Nancy Ramos, a Los Angeles native, was first diagnosed with HIV in 1992.
Women from Nancy's church in Palm View help lead a special "open choir" worship service where anyone is allowed to come up and sing with the choir.
Nancy Ramos follows a church service in her bible. "I love my pastor and my spiritual friends," Ramos said. "I am happy for the accountability and having different relationships with Christian women who have life experience and children, and can offer words of wisdom. If I didn't have God as my foundation I'd be nothing. He keeps me alive and gives me a purpose."
Nancy Ramos and son Raymond, 14, watch television on lazy Saturday morning while she takes her morning set of medication.
Nancy Ramos takes her medication organizer from the fridge. Ramos always takes medication with food, noting that keeping her meds in the fridge simplifies the complications of timing meals and meds together.
Nancy Ramos composes herself while explaining the isolation she has experienced as an HIV positive woman. "I'm a strong advocate for women, and not just those with HIV, but women in general. We have so much holding us down, and not having that outlet is choking."
Nancy Ramos has a tray of tiny figurines and mementos that represent family members and loved ones that she affectionately calls, "my things.".
Nancy and Ray watch one of his skate videos together. They live in an apartment with Nancy's oldest daughter, Naomi.
An animated conversation lights up Sunday afternoon. "It's no accident that I'm healthy, and I have no fear about the way my life will flow. AIDS may be in my body but it's not in my spirit."
This is the Air I Breathe
I am a mother of two children- Naomi is now twenty-five, and my son Raymond is fourteen. It was 1992 when I first got diagnosed with HIV and I've been living with the disease for fifteen years. On the radio one day I was listening to someone talk about how you can pass HIV to infants through breast-feeding. I was six months pregnant with my son at the time, and I can't really explain what compelled me to get tested. I thought maybe God would be punishing me because of the life I had lived. My doctor didn't even want to test me because I didn't fit the profile- I wasn't gay, I wasn't an IV drug user and I wasn't a prostitute. I was in denial when tests kept coming back positive. My doctor called me to tell me that my baby was likely going to die from the virus and that he'd arrange a late term abortion for me. He also asked that I come to pick up my paper work because he didn't want me as his patient anymore. My son's father denied that I was positive and accused me of being unfaithful. He began to get really sick and passed away before my son reached nine months old. I found out much later that he had contracted the virus from IV drug use and had passed it onto me.
I've lived a wild life- sleeping around, using drugs and drinking. I started drinking when I was seventeen and I've drunk a lot throughout my life. Over the years, drinking and drug use came in and out in phases. I don't remember being a mother- for a while I was just existing. They say people hit their bottoms and I guess it's true. I was dying a spiritual death and if I didn't get out, I'd die. Everything that I had and that was about me, I had to just get up and leave behind. I've been through AA and sober for almost a year now.
I spend a lot of time at the church. I'm open and honest about my status there,
though I've never been up in front of everyone to say it. If you know me, you have to know that I'm positive because it's just so much of what I'm about and I've never been able to keep it a secret. I want to bring the issue of HIV and AIDS into the church, but I know people are uncomfortable with it. I may be open about my status but it doesn't mean people are open to me. I often feel very alone and isolated and feel that people don't understand how important it is for me to communicate about the way I'm feeling and about my ups and downs. There are so many women like me and that feel the way I do. They don't have an outlet or means to speak their mind, whether it's substance abuse, maybe a boyfriend or depression- just those things that hold us down. I'm a strong advocate for women, and not just those with HIV, but women in general. We have so much holding us down, and not having that outlet is choking.
It's true, I do need people to talk to and to comfort me, but I know it's not about the people. People are going to be who they are. I love my pastor and my spiritual friends and I am happy for the accountability and having different relationships with Christian women who have life experience and children and can offer words of wisdom. We're all on a different journey but all on a path to the same place. I just know that even when I don't have people there to talk to, I have God. I know I'll go through those times of depression and through ups and downs, but I always know He can pull me out of it and I'll get through. He gives me a foundation and a purpose and keeps me alive. It's no accident that I'm healthy, and I have no fear about the way my life will flow. AIDS may be in my body but it's not in my spirit.
It's interesting when you feel like your heart's pulling you somewhere. You don't know where, but you can feel that it is. Everything was so new to me when I came into this virus. I was told I had 7-10 years before I started getting really sick. That's not what they tell people anymore. Someone newly affected today can live life like anyone else if they get on drug therapy right away. I'm probably healthier than most people without HIV. But in 1992, all I knew about AIDS was that people were dying, and I lived my life like I was going to die. The situation is changing here, but there are people dying. It finally settled that I wanted to go to Africa, which I'm doing in August of this year with a group from my church. I hear people saying that we do things for the people who came before us, but I know that you can only do what you can do. People used to tell me- you want to save the world. I'd love to do that, but I know I can't. I just can't let situations or opportunities pass me by.When I go to Africa, I can look at those women and know what it feels like to be in pain and to not have the money for the things you need?and I'll be able to minister to them because I have a voice. I have the gift to be able to speak.
I now work with L.A. Unified School District in an organization called Positively Speaking. It began when they saw the rise in HIV infected youth. I'm part of a group that goes around speaking to students about our personal stories and we allow them to ask us questions about living with AIDS. Before I go to classrooms to speak, I never know what I'm going to say, I just pray. I'm always getting cards from kids saying things like- thank you for talking to us and changing the way we think about things. To do something grand is great and fulfilling, but the small things really count?and all because I decided to get up, go to work, and do with what I have.
I've always known God was going to use this for something good and to open doors. I couldn't do what I'm doing now and touch the people I have touched without knowing what this journey feels like. We always measure ourselves by our circumstances, but God knows the bigger picture. We are limited as people because we don't see and understand what God sees about the circumstances of our lives. In a strange way, I'm grateful for this virus. I wouldn't be the person I am. I can't imagine living without it and not having learned that I can do things on my own and be an independent woman.
I love the Lord and I believe that the God we serve is totally healing. I have been going to church with my son since he was in kindergarten, but there were so may times that I wasn't really walking with God. My children are now my main focus, and I need to be the parent that was absent for so long because of the substance abuse and all the priorities I put before them. I kept thinking to myself: I can deal with this, but my children don't have to. That's why I get up every morning to breathe- there's something I have to do. I don't wake up every day and think- don't drink. In the same way I have AIDS, I don't think about it every day. I want to be able to breathe freely. I want to write, I want to crochet, I want to be able to sit down and watch TV. Everything's looking good, it's just a question of whether I can keep my head on strait and get through life's everyday battles. I am so thankful to even just be here today.