Powers of Examples; An Interview with Pearl Johnson
By Dylan Foley
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
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
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."
Copyright 1997 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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