Kelly’s Story: Beating HIV and Loving Her Life

Kelly Gluckman is a truly inspiring and beautiful woman inside and out. I had the honor of working with her at Mondays at the Mission at Union Rescue Mission. Together we helped to instill life skills and values in young people on skid row and now Kelly is telling her personal story across the United States. I was blown away by all of the struggles she has been through, and yet she continues to hold her head up high and encourage others. Thank you Kelly for contributing your story.

So I’m dating this guy, right? And it was so awesome because I had just come out of an abusive relationship that lasted two and a half years. This one however, Adam, I considered my best guy friend for a year and a half before we even started dating. He and I would go on hikes, do P90X in the living room, go on jogs around the block, and go to the Venice boardwalk to enjoy the beach and the crazies. He even helped me move…twice. Everyone knows thats the real marker of a good friend because moving furniture sucks. The point is that we had a strong foundation of mutual respect and I was SO happy with him. We talked about everything and had great communication. I felt like I was breaking my cycle…that I’d finally found my companion and it was HEALTHY.
One day, we were talking about intimacy, and about not using protection anymore. I had been tested just a couple weeks before we started dating, and I was given a clean bill of health. I was the girl who got tested every six months even though I used condoms every single time, and even dragged my friends in with me to planned parenthood to get tested with me, so I knew I was good. I was the responsible one. I asked him when the last time he’d been tested was, and he told me that it had been about two years, but that the last two girls he’d had sex with were both tested recently, and they both came out totally fine. I trusted him completely, and believed him. He made it seem like he didn’t have very much sex, so we stopped using condoms (against my better judgement).
Six months went by and I decided it was time for us to go get tested together, just for safety. We woke up at the buttcrack of dawn, and dragged (ourselves) into planned parenthood, because everyone knows you have to get there early to not waste an entire day in the waiting room. We got there, signed in, and sat down. After about an hour, he was brought into the office for ten minutes or so, then came back out. I was playing words with friends on my phone the whole time with my legs swung up over the chair next to me. They almost immediately asked him to come back into the office, and he came back out and told me he’d tested positive for HIV. I thought he was joking at first…that was the kind of relationship we had…we would constantly just be talking (crap) and telling jokes. It was something I loved about our relationship. Without looking up, I said “yeah, OK”. He didn’t respond, and he hadn’t sat down, so I looked up and saw that his face was white. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He handed some sheets of paper to me, and I saw that there was information about HIV/AIDS on them. I was like, “OH, he’s not joking.” Scenes flashed in my mind from the last six months, and I knew. We had had way too much sex for me to even try and hope. I accepted my diagnosis right then and there.
Now, I grew up in the LAUSD school system, so I had gotten the puberty ed class in fifth grade, the birds and the bees sex ed class in seventh grade, and the big girl sex ed class in eleventh grade. I had even taken a health class in community college, so I was pretty well educated on what was out there. Up until that point, I knew what HIV was, how you get it, and that I was never going to. I thought HIV was for hyper sexually active gays, drug addicts, and sub Saharan Africa, and I didn’t fit any of those categories. I remembered being taught that once you get HIV, it takes five to seven years until it turns into AIDS, then you die. So I read the pages my boyfriend handed to me, but nothing I read was registering in my mind. I was searching the pages for when I was going to die.
It was taking them way too long to call my name, so I went up to the window, and asked very nicely for them to open up the door so I could ask them a question. They buzzed me in, and once the door to the waiting room closed, I looked over the counter at the receptionist and said very firmly, “my boyfriend just tested positive for HIV, you need to bring me in there as soon as possible.” It took them fifteen more minutes to call me in, arguably the most stressful fifteen minutes of my life. I finally got back there, and they started poking my fingers for the Western Blot test, which works similarly to a pregnancy test, but instead of pee, they use blood. All the blood rushed out of my extremities. They had to go through three tests and poked three or four fingers seven or eight times before they could get enough blood to administer the test. They also drew blood from my arm and collected a urine sample, then sent me back to the waiting room. Fifteen minutes later, they called my boyfriend and I back together and confirmed what I already knew. I was HIV positive.
They brought us into an office, and sat us at a desk, then tried to give us hope by telling us that it was only 99% accurate, and it could be a false positive. While that was nice of them and all, I looked at them like they were idiots. There’s no way both of us have a false positive. They handed us some pieces of paper with a list of clinics we can go to for care and medication, and then sent us on our way.
We walked back to the car from where we were in the Third street Promenade, and drove home in complete silence. I get asked a lot whether I was pissed at my boyfriend. I think I might have asked him who he had been sleeping with or something while we were walking, but it really didn’t matter. I immediately took personal responsibility. I knew that we should have been tested before we stopped using protection and I knew my sexual health is my responsibility. I figured it had to be hard enough for him to know that he had given this to the girl he loved, I didn’t want to make it worse. As far as I was concerned, it was he and I against the world. I didn’t care where he had gotten it from, it was just nice to have someone on my team. We got home, I parked, and we sat in complete silence. I looked over at him after five minutes or so, and he looked defeated and scared. Pathetic. All of a sudden I got really angry. I still don’t know where it came from, but I looked at him and I said “NO.” “We are not letting this take over our lives. We are going to go in there, do research, and find out how to beat this thing. (seriously, I gave him a coach pep talk and it was pretty awesome). We’re going to learn about medication and what it does, we’re gonna look at possible homeopathic ways of taking care of ourselves, diet, mindset. EVERYTHING. We will NOT let this beat us! Look at Magic Johnson! He’s cured. Watch. In one year, we’ll be HIV negative. One year!” (I seriously thought this was possible…I saw it on South Park, so it must be real, right?)
Anyways, so we go into the house and the very first thing I did was Google “Is Magic Johnson cured of HIV” and of course I didn’t even have to write the whole thing because everyone and their mom has heard the misconception that Magic is cured. The predictive text filled in the rest of my question, and the answer is no, website after website told me no, he’s not cured. Magic Johnson takes medication just like everyone else living with HIV. So then reality set in. I was really going to have to deal with this. My boyfriend and I had made plans to hang out with our friends later that day, and I didn’t want to go after just having my dreams crushed, but my boyfriend was like “Kelly, remember what you said? We’re not going to let this take over our lives. We’re gonna start fighting it” My partner in crime. So we hung out with our friends, and took the curtain off our window that night so we wouldn’t wake up in darkness.
I spent all of my free time after diagnosis doing research like I said I would. That was my coping mechanism. I researched everything I could find, and I actually kind of became a little bit of a nerd. HIV fascinates me. How it replicates, what the life cycle is, how the medications interrupt the replication cycle. I stumbled upon HIV denialism, which is insane. I joined an online forum and started talking to other people around the world who are also living with HIV. I got a book and read what I should do in the first year after diagnosis. My mom always taught me that knowledge is power, and I felt like I could gain back control of my situation through learning what was going on. I also talked to friends and coworkers about it. I was never the kind of person to keep a secret. It makes me feel better when I talk to people. I don’t feel so alone.
My boyfriend took a different route for coping. We lived in Venice at the time, and our neighbor was Buddhist and he chanted twice a day. We would always walk by his house to get to ours, and we constantly heard the chanting coming from his apartment. The energy coming out of there was so positive and resounding and my boyfriend was drawn to it. He started visiting and chanting with our neighbor. One day, my boyfriend came home after chanting and he was FREAKING OUT. He told me that our neighbor was HIV positive too, and that he’d been living with HIV since 1986. That was before we were even born! Gerald had been living with this for twenty some odd years (which is a lot longer than Magic Johnson, and he wasn’t rich like Magic Johnson). Gerald was robust. That’s the best way I know how to describe him. He was one of the happiest, healthiest people we knew, and we thought that about him well before he told us his status. Just knowing that someone like him existed made us feel so much better. All the sudden we weren’t the only ones we knew who had it, and we could live at LEAST twenty something years.
A little over a month after diagnosis, I was approached by our coworker, Mike, whom I had known since before he started working with me. I considered him a friend since we had hung out outside of work several times and we always had fun together. I noticed that Mike had been acting weird for a couple weeks, but didn’t think anything of it. He pulled me aside while I was on a shift one day, and says to me, “Kelly, I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” I was confused, what was he sorry for? I hadn’t talked to him in weeks. Mike says, “I slept with Adam.” I looked at him like he was crazy, I didn’t believe a word. I said, “No you didn’t, there’s no way.” He said, “Yes, I did. Why would I be telling you this, I have nothing to gain from it. That time we all hung out, and you went into the house because you were tired, Adam, my boyfriend, and I went to a hotel. When my boyfriend left to go to 7-11 for snacks and beer, Adam came on to me and asked me to have sex with him. He was actually pretty aggressive about it” He continued to tell me that a couple weeks ago, he had heard from Gina (another coworker of ours who I had confided in) we had tested positive for HIV, and he freaked out and went to get tested. He was afraid that he had been the one to give it to us. It turns out that his test had come back negative, and he showed me the results on paper for proof. He hadn’t given it to us.
It all started to make sense…this is why Mike couldn’t look me in the eye for two weeks. Until now, I had no idea my boyfriend was sleeping with men and this guy decides to tell me while I’m still on a shift, working with the public. I started freaking out, as you can imagine. I was wailing crying in the back of the restaurant. Screaming crying, throwing myself into things. Mike tells me to calm down, tells me he can be there for me as a friend. Tells me I deserve better. He mentioned that the Gay and Lesbian center in West Hollywood had a great clinic, and that he would go with me and that I was not alone. I was not thinking straight at this moment, so I just nodded, calmed myself down, and went back inside and finished my shift.
I biked home after work and confronted Adam about it. He seemed shocked at the accusation at first. He denied it for like forty-five minutes saying, “Are you really going to believe him over me?!” He was a pretty convincing liar. I was on and off the phone with Mike confused, not knowing what to think. Finally, I decided that there’s no way Mike is lying to me…why would anyone lie about having sex with someone’s boyfriend? I went back into the house and sat down with Adam. I said to him, “I’m already gone. If you want any glimmer of hope as far as keeping me in your life at least as a friend, you’ll tell me the truth right now.” We were such good friends before we started dating and we had several conversations about how we wanted to make sure we stay friends if things didn’t work out. He gave in and said, “Yes. I did it.” It was silent for a little and I finally said, “I have to go.” I had committed to Hanukkah at my parents house that night.
I stayed with him for another nine months, but hear me out. Seven days after diagnosis, our room mate had given us a thirty day notice to leave. I begged her for thirty extra days, but she refused, even though I told her about our diagnosis and that money was tight. She didn’t like living with Adam. I was a server and Adam was a part time cook, so I carried us financially to our next place. Just to go over the timeline real quick to make sure you’re following. We got diagnosed on October 25th, November 1st we got our thirty day notice, December 1st we move, and the very next day, December 2nd, Mike comes up to me and tells me he had sex with my boyfriend. I was financially and emotionally drained. My relationship with my mom had been extremely tumultuous since I was a teenager and at this point, it was in a particularly dark place. I was not about to break down and ask her for money and certainly not to move back in. I hadn’t even told her I had HIV yet. I didn’t plan on telling her until I felt like I had everything under control so this was definitely not the moment to do that. I was well liked at work, and had a lot of friendly acquaintances, but there was no one who I was close enough with to feel comfortable asking for help. It was just Adam and I, and I loved him. To me there’s no such thing as “unconditional love” because love IS unconditional. I honestly did not care that he had slept with men. I would have still loved him and been with him if he were honest with me from the beginning. What I cared about was that he lied and cheated, but I was really scared and needed my partner.
Over the next few months, I asked him questions and we talked about it, and the real story started to come out. He initially said he had slept with maybe four guys total, but eventually admitted to having slept with at least twelve guys and a few other women in the year before we dated (some protected, some not). He had no idea from whom he had contracted HIV. He made no attempt to contact anyone he had slept with, that was really big for me. I started to see who he truly was and how deep the lies went. I knew I had to get out, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.
I was getting my medical treatment at the Gay and Lesbian Center that Mike had told me about, and they hKelly_Gluckman_Nikki_DuBose_Beauty_Projectad free mental health services, so I took advantage of it. I found a great psychologist and went to therapy every week for twenty-six weeks. I also found a woman who I now get to call my best friend. She recognized my call for help when I told her my story and convinced me to move out from my apartment with Adam and into hers for a month while I regrouped and found my own place with a roommate. She saved me, to be honest.
Since then, I’ve been presented with opportunities to tell my story, and I’ve taken every single one of them. I do this because what I’ve been through is completely preventable. No one should have to go through this, and if I had known someone like me before I made the decision to stop using condoms, there’s a very good chance that I would not have stopped using condoms. The number one means of transmission of HIV globally is heterosexual sexual contact. HIV is a human disease because sex is a human condition, and anyone can get this. HIV does not discriminate.
Today I’m on medication, and what’s called undetectable, which by the way is what Magic Johnson is too, living a healthy life. I look forward to living into my 80s, which is what my doctor tells me I can expect, given I don’t get hit by a car or cancer, and I honestly wouldn’t change this for the world. Through this process, I’ve found my strength and my purpose, and I’ve learned to forgive and love myself. I feel truly lucky to have access to effective medication and I’m truly excited for what the rest of my life has to offer.