Positive Love

Love proves stronger than fear in these couples where one partner tests positive for HIV, the other negative for the dread disease.

But while parts of their personal lives are more in order, the HIV isn't going away, and Rochelle says Rhonda can fall into the common caretaker role all too often.

"She's scared of losing me," says Rochelle. "She wants me to take the medicines exactly like they said. When the doctor gave me a diet, she wants to make me live it to the T! And I say, 'The medicine makes me sick, and I like to eat pork and beef!' "

"I just feel like if these are things you need to do to stay around just a little bit longer, then that's what you've got to do," insists Rhonda, who admits it can make her angry when Rochelle doesn't follow the doctor's orders.

Ron (left) didn't know if he would be able to date someone who was HIV-positive. Then he met Thomas.
Deron Neblett
Ron (left) didn't know if he would be able to date someone who was HIV-positive. Then he met Thomas.
Ken McLeod of the Bering Support Network believes the number of mixed-status couples is on the rise.
Deron Neblett
Ken McLeod of the Bering Support Network believes the number of mixed-status couples is on the rise.

For Rhonda and Rochelle, like Thomas and Ron, safe sex is a constant practice. And even though the day of the results makes her anxious, Rhonda gets tested for HIV every three months. But sometimes, Rochelle says, she doesn't feel like being intimate because she feels guilty every time she thinks she might be putting Rhonda in danger of contracting the virus.

"Last month we were on lockdown," jokes Rhonda.

"We argued, we fought," explains Rochelle. "I was like, 'No, we can't have sex because my T-count dropped and that means there's something going on inside my body and I don't want to put you at risk of being positive.' "

When Rhonda countered that she knew those risks going into the relationship and that she understood, Rochelle consented. But with the intimacy came the guilt.

"I don't want to do anything to hurt her," she says. "And sometimes I feel having sex with her is not showing her that I love her. Because I'm putting her at risk."

Guilt isn't limited to the positive partner, the experts say. Oftentimes the negative partner feels uneasy for just being healthy. Then, if the positive partner does something that upsets the negative one, the negative person clams up and doesn't argue. If they're already sick, why make it worse? they think. Over time, the positive person can start to get frustrated or tired of holding everything inside. Anger can build, then more guilt.

But Rochelle and Rhonda say they try to talk about everything, especially during the difficult times. When Rochelle's neuropathy acts up, or her T-cell count is down, they talk.

Sometimes they try to allow themselves to think about the future. Rochelle has three children who were taken away from her when she abused drugs, and she'd like to get them back. Rhonda wants to buy a house.

"We're doing pretty good," says Rhonda. "Having our own place is good, her going to beauty school is good."

"Rhonda's gonna let me put makeup on her and do her hair," says Rochelle, giggling at the possibility.

Rhonda sighs and answers, "That's gotta be love."

Rochelle picks at her fingernails and admits in her soft voice that feeling love is a new thing. In her past, abusive relationships were the norm. She would always start off so trusting, but things would always turn out bad. And when she found out she was HIV-positive, she wasn't sure anyone would want to be with her.

"Before Rhonda, it was like I didn't want to let anyone get close to me," she says, staring at her hands. Rhonda, who likes to do a lot of the talking, now sits quietly and listens to Rochelle.

"I said, 'I'm not going to allow myself to get close and to really love her, because I know it could never work,' " Rochelle explains. "But after she stuck by me, I said, that's it. It's destiny."

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