Sheila J. has always had a strong will. Although her determination would later contribute to her success, it caused her trouble when she was young. She rebelled against her mother by getting involved with people her mother told her to avoid and by using drugs and alcohol.
“I thought all the fighting and getting sick was a part of the partying. Now I realize I had a problem,” Sheila said. When she had her first child at age 14, she did not want to take the responsibility. “I blamed my mom for everything,” said Sheila, who continued her unhealthy lifestyle and left the care of her child up to her family.
As time went on, her life began spiraling out of control. Sheila had four more children that her mother and father cared for. Sheila’s lifestyle eventually landed her in the penitentiary. After serving a three-year sentence, Sheila left jail only to start using again.
As her addiction progressed, Sheila could no longer hold a job. She started using heroine to escape the reality of her situation. “I didn’t want to feel anything. I didn’t want to be taking care of children. I didn’t want to do anything productive,” Sheila said.
Receiving her HIV positive diagnosis in 1989 only pushed Sheila further into her addiction. “I lived on what society thought,” Sheila said of her diagnosis. “I thought I was going to die, so I might as well go out with a bang.”
When years had passed without showing any signs of illness, Sheila realized she was not going to die. With this renewed feeling of hope, she decided she wanted to stop using drugs but didn’t know how. “I had become comfortable and complacent,” Sheila said, “I knew something was wrong, but didn’t want to deal with it.”
Sheila’s wakeup call came when she overdosed in 2007. When she awoke in a hospital with no recollection of how she got there, she realized how close to death she had come. She didn’t know recovery was possible, but when a social worker offered to help Sheila to overcome her addiction, Sheila accepted her help. At that point she was “willing to do whatever she needed to do for a better life.”
After months in detox and recovery programs, Sheila moved to Bonaventure House in the spring of 2008. “I came in going full force,” Sheila remembered. She had such desire to get better. “Bonaventure House taught me how to be responsible, stay focused, do what’s needed and live life on life’s terms,” said Sheila.
Living at Bonaventure House also taught her to overcome the stigma of living with HIV. Sheila said she realized, “This thing [HIV] does not have you, you have it.” She kept an open mind during her time at Bonaventure House, realizing that she was overcoming obstacles and taking steps towards a productive future. Of the staff at Bonaventure House, Sheila said, “They loved me until I began loving myself.”
Since leaving Bonaventure House, Sheila has renewed her relationship with her family. “None of them gave up on me,” Sheila said, “I’m so glad I’m able to show up for my family.” Now with five years of uninterrupted sobriety, Sheila has her own condo, volunteers and works for Alexian Brothers AIDS Ministry. “I can see it now, how I’ve grown,” said Sheila, “It’s such a wonderful feeling.”
Sheila has a piece of advice for the current and future residents of Bonaventure House: “Do what’s asked of you. Come in with an open mind and desire to better yourself. When you do that the sky’s the limit.”