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They had pretty hard histories of drug abuse and all kinds of stuff, and they were coming up HIV negative. Her mother whispered to me, "We know what she had, but we're not going to talk about it. It's really because of them that we have what we have today. I had friends who were also at risk, who went and got tested.
The only thing that was around in the '80s was gay men dying of AIDS. But when I saw my first friend die of AIDS, who happened to be a woman, it was the hard way to get that education. The doctor just said she had a flu, take her home and have her drink fluids. It was pretty obvious that they thought she had an infectious, deadly disease, but nobody said, "AIDS." Wow. At that time, if you got a positive test, it was a death sentence. They had just come out with AZT [Retrovir, zidovudine] for only a specific group of patients -- those that were wasting away, who were hopeless, they would give megadoses of AZT, because people were protesting and screaming, "Help, help! Let's go back to when your fiancé was in Boston, waiting for his test results. When he found out, he showed up at the altar, the night before the wedding. So you continued with plans, even though he hadn't called you? I was the first person they knew to be diagnosed with HIV. But my support system, before there was anything like a support group, or the focus on living with HIV was even an idea (because people died for so long), I had that. Some of them, I don't even know their last names -- and it doesn't even matter -- they told me, "You're going to be OK, Sherri." As a result, I never had to take a drink or a drug to escape the terror that I was in. I had a 15-year-old stepson at home, who I got to be a parent to for a couple of years. It was dark times, but I was looking for the light all the time and if you're looking for it, you will find it. Lou Reed was in the audience, and he loved our band, and he asked us to open for him at his next concert at Columbia University, and we did. We eventually signed with a man called Neil Bogart, who was quite famous in the music business, because he discovered Donna Summer, Kiss and the Village People. The first 10 years after my diagnosis, I thought that I was probably not going to be here very long. By the way, when you told your friends, were they cool about it? The doctor said, "Take good care of your health," and gave me the handshake of death. I remember telling my husband under my wedding veil, "Don't kiss me." This is the world I came out in. When he said, "I'm going to go through with the marriage." Yes. So we kind of just held hands and tried to keep going. These things gave me hope, and I was able to do all that. I had a band, and our very first gig was at a club called Max's Kansas City, which was very famous in New York, in 1979. Everybody around me figured, "Oh, she's fine," because I was healthy. My friend who died of AIDS had been my roommate a couple of years earlier, before I ended up seeing her in the hospital, wasting with dementia. She was severely fatigued and couldn't get out of bed. I would take her to the emergency room when she had these fevers. You had to put on a gown, a mask and gloves to go in to see her. Was that because it was 1987 and HIV/AIDS was almost invariably fatal? There was none of this world that we live in today. It was Russian roulette, so that inspired me to go. It was '87 and you never, ever, ever heard about a woman getting HIV. A sign was on the door that said, "Caution: body fluids." She was in an isolated room. Please make donations to the cancer foundation." It was just, "Shh, don't talk about this." It was so devastating and frightening; you didn't want to say it. When it happened, you just couldn't tolerate it -- the pain was agonizing. The doctor said, "Could you and your fiancé meet me at the hospital so we can talk about your HIV news and what it all means? He stood up, shook my hand, wished me good luck and walked out of the room. When you walked down that long corridor, what did you see?
I basically hit my knees; I went and hit the floor, in shock and horror. I asked the doctor those questions, and he had no answers. I say three weeks, because that's what it took in those days, while you waited with bated breath for what your results were. They had typical denials: "Well, Aunt Sherri, you did drugs." I said, "Well, you have unprotected sex. My nieces and my nephews were young at that time, but I eventually sat down and told them when the youngest one was in high school and the two others were in college. But it sounds like you had a pretty loving and accepting family. Everybody went on with their lives, doing their own thing. When was it that you got your first CD4 count and viral load? Don't come back here for six months." Because all they ever did then was check your CD4 count. You said you were in the entertainment field in your 20s. Suddenly, we were shot out of a cannon with a big record deal, the first videos of MTV. I focused on hope, one day at a time -- sometimes it was a minute or an hour at a time in those early months when it was too terrifying to even go to sleep -- and I got through it. It's right around the corner." We really needed a miracle, whatever that is. I knew that he was a gift from God, because I wanted to be a mother so bad, and this kid really wanted a mother so bad, that we were a marriage made in heaven. Because your CD4 count was so high, can we assume that you never had an opportunistic infection? The doctor would just say, in those years, too, "Oh, you're healthy. He was my boyfriend and on Wednesday nights he had his night out with the guys. As long as you're not cheating on me with a girl." That was my head. The next thing I knew, we were in a recording studio doing a demo. We played at the Ritz on 11th Street, which was the rock club. He signed us up to be his pop stars for his new label called Boardwalk Entertainment. I was perfectly healthy, and I wanted to get a clean bill of health. Anyway, it scared me enough that I asked to get an AIDS test three months before I was getting married so I could get a clean bill of health, get pregnant and get on with my life. Three weeks later, my test came back positive and I was shocked.