‘The doctor pulled her aside. ‘If you don’t take her in, she will go to a group home, and she will die.’ Diagnosed with AIDS, my organs were shutting down. I was 2 years past my death date.’: HIV warrior adopted by sister’s boss after life-long abuse

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This is a two-part story. Read part one of Lexi’s journey.

“…While in the group home, the Chesters came to visit me. They took me off campus one day and got me some things to make my room feel like a room. I remember my boombox the most. I shared a room with one other girl and every day was spent with a bunch of angry out of control kids. About two weeks in, the Chesters showed up and surprised me by telling me they were now my new legal guardians! They were taking me home and I was going to live with them. I was so excited. I loved the Chesters. They were fun, sporty, and let us be kids.

As an adult, I learned my stepmom and father had been investigated after dropping me off. They were told by CPS, ‘You cannot drop your kid off at a group home and not come back. If you do not get her, you will be charged with abuse and neglect.’ My parents did not budge.

I didn’t last long at the Chester’s before they kicked me out. I was there about a month when I came home with a hickey on my neck from a girlfriend. ‘We were just playing,’ I said. The Chesters had had enough of my ‘I can do whatever I want’ attitude. They gave me two weeks to find a new place to live. So, here I am, 14 years old calling all my friends to see if anyone would let me live with them.

During the two weeks of finding a new home, my father’s surgery date arrived. September 9th, 2005. I called his cell phone to tell him I loved him and to see if he made it. My stepmom answered and said she’d tell him I called. Later I was told she never mentioned it to him, but it’s what I expected.

My new home was with my friend Stacy, a Hispanic family I went to school with. When I moved in, Stacy’s mom told me they would never leave me as the rest did. All I wanted was to be wanted. Stacy and her sister would often go to their dad’s house, leaving me with their non-English speaking mom and 3-year-old little sister Leslie. I didn’t know Spanish, but my friend Stacy taught me how to say, ‘Como se dice,’ which means, ‘How do you say?’ I would tell Leslie, ‘Como se dice, ‘I am hungry?’ She would tell me how to say it in Spanish and I would repeat it to her mom. A three-year-old was helping me translate. We had it down.

Going on three months of living with Stacy, it was now Thanksgiving time. Stacy’s sister, who was 19, came home from the military for the holidays. She threw a fit when she found out a ‘girl with AIDS’ was living in her house. She freaked out and was accusing me of giving HIV to everyone. She said, ‘Everyone needs to be tested.’ I was so embarrassed and felt so alone. She then called the police. I could hear the dispatcher in the background. ‘Well, is she trying to give HIV to people? Is she acting as a weapon?’ ‘Well, no,’ she said, ‘but she’s not our kid. She needs to go.’

I packed my items in trash bags and waited by the door for the cops. Not your typical Black Friday. A cop arrived and helped me load his car up. He said, ‘You are not under arrest, but I will need you to sit in the back.’ Then, he called my stepmom. I begged him. ‘Please, please don’t call her. I will go anywhere but back home.’ The phone rang and she answered. ‘Ohhhhh, you found her!’ I heard her say. She acted as if I was a runaway. And now I know why. She had an open CPS case against her. The cop walked me to the front door of the home I once called mine. He gave me his card and told me if I need anything, to please call him.

My stepmom led me to my old room where I once again was locked in and recorded. I could hear my sick father coughing from his bedroom. I wanted to go love on him, have us make up, and be happy, but I was not allowed—nor did he want to see me. 

I was told my eldest sister Melody was driving down from San Francisco to come and pick me up. I was so excited! I loved my sister. She was 29 years old. She sang, played guitar, and was so fun. I woke up at about 2 a.m. to see my sister huddling over me. ‘Let’s go,’ she said. We made our way to a hotel for the night. The next day, I was in San Francisco living in a warehouse-like space with 15 people. It was set up so everyone had their own area.

After a week of living with my sister, we were walking down 6th street. She looked at me and with excitement said, ‘Would you like to live with me?’ ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Yes, really. You’re not crazy, you just need love,’ said reassured me. My stepmom had convinced my whole family I was psycho. The devil as she’d say. My sister told me she was terrified of me when she picked me up. Said she hid her keys, phone, and wallet under her pillow the night she picked me up from my parents. She said she was convinced, but not anymore.

My sister sent me back to San Marcos to live with the Chesters in their garage room so I could finish out my first semester of 9th grade while she found us a home to settle down in Oakland. I went to school everyday seeing my brother, but no words were exchanged. The feelings I felt were so heavy, but I kept going. The Chesters did not want me at their home to celebrate Christmas, so I went to spend a couple of days with my grandma Del. The Chesters had brought me out for some fun and shopping on Christmas Eve and we came back to my grandma’s to find all my bags on her front porch, lights out. This wasn’t anything surprising. My Grandma was often drunk and did unpredictable things.

So, ‘Where to now,’ I thought. I called my sister and told her I could sleep in the truck while she had Christmas with our family. She said no. I called my few friends again, asking if I could crash their holiday. Luckily, a selfless family, another girl I went to school with, let me come stay with her. We had so much fun jumping on the trampoline, watching movies, and sharing a room. In the morning, Christmas was irrelevant. Santa didn’t even come, and the family did not seem to mind one bit. They did not want me to feel left out. We had a delicious home-cooked breakfast, and my sister showed up around 10 a.m. for us to head out on our road trip. The rental truck was loaded with my bedroom furniture from my old room and I had everything I owned. Thanks, sis.

Oakland, California, here I come. I was still refusing to take my medicine. My sister was doing everything she could to try and get me to take them. I was enrolled in EBAC, East Bay AIDS Clinic where I had mentors, a case manager, and a doctor waiting for me to take my meds. I started dating a guy from HIV camp for a short time, who was on meds. He shared with me about being undetectable, a new outcome from taking the new HIV meds. Meds that worked? Hello, 2006. My boyfriend begged me to take my meds too, but I wasn’t having it. The thought alone made me sick to my stomach. The power of thought—remember this.

Almost one year into living with my sister, 15 years old now, I fell ill. My sister did too, although her illness was mental. She locked herself in her room, stopped going to work, and left me to fend for myself. Her boss Shannon knew who I was. We had spent a lot of time together during the year. I really enjoyed her and loved having her as a mentor. One morning, I woke up not able to breathe. I felt very sick, as if my body was legit shutting down. I knocked on my sister’s door asking her to take me to the hospital. She began screaming at me, telling me to leave her alone. I cried and begged. ‘Please take me. Please.’ All I kept getting was, ‘Go away.’

I called Shannon, but she was out of town on business. Next, I called my case manager and she was able to get me. She wrapped my arm around her shoulder and helped carry me out to the car. We got to EBAC and the tests began. Trying to read my pulse, the machine went off. Beep beep beep. ‘Weird,’ the nurse said. ‘I’ll get another machine.’ Beep beep beep. She went and got a third machine. The machine went off again, I began shaking, and I passed out. 

I woke up in Oakland Children’s Hospital connected to monitors. I was eventually well enough to whip around the hospital in a wheelchair. I had a blast moving around and saying hi to people. The perfect toy for keeping me distracted from being alone and sick. I spent the first couple of days solo, and on the third day, Shannon was finally able to come. The doctor pulled her aside and said, ‘If you don’t take her, she will go to a group home, and she will die.’ I was diagnosed with AIDS and my organs were shutting down. Two years past my death date, but on death’s doorstep.

So, 34 years old, no kids, not married, and Shannon decided to take me in. The biggest decision of her life. Adopting me. Me calling her Mom and her calling me Baby Bear. Little did she know, the next two years would be a roller coaster ride. Shortly after moving in, I got shingles on my neck, front to back. My health was not getting better and I needed to take my meds ASAP.

My new mom was so patient with me. She eased me into taking my medicine by making pill pockets out of paper, where she wrote cute short poems and put my favorite candy in them. She brought them to me morning and night to get me used to taking my meds again. She spoke to me with so much love and gave me a reason to want to live. I finally began taking my meds. Three in the morning and four at night. My reward if I became undetectable? I could get my belly button pierced. I begged for it and so we traded. 

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

I was told after starting the new and improved meds that the side effects were to only last a couple of weeks, then subside. The room was spinning, making me feel drunk. I hallucinated, threw up, and overall felt horrible. My mom stayed by my side and helped me through it. On nights I didn’t want to take my meds, she sat next to me rubbing my head, saying things like, ‘You can do this Baby Bear, I believe in you. I love you. You are worth it. You can do this.’ She would read me books, tell me stories, hold me, and wait until I was ready. And I took them every time. She didn’t force me to go to school while enduring the hardcore side effects, whereas my stepmom did. I got to the point of being able to take them as easy as 1, 2, 3, and six months after consistency, I became undetectable!!! I was ecstatic! We all were. And of course, I went and got my belly button pierced pronto. I was 16 feeling pretty fly.

My health was better, I was being unconditionally loved with no verbal or physical abuse from my caretaker, and my home life was more peaceful than I could have ever imagined. So peaceful. My reality finally sat in. ‘My whole family left me and doesn’t want me.’ The love from my mom was terrifying. I felt undeserving. I was told my whole life I was unworthy and unwanted and it was validated immensely when everyone left me. Any bit of self esteem left was shattered. I already was diagnosed with ODD, RAD (reactive attachment disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and PAD (Panic anxiety disorder) followed. I wholeheartedly believed I was unlovable and my mom would eventually leave me like everyone else. I didn’t know how to be loved.

My mom and I went to therapy together with goals of helping me come to peace with my past and healing my trauma—which was the reason for my disorders. She did everything she could to help me get better. There was only so much she could do, and therapy once a week was not helping. I was emotionally distraught, I was acting up in school, and my life was being threatened no longer by HIV or it’s bullies, but by the streets of Oakland. This is a story in itself, but I was constantly getting beat up and men were sexually assaulting me on the regular, many were even trying to pimp me out. With my mother no longer being able to keep me safe and my mental health declining, she had no other choice but to reach out for help.

A month later on August 27th, 2008, I was flying on a plane headed to Layton, Utah, leaving Oakland where I would attend Solstice RTC. RTC stands for residential treatment center. I like to call it a therapeutic boarding school. I was there for 11 months, inpatient. Solstice was created for troubled teen girls with behavioral issues, ranging in ages from 14-18 years old. Now they go up to age 19. The program is based on The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, creating a level system I had to work to graduate. The slogan was Believe, Begin, Become, followed by a famous quote, ‘Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.’ – George Bernard Shaw.

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

They taught us about the power of thought and the secret which is manifestation. How our thoughts cause feelings. What we think creates a feeling. We act off how we feel and that then creates our experiences—AKA our reality. I was taught I have control over the thoughts I think. I can choose to engage and feed them, or I can observe them. I learned how to observe through meditation. Meditation taught me to become aware of my thoughts and how to gain power over them. Meditation, with the help of emotion regulation tools, distress tolerance tools, and interpersonal effectiveness tools, I learned how to redirect unhelpful thoughts and only feed supportive, loving, and realistic thoughts. My bible became the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Be impeccable with your word, don’t take things personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best. I recommend this book to every human.

In my individual and group therapy sessions over the 11 months, I addressed every painful memory from my childhood and my current fears and concerns at the time, leading me down the path of emotional freedom. I learned my defiant behavior came from the lack of control I had growing up and being forced into survival mode. My PTSD came from HIV and physical and mental abuse. My RAD came from believing I was unworthy and experiencing abandonment, fearing future abandonment, thus creating trust issues. My PAD (panic anxiety disorder) came from pent up, unprocessed emotions, fears, concerns, and thoughts surrounding my past, current, and future experiences. From understanding the root of my disorders, I was able to no longer identify with them, allowing me to create new thoughts and behavior patterns. 

With the power of self love, the knowledge and support I was provided, the personal accountability I learned, and the safe space I so very needed, I started to change the way I saw myself and the world; this changed the way I acted, and in return, my reality shifted. I ended up graduating Solstice on the highest level, being the first girl to do so. This was a huge accomplishment for me as we all questioned if I would finally get my act together. I was failing in regular school prior to Solstice, and while there, I made up 2 and half years of high school while doing my senior year, and graduated high school shortly before graduating the program. I turned 18 a few days after finishing both graduations and signed myself out on July 4th, 2009.

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

Halfway through Solstice, my mom, Shannon, told me she could not play the role of my mother anymore and we would be parting ways. I felt abandoned once again, but I was in the perfect place to process this news. I took all the tools I learned at Solstice and continued on my hero’s journey to Snow College, in Ephraim, Utah. I left Solstice with 36 dollars to my name, no car, no phone, only belief in myself. I spent a year at Snow, and when summer came, I had nowhere to go. Thanks to a quick Facebook post, I made my way to Las Vegas, Nevada where a friend from Solstice moved me in with her.

I transferred colleges and finally decided on my major. My experience at Solstice was so profound I became fascinated with the power of personal healing. I wanted to continue learning about humans and how I could be of service in the most effective way. I knew I wanted to help others reach ultimate freedom. So, I enrolled in Human Services, and through moving 42 times in 4 years, homelessness, health issues, getting robbed a few times, and getting set in my mind, I graduated with my BA of Science in Human Services in 2015. Everything I learned in my major, I applied to myself. My schooling was almost an extension of my therapy. Everything I needed to continue on my own path of healing.

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

Shortly after graduating from college, I had my grandest ‘ah-hah’ moment. The moment I finally surrendered to life. I stopped fighting. I stopped trying to control what was out of my control. Everything began to make sense. It was like every nugget I learned from Solstice and college finally settled in. The nuggets I needed to flow with life and no longer live in a victim stance, despite whatever is happening. At this point, I was fully accepting of having HIV, my story, and having to create my own family.

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

My life dramatically changed. The last five years of my life have been absolutely magical. I no longer have any disorders. I have healthy beautiful relationships. Intimate and friendly. I love myself, I love the world, and I have no anger toward anyone. I forgave my father, my mother, my brother, and everyone else who played a role in my trauma. I reached this space by the power of positive belief, addressing confusion, understanding what others do has nothing to do with me, learning to not take anything personally, and becoming my own BEST FRIEND by speaking to myself with love and respect. I practiced every day for six years until everything became second nature. Now, my life flows.

I have been in Las Vegas now for ten years. In 2016, my adopted mom and I reconnected after she saw me being consistent in my new life. We mended our relationship over a couple of years, and now we are as good as new. We now touch base a couple of times a week. In 2017, I started a nonprofit called StopHate Educate, providing HIV education and outreach. We had an orphanage in Nairobi Kenya for 3 years, housing, feeding, and schooling 37 children.

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson
Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

I bought my house, paid in full in June 2019, and I live here with my cats, dog, and a potbelly pig. We live on a half acre where I work from home helping people create the life they dream of. I do coaching, case management, photography, make YouTube videos, write, and I recently started writing and recording music. I love the outdoors: hiking, camping, and anything sporty. I eat a plant-based diet and have adopted a Vegan lifestyle. I can confidently tell you I am happy. Content. At peace. I trained myself to see the beauty in every situation. If anything is uncomfortable, I do not judge it, I observe it. Allowing it to be what it is, and I do what I can to move forward. Letting the rest go.

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson
Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

My life with HIV transformed when I transformed. When I removed my own stigmas about what it meant to have HIV, I was met with self acceptance. I learned my worth is not based on anyone else’s opinion, but my own. Not family, not friends, and not partners. Going public with my first YouTube video in 2015  was everything I didn’t know I needed. I no longer felt like I had a secret.

I have found being confident in myself and my status allows others to be confident in me and my status. My energy will be their energy. When I talk about having HIV, I do it nonchalantly. I educate immediately after saying, ‘I have HIV,’ which creates instant relief for both sides. I do not take their reactions personally because I understand they are not educated. Knowing my truth allows me to have no emotional reaction to their reaction. Plus, 99 percent of the time after sharing and educating, the person is totally cool with it. They become grateful for the education, leading them out of ignorance and risk. Those who are uneducated about HIV are actually at high risk for contracting. If you don’t know how the virus is transmitted, how can you truly protect yourself?

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

Living with HIV today is a cakewalk. I go to the doctor once every six months. I take one pill once a day and I have no side effects. The medication is so good now. If you experience side effects, you are advised to tell your doctor immediately so they can get you onto something without effects. I am undetectable which means I cannot pass the virus sexually or to my children. I live a healthy normal life with HIV. I have a wonderfully successful time dating and I am currently happily dating a woman, where we share an open relationship. If I had to put myself in boxes, I would say I am polyamorous and pansexual, living a very healthy, free-loving life. Otherwise, I would say, I am me.

Photo by Adam Bouska
Photo by Adam Bouska

HIV can end right now, today. If every single person went in to get tested, and those positive became educated and got on meds, the virus would end TODAY. The virus would stop spreading. Ending AIDS. Everyone would be undetectable on meds, having successful honest relationships, living healthy happy lives. Don’t let stigma kill when HIV is 100 percent manageable. People fear getting tested when the risk is not knowing. Most of my clients say, ‘I never thought it would be me.’ Wear a condom if you are unaware of your partner’s status or go get tested with your partner so you both know what precautions to take. If they are positive and undetectable, you have nothing to worry about in regards to transmission. Happy Sexing. 

Some final thoughts I would like to leave you with. Healing comes from desire. Starting with belief. Flowing comes from surrendering to what is. Peace comes from focusing on beauty and solutions. Forgiveness comes from desire, understanding, and love. Putting oneself in the shoes of another and removing self from the why. Knowing everyone is doing the best they can and hurt people hurt people. I rise above in love when I stay connected to my heart space. Always asking myself, who do I want to be in this world? 

What principles do I want to live by? The woman I envision to become, what does her behavior look like? How does she treat people? Does she change who she is because others are projecting their pain onto her? Or does she stand in her truth and send them love? Knowing who I hang around is who I become. The company I keep has an influence on my mind, behavior, and experiences. Whatever I believe to be true, whether negative or positive, I will begin to create, and I will become what I believe. I create my reality with my daily choices. And, love. LOVE is the greatest superpower of all. 

Remember when I said, ‘A chain of events lead to what I thought was the worst thing to ever happen to me.’ Well, my father leaving me saved us both, and it was actually the best thing to ever happen to me. I do not wish any part of my life to be any different.

I’d like to thank my birth family, my adopted mom, Shannon, Solstice, my therapist, Keoni, specifically, and Love What Matters for giving me this opportunity to share my story with you all.

Believe, Begin, Become.”

Courtesy of Lexi Gibson
Courtesy of Lexi Gibson

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lexi Gibson of Las Vegas, Nevada. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Youtube, and her blog. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read part one of Lexi’s story:

‘Kids, will you follow me up the stairs?’ We walked into his bedroom. I knew something was wrong. ‘Where is Mommy? What happened?’: HIV warrior details journey with grief, trauma

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