Celeste was an energetic teenager in 1986. She was enjoying the end of high school and preparing to go to college on scholarships. She prided herself on being a good student and responsible daughter for her single mother. That year she decided to do something to help her community by attending a blood drive. A few months later a letter arrived in the mail telling Celeste she was HIV positive.
Celeste will tell you she got HIV “the old fashioned way,” from her boyfriend at the time. They were both teenagers, barely old enough to drive. He was the first boy she’d ever been intimate with. Suddenly they were both forced to confront a diagnosis which, at the time, usually led to death.
The two of them grew up very quickly. Celeste decided not to go to college. She started caring for her boyfriend as he got progressively sicker. They eventually got married so he could benefit from her health insurance. On July 21, 1987, Celeste’s husband died. She was just 19 years old.
“Half of my girlfriends deserted me after his death. They didn’t want to deal with the potential of losing me too,” says Celeste. “I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. My dreams were shattered. I lost hope. I figured I wasn’t going to be around much longer.”
For the next several years Celeste ignored her HIV status. She frequently partied and did not take care of her health. “I wasn’t there for my family. Those were my rebellion years,” she says.
After four years of rebelling, Celeste decided it was time for a change. She met a man who inspired her to clean up her act and she went back to school. Most importantly, she started to come to terms with her HIV diagnosis.
“For years I didn’t see a doctor or take care of myself,” says Celeste. “I was very opposed to taking medications. I was hostile toward doctors and nurses. I didn’t want to deal with the disease. But in 1992 my CD4 count dropped to 500, so my doctor at the time advised me to start taking AZT, based on the guidelines back then. So I reluctantly began the regimen as prescribed.”
Celeste’s health improved and she soon embarked on a career as an administrative assistant. She excelled in the workplace, capitalizing on her strong work ethic, her attention to detail, and her caring nature.
Nine years ago, Celeste walked through the doors of San Francisco AIDS Foundation, offering her services as a volunteer. She had made it through the darkest days of her life and she wanted to give back. The foundation embraced her with open arms.
“I’ve never fit in anywhere my whole life,” says Celeste. “But coming into the foundation helped me to see that I’m important and I’m not invisible, because that’s how I felt as a woman living with HIV. I think a lot of other women in my same circumstance feel that way too.”
“The foundation has helped me with my confidence, my adherence to my medications, and my overall health,” says Celeste. “San Francisco AIDS Foundation is my community, my family.”
Only recently has Celeste started to share her story publicly. But she wants women—particularly young women—to learn from her.
“People should not ignore HIV like I did for so long,” says Celeste. “There is no reason for women to hide. Women should be getting tested, and if they find out they’re positive they should start taking care of their health right away. That’s what I learned from the people here at the foundation: to take care of my health and not be afraid.”
Celeste now sees her doctor every three months. She reads everything she possibly can to stay updated on the latest HIV treatments. She has even started speaking to groups to raise awareness about women living with HIV.
“Heterosexual people don’t talk about HIV enough, but we need to talk about it more because the disease affects everyone,” says Celeste. “Women don’t always take good care of their health in general—they’re often too busy taking care of other people in their life. But my message to them is, ‘Put yourself first, and be aware of your sexual health.’”
Celeste has now lived with HIV for more than half her life. Twenty-six years after her diagnosis, she’s finding her voice—and she hopes everyone will listen.
Are you a woman living with HIV? Do you have any messages you would like to share with Celeste?
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