Saturday, May 25, 2024

Making Peace With AIDS – Rae Lewis-Thornton

April 15, 2007 by  
Filed under Health

( LAKELAND – In a culture where speaking openly about having AIDS often causes people to shun or pity you, Rae Lewis-Thornton bares her soul and shares the most personal parts of her life with strangers.

In the 21 years since she was diagnosed with HIV, and 14 since that affliction turned to AIDS, the former political activist for the Rev. Jesse Jackson has become a Baptist minister, been through a string of disappointing relationships without giving up on happiness, battled depression and put an African-American face on the disease nationwide.

Since being on the cover of Essence magazine in 1994, she has been featured in Ebony, Emerge, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and other newspapers and television news shows.

Saturday, she was one of two keynote national speakers at “Mind, Body & Wealth,” a seminar in Lakeland sponsored by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Polk County chapter.

Her talk isn’t one any of the 50 women attending, who gave her a standing ovation, are likely to forget.

Dressed in black, with her thick hair falling over her shoulders, she didn’t hesitate to say things in a way someone who isn’t black, doesn’t have AIDS and isn’t a woman who encountered tragic consequences in a search for love couldn’t.

People tell her she is “different” from others diagnosed with AIDS because she is college educated, cute, a minister, working on a graduate degree in divinity and dresses well, said Lewis-Thornton, who is 44.

But as she deals with the cruelties of her disease – diarrhea that came without warning in private and public places, weight loss, and an almost non-existent immune system – Lewis-Thornton doesn’t feel special.

“I submit the best thing I have going for me is trying to die with dignity,” she said.

“AIDS is the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in my whole life. It destroys the body and the spirit.”

No matter how much education you have, she said, what counts is “how you hold your head up when your back is against the wall.”

For her, living with AIDS is taking 14 pills a day and injecting a painful needle in her stomach twice a day.

It’s the loss of a marriage made after her diagnosis that ended in divorce, about a speaking career that put her in the spotlight and a feeling of unworthiness she tried to erase, endlessly looking for validation in buying clothes and shoes, more than 300 pairs of which still are left after purging much of her wardrobe.

As the virus spread through her body, destroying her immune system enough for her to have AIDS, Lewis-Thornton broke down along with her body.

“I went to work crying … I’d spend Friday through Sunday in bed,” she said.

“It felt like my whole world began to crumble. The secret was killing me quicker than the disease … I feel that’s where we are in the black community.”

She went from the nuts and bolts of how she learned about her disease to the reality of what people diagnosed today need.

“You’ve got to be able to create a space and an environment for our people to live in dignity with AIDS,” she said, instead of the “fear, shame and denial” she said are common in black communities.

“We don’t want to be seen near an AIDS clinic because people talk too damn much,” she said. “It’s killing us.”

HIV and AIDS are the primary health issue targeted by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, in large part because it kills so many black women, said Marva Smith Battle-Bey, the group’s national president, who spoke at the seminar.

Evonne Cobbett, an HIV-prevention expert with the Polk County Health Department, said she is glad someone with Lewis-Thornton’s celebrity status was spreading some of the same warnings the Health Department does.

Lewis-Thornton answered questions about any and all aspects of her life and the disease, including one that almost always comes up:

How was she infected?

“Unprotected sex,” she said, going on to answer the next standard question before it was asked.

No, she doesn’t know who infected her. She didn’t have one-night stands, she said, but she had sex in the hope of deeper relationships.

“We do it every single freaking day, ladies, from Biblical times,” she said. “I had sex with men I thought I loved. I had sex with men I wanted to love me.”

She was equally blunt in detailing why unprotected sex is unsafe and the multitude of sexual acts through which the disease can spread, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Although she talks candidly about her life, including a childhood during which she said she was abused by relatives, Lewis-Thornton wasn’t that way in 1986 when she was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 23. She went into seven years of denial, telling only five people.

“It was a cruel time to be told you were HIV-infected,” she said.

To deal with the HIV diagnosis, which she didn’t understand, she thought “OK, Lord, I can handle HIV. Don’t let me get AIDS.”

She dealt with depression and anger when she reached AIDS, she said, finding that healing didn’t start until she began speaking out.

“I found it’s OK to be angry, even with God,” she said.

“God gave me a ministry and I stepped out on faith. The first step in the healing process is letting go of the shame.”

By Robin Williams Adams

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!