One afternoon when I was 19, I was hanging out with friends in a park in my hometown of Nashville when I spotted the kind of man who was usually out of my league: older, muscular, with a gorgeous smile. We exchanged a few glances, and moments later he called me over. "You have beautiful eyes," he said. This brother had me at you.
We traded digits, and in our first phone conversation, he invited me to his house. I was so impressed that at 24, he already had a car and his own place, decorated to the nines. He was every southern girl's dream—charming, athletic, stable.
That first night, we spent hours reminiscing about our glory days in sports. In high school, I had participated in track, basketball and soccer and been voted Most Athletic. Over in Chattanooga, he'd been a star jock who'd led his team to several state championships. I felt as if I could talk to this man about anything. Finally, a few evenings later, our talk gave way to the physical intimacy we were both craving. On that night and nearly every night after, we used a condom.
Except twice. One evening as we kissed and caressed, he said, "Marvelyn, I don't have a condom." I was surprised by his frankness, but I decided that it meant he loved and respected me. And since he knew I wasn't on birth control, I even secretly hoped he thought I was a good enough woman to mother his child. There was just one other time that he didn't have a condom—and we had sex anyway.
A few months into our relationship, I began feeling more tired than usual. I was working two jobs and living with my aunt then, and one morning on my way to work, I fainted and tumbled down her staircase. When my aunt discovered my limp body, she called my grandmother and uncle, who raced me to the hospital. There, I was diagnosed with life-threatening pneumonia. But the doctors couldn't figure out why an athletic 19-year-old had gone from being in top shape to being on her deathbed. They conducted test after test, from cancer to meningitis, and every one came back negative. I finally learned my fate on July 17, 2003. I was half asleep when the doctor came into my room and sat down next to my bed. "Marvelyn," he said, "it turns out that you're HIV-positive."
I didn't scream or fall apart. I was just numb. Later that day an infectious-disease specialist informed me that HIV had been in my system for only three weeks. This was good news because it meant I could be treated early, but it was also heartbreaking. I had had just one sexual partner in the previous months. From my hospital bed, I picked up the phone to call the man I believe infected me. "I'm HIV-positive," I told him, and he fell silent. After ten seconds, he finally said, "I'm sorry, baby." Even now, he has never admitted to knowing he had the virus when he met me—but there wasn't a hint of surprise in his voice that day.
Yet this is not about blame. It's about healing—and about how my faith has sustained me during the most difficult days of my life. Once I was released from the hospital and began treatment for my physical symptoms, I began to confront painful emotional realities. I spent weeks feeling enraged about my now ex-boyfriend's irresponsibility before I finally faced the truth: I had made the choice to have unprotected sex. I wasn't born with HIV. I didn't get it from a blood transfusion. I wasn't raped or pressured into unprotected sex. I got a preventable disease because I made a choice, one that I've committed my life to ensuring other women don't make.
Living with HIV is grueling. Every evening, I nearly gag at the thought of taking seven horse-size pills to manage my T-cell count, a measure of my immune system's strength. The next morning, I sometimes feel nausea. I vomit about once a week. When the doctors were still trying to get my dosage right, my 5-foot, 4-inch frame dropped from 128 pounds to 105 pounds. No matter how well I might be holding up on a given day, there is never a vacation from the sickness and heartache.
But the most difficult part of having HIV is the social stigma. Since my illness isn't exactly a secret—I've written a book and made numerous media appearances—I often feel isolated. People whisper and stare as I pass on the street. One of my greatest fears about being so public about my status is that if my life is on the line, people may not want to touch me. To this day, the myth persists that you can get HIV by having any kind of contact with an infected person.
At times, I have contemplated suicide. I went from raising my voice in anger toward God and asking Him "Why me?" to cutting all ties with Him and languishing in silence and grief. But one morning I got a message from God in the form of a near-death experience. I was driving down the interstate when the driver in front of me suddenly hit the brakes. I jerked the steering wheel of my car to avoid a collision. My car spun across four lanes until it faced the oncoming traffic. A tractor trailer sped toward me and screeched to a halt within inches of my car. Once the smoke cleared, there wasn't so much as a scratch on me. God had spared my life.
That was the day I began to understand that my illness was not a punishment. I believe there is a reason that God has kept me alive: I'm supposed to tell as many people as possible that HIV is entirely avoidable. I now wish that just one person had gotten in my face with a serious warning about this virus when I was a silly teenager. If you had asked me then whether I loved myself, I would have said yes. But now that I am 24, I can see that I lived more for a man than for myself, and I was even willing to risk my future by having unprotected sex. I only "loved" myself when a man professed that he loved me. In my mind, it was his declaration that made me worthy.
For the hundreds of women and girls I speak to each month—many of whom are just as naive and stubborn and struggling to love themselves as I was—I am the woman with that strong message of caution. We must begin to love ourselves more so that we can stand together to protect ourselves from a disease that is the leading cause of death for Black women ages 25 to 34 and the third leading cause of death among Black women 35 to 44. The CDC reports that of the people under 25 with new HIV diagnoses, 61 percent are Black. When I visit schools, I tell young people this: Any sexually active person, gay or straight, has a chance of contracting this virus; those odds are dramatically decreased with condom use, and the risk is altogether eliminated with abstinence. It's not enough to protect yourself 99 percent of the time; the remaining 1 percent is all it takes for you to get this malicious virus.
I live in New York now, and as CEO of my own consulting company, Marvelous Connections, I travel around the country and the world, doing my part to reduce the social stigma of HIV/AIDS. I now understand that my disease has given me an opportunity to educate and serve others. These days, when despair comes, I remember that the Creator didn't bring me this far to forsake me. And so with all the strength and passion I can muster each morning, I go out and do God's work.
Marvelyn Brown is the author, with Courtney E. Martin, of The Naked Truth, a memoir about living with HIV. Her 2006 public service announcement for ThinkMTV won an Emmy Award. She told her story to Michelle Burford, a writer in New York.