Friday, April 4, 2008


Powers of Examples; An Interview with Pearl Johnson

In the morning of our interview, Pearl Johnson canceled on me because of a family emergency of the best kind. "I can't meet you today," she said. "My daughter is going into labor right now." So, early last month, Johnson's third grandson entered this world crying and healthy. "The baby smelled sweet," she said.
"I'm blind, so I had to feel his features. He was strong and not as tiny as my first grandson. "When I first tested positive," said Johnson, "there was not a lot of hope. I didn't think I'd see my kids get old enough to have their own kids. Now I hope to see my grandchildren grow up."
Johnson, 41, has moved on from her brutal experiences as a battered spouse, has battled substance abuse and has weathered an HIV diagnosis. She has changed her life on her own terms and is beginning work as a peer counselor, hoping to educate adolescents in AIDS prevention.
In Johnson's comfortable apartment in Canarsie, the walls are covered with pictures of her eldest grandson Yakim, who lives there with his mother. "He's the man of the house, all bubbly," she said with a chuckle, flashing a bright smile.
Johnson grew up in Greenpoint and raised her two daughters. "I was in an abusive marriage," she said. "It was a blow from my husband that cost me my eyesight." She was completely blind by the time she was 26. In 1992, after years of drug use, Johnson tested positive at a methadone clinic. "At the time, I felt it was a death sentence. The post-test counselor told me I had maybe two years to live." It is now five years later, and Johnson has much more hope.
"What saved me was that I'd started seeking recovery through a 12-step program. Before I'd tested, I heard people share about being HIV-positive. After my diagnosis, I continued with the program, and that helped me." Johnson started using Body Positive for its support groups. "I still use Body Positive for its socials." Now she attends a support group sponsored by the People With AIDS Coalition (PWAC) called Sister To Sister. "We are women of color living with HIV," she said. Johnson also acts as a facilitator of another Sister To Sister group, which meets in East New York.
Johnson volunteers four hours a week at the PWAC hotline. "We get a lot of people calling about their family members and also adolescents calling for information on HIV. Many people also want information on the new drugs - the protease inhibitors. Everybody wants the cure and they get their hopes up."
Johnson noted that now the doctors are giving people the drug cocktails when they first test positive. "After they start taking the medications, they call us up with questions. People learn that they have time and can make choices. Working on the hotline is rewarding, but can sometimes be stressful. We get people who call from other states, from out in 'the sticks,' where they don't know the services available to them, or there are no services at all. Sometimes, [the hotline] is all they have."
As a visually impaired person with HIV, Johnson noted that there is a shortage of up-to-date recorded materials about AIDS. She receives the newest information from friends at the various AIDS groups. After her diagnosis, Johnson made major changes in her personal life. "Before, I did not handle anything well. I now live life to the fullest. I changed how I handle my anger. I stopped smoking, got into therapy, and learned how to get support from my friends." Johnson found that at the time she had to break up with a lover who refused to change some dangerous practices in his own life.
When Johnson is not volunteering, her hobbies are many and varied. "I love going to plays and movies, and going dancing and swimming. Like a kid, I still love jumping rope and going on rides, like the Cyclone at Coney Island."
This month, Johnson starts a new job as a peer counselor teaching safe sex and AIDS prevention for the Brooklyn Project of Hope, which will work in shelters, drug programs, and homes for pregnant teens. "I am scared and excited," admitted Johnson. "It is a new program, so our ideas are being accepted and put into the program. My hopes are to reach more young people, adolescents, and people who have not tested yet. I want to do prevention before people test positive."


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