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+TALK: MARTINA CLARK

Her HIV diagnosis was unexpected! Karl speaks with author and activist Martina Clark.

Watch this episode of +Talk now. Transcript below.

MARTINA
The role of women in this pandemic is less documented, and I think it’s important to get our stories out there.

KARL
Hello there, welcome to Plus Talk on Plus Life, we’re all about turning positive into a plus, and my guest today, is an author who talks all about her HIV journey in “My Unexpected Life” it’s Martina Clark. Nice to see you Martina

MARTINA
Nice to see you, thanks for having me.

KARL
I’m thrilled that you’re here. We’ll get to your book in a minute, I wanna talk about that, ’cause there’s a lot of great stuff in the book, there’s also, the fact that you made history in 1996 as being the first openly HIV employee of UNAIDS. What did that mean for you?

MARTINA
That meant that I sort of launched myself within four years of diagnosis, to being somebody who felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, because I felt as the first person at UNAIDS that I had to somehow solve every problem that people living with HIV might have, which was of course a ridiculous thing to do. But I put that weight on my shoulders, and I felt like I was an in-house activist, that was not my job title, but that’s what I felt. My job was to always stand up and say, you’re not doing this right for us.

KARL
Yeah, and going back to your diagnosis, you talk about when you were first diagnosed, you know, you had this misconception that this was just a gay man’s disease, so it must have really knocked you sideways, right?

MARTINA
It absolutely did, despite the fact I was diagnosed in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early ’90s, I still had never seen another woman with HIV, or at least I didn’t know that I had, and I absolutely felt the odd person out, and very much alone.

KARL
What did it mean for you then, when you were at the Marin AIDS Foundation, and your caseworker said, and I’m quoting here, “this sucks but you’re gonna live, “so you have to go to work tomorrow.” What did those words, ’cause it’s quite empowering, what did that mean to you in that moment? And I would assume that you’ve kind of hung onto that as a bit of a mantra in the tough times.

MARTINA
It was a tough love, it meant that I didn’t have the option to just curl up in a ball and let life happen while I felt sorry for myself, and I am eternally grateful, because she was right, and I didn’t have the option to just curl up in a ball, I had to go back and go to work, I had to do things, I had to put my shoes on, and brush my hair and teeth and everything else. But also she put me on that journey, that sitting still was not an option, and I became involved with local organizations early, early, early on, and I think in part because of her, because she said, you don’t get to just sit this through, you have to go out and be proactive in your life.

KARL
Yeah, and look, everyone’s journey is different, but do you encourage that sort of reaction for newly diagnosed people, even in this day and age, about look, get out there and get involved within the HIV community to help you process and and grow with it?

MARTINA
I do, because I think that the level to which you get involved can vary, and one caution I would say is, once you put your diagnosis out there in the world, you cannot get it back, so be careful about that. However, being involved even as a volunteer that doesn’t necessarily disclose their own status, is invaluable, because you are in community with other people living with HIV, who understand what you’re going through.

KARL
Yeah, and I know you’ve been in a relationship now with your partner for a number of years, it’s something that we talk about on Plus Life a lot, because it’s a great question on how do you approach the topic of I’m living with HIV, and when do you approach that topic with someone that you are newly dating, or getting interested in? Because you know, you don’t know if it’s gonna allow us more than two or three dates maybe, and you don’t, as you said, once you’ve put it out there, you’ve put it out there. How do you juggle that, and what’s your advice for people when it comes to that?

MARTINA
So, for me, I got to know him, I’d known him for several months before we sort of started dating, and I told him before we got to the point of being intimate, for me, that has always worked, because I can’t live with myself if I haven’t told them, even though I know there are ways to protect the other person. I think I tried once to not tell somebody and it was a disaster, never again. So for me, I always disclosed beforehand, and that also gives them the chance to make an informed decision, and even we’ve been in a relationship for more than a decade, he said just the other day, I so appreciate that you told me in advance so I could make the choice, so I knew what I was dealing with.

KARL
I think that’s so important, and you know, we also talk about you equals you a lot, undetectable equals untransmittable, and it’s interesting because I note that you’ve observed that you feel that that is quite targeted towards gay men, and I would say you’re not wrong with that, what do you think needs to shift change, and how can that change, and be more inclusive?

MARTINA
It’s targeted towards gay men, therefore the partners of straight women, straight men, don’t feel they even want to see that message, because they’re not gay men, so I think that there’s a little bit of rebranding maybe that needs to happen to reach the straight community. I also think that there’s an issue around women that for me at least, I always use condoms for HIV prevention, but also because I didn’t wanna get pregnant.

KARL
Right.

MARTINA
And so there’s like another layer of protection that happens, and I don’t know if that has really been addressed in the messaging, or the fact that, you know, post-menopause, even though you don’t need to worry about pregnancy, you’re so used to now using condoms, ’cause like for me it’s 30 years plus, it would never occur to me to not do that, even though I know the science of you equals you, and I embrace it, but somehow it has not registered for me, and definitely not for my partner.

KARL
Interesting, Interesting, and by the way, we should say condoms also protect against other STIs, so, there’s an argument for it there too. I mean, you know, you equals you, the science of you equals you is phenomenal, and as I said it’s life changing, doesn’t necessarily apply to other STIs. Let’s talk about the book, “My Unexpected Life” what made you go, I’ve gotta put this all in a book and put it out there?

MARTINA
In 2007, for the first time ever, I got really, really, really sick, and I had actually not been on treatment for the first 17 years of my diagnosis, so having to start treatment was sort of like being diagnosed all over again, I was very ill, I had to make the choice to take treatment, ’cause I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but I realized that if I couldn’t handle it psychologically, eventually I did, obviously, I’m here. I wanted to make sure that my story was documented, mostly for my family, but also because I know that the role of women in this pandemic is less documented, and I think it’s important to get our stories out there in addition, and to show how, you know, we climbed on the shoulders of the giants of the men who came before us, but that we were there.

KARL
You said you were, you know, without treatment for 17 years, what was the, can I ask why you chose not to?

MARTINA
I actually did not need treatment physiologically, there were actually not doctors telling me you need to be on treatment, I was sort of a little green monkey, as a scientist say, that I was one of those rare people who just wasn’t progressing without, I mean, not having treatment was not causing a problem for my body, and so, I was very healthy, my CD4 stayed high, my viral load was still very low, not undetectable, but very low, and until it didn’t, and then in 2007, mostly because I wasn’t taking care of myself, I had a job where I traveled a lot, my body just stopped functioning properly, and everything went out of control, within, literally within like six months, I went from being in pretty good shape to being catastrophically not in good shape, to the point where I couldn’t make even the informed decision to start treatment because I was such a mess. And that was the point where the doctor was like, you really, you either take treatment or you die, these are your options, and obviously I took the treatment.

KARL
And for you was it, was that when HIV became real for you? I mean, the reason I asked that is because it’s similar for me, my body, I didn’t get really, really, really sick, but you know, I developed Kaposi sarcoma, and that was something that doesn’t happen to people with HIV anymore because of the treatment, so suddenly I’d had all these years where it was like, yeah, I’m HIV positive, but I lived my life, and then that happened and it was boom. Similar for you?

MARTINA
Yeah. Similar for me, I have a whole chapter in my book about, talking about this where, I’m actually with a woman who has to take treatment because she was in a bombing and has now epileptic seizures, but talking about how I hated taking my pills, because it was so real, all of those years it was in my body, and I knew I’m HIV positive, but I didn’t feel like I was HIV positive except for stigma or whatever other things, but not physiologically. And suddenly it became, in my face in a way I could not deny, and yeah, it took on a whole new level, and it really felt like being diagnosed all over again.

KARL
Yeah, well, I’ll tell you what? I’m glad that you’re on the pills, I’m glad that you’re healthy, I’m glad that the book, “My Unexpected Life” is available too. I wish we had more time, this is what happens, we get into these good conversations, and then we’re out of time. I’m sorry about that. Martina Clark, thank you so much for joining me on Plus Talk.

MARTINA
Thank you so much, thank you so much.

KARL
That’s gonna do it for this episode, if you want more information about Martina, her journey, and where to get the book, and how to check it out, be sure to check out our website, http://www.pluslifemedia.com, and follow us across social media. We are @PlusLifeMedia. Until next time, take care of each other, be nice. See you soon.

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