In the 1990s LaWanda Gresham thought she was living life to its fullest. By day she served food in Los Angeles school cafeterias. By night she lived for the streets, partying even though it alienated her from her daughter and granddaughter. "I call it 'the age of darkenss' now," says Gresham, 58.
In 1996, when her husband, Grover — an IV-drug user — got shingles, he was encouraged to get an HIV test. Gresham got one too, and both results were positive. As a black woman, Gresham reflects a grim reality: AIDS is a serious danger to the African American community. Black women are nearly 20 times more likely to get HIV than white women, and black people make up half of U.S. AIDS deaths each year, though they represent only 14 percent of the population.
Three years after Gresham's diagnosis, her husband died from AIDS and she went into an emotional tailspin. "It was all falling down around me," she recalls now. "I was having reactions to the medicine. I basically said to hell with it."
Depression is a common symptom of the disease. Older people with HIV/AIDS suffer depression at five times the rate of their unaffected peers. And depression keeps people from taking care of themselves. Gresham was too stoned or despondent to take her medications for about a decade.
Fortunately, a clinic doctor knew which button to push to get her treatment back on track. "He told me that if I wouldn't take the drugs he prescribed, he'd give them to someone who wanted to live," she says. She stopped doing street drugs and sought help for her depression. Now, she often returns to the streets where she once partied, educating others about HIV.
On disability for a back problem, Gresham is once again close to her daughter and 16-year-old granddaughter. "God put HIV in my blood not to kill me but to turn me around," Gresham says. "It's like I found my happy self again."