My name is Sharon Ryan and I want to start by thanking everybody for coming out tonight in support of those living with HIV/AIDS. I’m a resident at Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House, which is a two year, supportive transitional living environment that helps those who suffer with this chronic illness and are at risk of homelessness. I’m here to share some of my story. I’m here to tell you how my life was, how it became, and how it is now. I need to reveal first of all though, that it’s hard for me to speak about myself in front of people. It’s hard for me to speak about anything, actually, in front of a large group of people. But since this subject matter is so close to my heart and since I’ve been personally impacted by this disease, I felt a need to overcome my fear of speaking and give this a shot. I also have some very persuasive people in my life who keep telling me I’ll do fine, so without further ado…
I was born and raised in Chicago and had a somewhat normal upbringing. I was taught right from wrong, good friends from bad, how to stand up for myself and how to avoid peer pressure. I was taught all about drugs and alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases. I knew my brain on drugs looked like a scrambled egg, I had met Officer Friendly several times, and I attended the mandatory sex education classes at my grammar school. Somehow, I still fell prey to the evils lurking out there, luring our youth into its life-altering grip.
I let my life slowly slip into the gutter, sooner than later not caring what became of me or my future. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the choices I made as a teenager would affect my life and my family’s lives for years to come. I dropped out of my freshman year of college and turned to a life of addiction. I did whatever I had to in order to feed that addiction, no matter who I had to hurt along the way and definitely not realizing, or maybe not even caring, that I was hurting myself.
In September, 2005, I received an AIDS diagnosis. Although I hadn’t been living the healthiest lifestyle, I was still shocked by the news and went completely numb for quite a while. My ignorance of the illness caused me to believe I would die, that the diagnosis might as well have been a death sentence. Over the next two years, I continued to live a completely destructive lifestyle, making some of the worst decisions of my life, all the while believing it definitely didn’t matter now because I was about to die anyway. I had been prescribed medicine at the time of my diagnosis, but I hadn’t been taking it. I weighed 96 pounds. My hair began to fall out from malnutrition. I was sleeping in parks and on the El trains. I had completely given up, and then my life was saved when I finally wound up in jail. I wish I knew what happened in there, because I would bottle it up and share it with anyone who’s going through what I was. But I had had enough. I finally decided that I couldn’t continue on like I had been- that my life was worth living and fighting for. And then I found Bonaventure House.
I had already made the decision to change, to become a productive member of society, but I had no idea how I was going to do it. I was homeless, I had this new criminal background, I hadn’t worked in years, my credit was horrible, and the list goes on and on. Luckily, I had the support of my family, but even they didn’t know how to help me. So I moved into Bonaventure House, somewhat skeptical, yet still hopeful. As open as I was to change, I was still stubborn. I wasn’t so receptive to having someone direct my life, but I had already made such a mess of it myself, I was willing to try a new perspective. I found myself surrounded by peers dealing with the same issues that I was. I found myself surrounded by a caring, dedicated, and encouraging staff that were more knowledgeable than I was.
They offered a variety of services such as HIV support groups, occupational therapy, spiritual care, substance abuse counseling, and case management, as well as extracurricular activities to make sure that residents maintain a balance in our lives. I was given an individualized service plan, a personalized guide for me, based on my needs and wants, my personality, my goals, and my beliefs, with just a smidgen of regulation set forth by people who knew better than I did. I wasn’t just taught how to live again, I was shown. If it wasn’t for the open-door policy of every single staff member there and for my stern, yet supportive case manager, I wouldn’t be the strong, ambitious person I am today.
I’ve lived there for over a year and have less than that to go before I achieve my goal of becoming self-sufficient. I’m successfully completing the terms of my probation to be in full compliance with the courts. I’m working with lawyers recommended by staff to help fix my credit. I have a job, doing something I’m absolutely passionate about. I’m in college, determined to turn that job into a career. Most importantly, I’m in full control of my health, maintaining my medication and my relationships with my health-care providers to ensure that I’m alive and well to experience the success that I’m working so hard to attain. Four years ago I was convinced that AIDS had put me on my deathbed. Today I know that it was my ignorance and apathy that almost killed me.
I will forever be grateful to Bonaventure House and to people like each one of you for offering the support that changed a scared, unsure girl into a confident, optimistic woman. And on behalf of the people living with HIV/AIDS who are lost and about to find their way, I thank you.