My name is Priscilla Mahannah and I am a woman living with HIV. I am 32 and was born and raised in San Diego, CA. I’m sharing my story because my life, like the lives of so many women living with HIV, has been significantly impacted by violence and abuse. It is my hope that by sharing my story you can learn that trauma doesn’t define us. Healing and recovery are possible for all.
My story begins as a little girl when I lived with my mother, younger sister and stepdad. I did not play much as I was really busy being my mom’s protector. You see, violence was a regular occurrence in our household and my mom got beat almost every night for eight years. Screaming frequently woke my sister and I from our sleep. One night he tried to drown her, my sister and I pleaded for him to stop and thankfully he did. Like I said, I was her protector and my mom always says to me that we saved her life in that relationship. Drugs were a big factor for him and my mom, as they both were heavy meth users. The abuse didn’t end with my mother, my stepdad was also sexually abusive towards me. I was really afraid of him.
When I was 9 years old, my mom decided to finally leave my stepdad. We moved into our first new place together, just the three of us. My mom became really depressed and tried to commit suicide. When I found her I called 911. As I was calling, I was also frantically cleaning the house because I did not want Child Protective Services to come and take my sister and me away and separate our family. After that, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They were my safety net and their home was the only place I could sleep soundly at night. However, my grandpa ended up passing away shortly after that and then my grandma died three days later. I remember feeling like I had lost everything. At 9 I had already seen a lot, learned to keep my mouth shut and was already becoming a little adult. The next few years were filled with chaos and instability.
At the age of 11 I started smoking pot and drinking. By 12 I was clubbing in Tijuana with a fake ID, drinking and smoking crystal meth. My sister found out I was using and I got her high because I didn’t want her to tell on me. I started to ditch school and get involved with gangs. By this time my mom had started using again too.
Then I thought I was ready for a relationship, and at 13 I thought that I had met the man of my dreams. He was 27 years old. I lost my virginity to him and was in that relationship for two years. He later told me he had AIDS and that he knew about it three years before he met me. In 1996, at the age of 14, I was diagnosed with HIV. I stayed in this relationship and I remember feeling like my life was over. My mom didn’t know how old my boyfriend was—I had told her he was 18. I lied for him because I knew it would soften the blow about how old he was. I also told my mom I gave him HIV and she believed me. That relationship did not last much longer. He was emotionally abusive and we separated when I was 15.
At the age of 16, I got into another relationship with a man that was 36 years old. At this point I was an IV drug user. In this relationship, I consistently got beat to the point I was curled up in a ball in a corner bleeding. I was also in and out of juvenile hall for drugs. I finally left him when I was almost 18 years old. However, the pattern of abuse didn’t stop with this relationship. I got into another abusive relationship and had a daughter by this man when I was 19 years old. One night, during one of our physical altercations, my daughter woke up. I remember saying to myself this looks very similar to my life as a child. This marked the beginning of a turning point in my life. Meanwhile, I found out that the man who gave me HIV had passed away two years previously. I went to where he was buried and at that point, for the first time in my life, I forgave him. That moment was truly healing for me.
Now, let’s talk about my health. I stopped taking my HIV meds when I left home at 15 years old. The only time my physician and case manager would see me would be in shackles. They always gave me hope and they were nice to me and that made me want to come to care and take care of myself. However, I was not on HIV meds or in care until I found out I was pregnant. After I had my daughter, I stopped taking my meds, and sure enough, fell out of care.
At 19, I started utilizing services at Christie’s Place. I got a vision of hope there and started to learn about how my life could be different. Finally, a sense of normality! These people sparked something in me. I wanted help but was not quite done with the lifestyle I was used to yet. From 2003-2005, I was locked up and this afforded me a lot of time to think things through. While I was incarcerated I made the decision to leave the abusive relationship I was in with my daughter’s dad. When I was released, I went to a recovery program where I graduated and stayed clean with the help of aftercare and Narcotics Anonymous.
But then I got into another unhealthy relationship and had two more daughters. I got out of that relationship in 2013. Despite the abuse I was enduring, I knew I wanted to help others. I got my first job in a caregiving agency in 2008 and worked there for five years. In 2012, I started working in HIV services as an intervention specialist. Unfortunately, my oldest daughter’s father passed away due to alcoholism that year. This led to a year-long relapse on alcohol as I really struggled to cope with his death. Fortunately, my previous sobriety program exposure had instilled a drive for life in me and I got clean for good on May 4th, 2013. I stayed out of a relationship for one year like suggested and worked on myself and my family. In 2014 I met the man of my dreams and am proud to say that I am now in a very healthy relationship; the type of relationship that my daughters and I deserve. In 2015 I landed the job of my dreams as a Peer Navigator at Christie’s Place. As a Peer Navigator I get to help women like me every day.
HIV has significantly shaped my life, but it does not define me. In many ways it has been a blessing and now I get to live my passion to help others who have walked in shoes like mine. My journey and everything I have been through was tough but I have no regrets. I am the person I am because of it and I am forever grateful for the life I am creating every day. My story is in dedication to those who have died due to complications of AIDS, to those living with the consequences of violence and abuse, to addicts who have succumbed due to drug use—and to the still-suffering addict. Stay strong. Thank you.