Midlife and Menopause
Personal Stories of Menopause and Midlife
When I was fifty-five years old, I was stunned to learn that I was infected with HIV (after being denied new health insurance because of the results of a routine blood test). That was in 1991. It turned out I had been living with the virus since 1986.
"You never know the sexual
history of anybody but yourself."
Jane Pecinovsky Fowler
As a woman newly divorced in 1983, after 24 years of marriage, I had not been on the dating circuit for a quarter-century. I never dreamed that a man I began seeing -- he'd been a close friend my entire adult life -- would be HIV positive. It never occurred to me to ask, or demand, that a condom be used during sex. Why should I? I knew I couldn't get pregnant. And, I knew little about HIV at that time -- only that it was some mysterious ailment affecting the gay community. What did heterosexuals have to fear?
In the beginning I told only my parents, son, and close friends, who were compassionate and supportive. I lived in semi-isolation because I did not have the confidence to put myself in public situations where I might experience discrimination or rejection. Then after four uneasy years, I realized that my silence was not helping me, or anyone else. Suddenly I was inspired to say, "Look at this old, wrinkled, jowly face. This is another face of HIV." I found a voice in me I didn't know I had.
In 1995 I was among the organizers of the National Association on HIV Over Fifty, and I started speaking out: at local, state, regional, national, and international meetings and conferences. Seven years later I founded HIV Wisdom for Older Women, a national program dedicated to the prevention of HIV infection in mid-aged and elder females and to life enrichment for those who are aging with the virus. Because older women are an isolated and ignored group at risk for HIV and other STIs, I also want to raise the consciousness of the health care community, as well as the public, about today's sexual realities.
I'm now seventy years old and healthy. Since the antiretroviral drug "cocktail" was introduced in 1996, and I started taking the combination therapy, the amount of virus in my blood has decreased to a nearly undetectable level. Of course I still have HIV, because there is no cure. But I'm lucky. I have not progressed to full-blown AIDS.
Today I remind women in the menopausal transition, "You never know the sexual history of anybody but yourself." I tell women that if you are not in a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither of you is STI infected, you must understand the necessity of practicing safer sex. If a partner won't use protection, find another partner. And to older men using meds to correct erectile dysfunction, I say, "And now if you can get it up, cover it up."
Excerpted from Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, © 2006, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.
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