Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Speaking out about HIV/AIDS
The scourge of HIV/AIDS is ravaging communities, tearing families apart, and destroying lives. No one is safe from its deadly infection. The rate of infections in the United States climbs and teeters, as well as the death toll, from one year to the next.
Health care providers have sounded the clarion time and time again warning people to protect themselves at all times. Like most people who contract the infection, Sheila Smith took a chance. Then she took a stand – but not before her life changed for the worse.
On Friday, June 17, Smith and three others infected with HIV/AIDS will sound the clarion at the 24th Annual Juneteenth Urban Music Festival. The format will be different than the smaller groups Smith often addresses. This time hundreds will hear her riveting story, followed by a Q & A session.
Smith plans to tell it all – how she struggled with the infection, how it dampened her spirit, how she nearly gave up on life. She’d tell them how she discovered the infection and how her life turned topsy-turvy.
“I hated myself, because I knew it was my fault,” said Smith, now advocating for others who also struggle with the infection. “I felt dirty and filthy because of what I’d gotten into. I cried and beat myself up mentally.”
Tears kept flowing incessantly and drained Smith of a life she once enjoyed. “I cried in the mornings. I cried at noon and I cried at night. I cried in the shower. And I cried at work,” said Smith, recalling the day she was given the dreadful prognosis.
“I always gave blood and I received a letter saying I need to go to the health department. I went to get tested about two or three times. I couldn’t believe it. I was in denial.”
Before she accepted her fate, depression set in. Then it took its toll. “I took anti-depressant pills and anxiety pills,” said Smith, trying to calm her frayed nerves and restore her sanity and self-deprecating state of mind. She also sought the help of a psychologist.
“I prayed for death,” said Smith, 50, a former radio personality at gospel stations WLOK 1340 AM, WBBP 1480 AM and WAVN 1240 AM in Memphis. She came to her senses and chose life instead, believing she could help others in the same predicament rather than succumb to the infection.
Smith is a living testimony that life doesn’t have to end abruptly. The final chapter hasn’t been written yet. It’s been 21 years now since she first contracted the infection; she hid it for 17 years. Now she has a new lease on life.
“When I finally let go, not one person denied me,” said Smith, fearing rejection, abandonment, obstracization and the proverbial cold shoulder. “I felt no one would love me. I was afraid of what people would think, what they would say, and how they would treat me.”
She didn’t have to worry about her mother, father, a sister and three brothers – even her “gazillion” cousins. Her immediate family loves her unconditionally, she said. “But would other people love me? That was my worry.”
The worry would soon dissipate. “I got my deliverance in 2011 from worry, anger, disappointment, let-down. All of that is gone,” said Smith, crediting God for her deliverance. “I started speaking out in 2012.”
In 2014, she started a non-profit organization called “Let’s Talk: HIV/AIDS.” “We’re educating the community trying to dispel the stigma of HIV/AIDS,” she said. “We’re encouraging people to get tested and to know their status.”
Her sister, Pamela Lee, is working on a foundation called the “Sheila R. Smith HIV/AIDS Foundation. She plans to launch it officially in September. The organization and the foundation will become disseminators of information and provide much needed support for people struggling with HIV/AIDS.
“I want people to know you can live with the disease,” she said.