, although sometimes it is hard because she doesn't know what I am going through with some side effects of the medications, etc. Only another positive person would know [ what I'm experiencing ] because they are going through it, too. All she can do when she asks me, 'What can I do?' is just being there [ for me ] . I tell her that there really is nothing she or anyone can do."

Mejia said one of the biggest moments of her life was Magic Johnson's announcement that he, too, was HIV-positive because she then knew she wasn't alone.

"My health in general is good nowadays, but I have to go through some side effects of the medication, like neuropathy, which is nerve damage. Your hands and feet hurt a lot," she said. "I know some people who can't walk anymore due to the pain. I have good days and bad days, some days with fatigue, some normal days. Overall, I am strong and pretty healthy. You just get tired sometimes of this illness … 20 years is a long time, but hey, things could be worse.

"I hope I am seen as someone who is trying to fight [ the HIV/AIDS ] stigma. The people and organizations I have come across from the Hispanic community are very supportive and proud of me. The good thing about me is that I reach everyone, especially through Facebook, [ and that includes ] those affected with HIV/AIDS, those impacted by the disease, plus the LGBT community, old, young, straight, bi-sexual, gay, men, women … everyone.

"Many people are minimizing this illness to nothing, and that is why so many people are not taking care of themselves. As I tell them, [ HIV/AIDS ] is not a death sentence, but rather, it is a life sentence."


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