“I lived in fear of being judged a promiscuous black woman”
I am sharing very private areas of my life in the hope that my story will inspire and encourage other women. I had a very successful, high-profile career, married with children – but all wasn’t what it seemed. There is a saying: “What goes on behind closed doors”. Well I am about to open my door and let you in. I am allowing you in with the hope that if there are any women out there who can resonate with any part of my story, that they won’t feel as lonely as I once did.
My parents were part of the Windrush generation and came to London in their twenties, settling in East London. That was where I was born and raised and to this day, I still feel like an East-Ender. I had a strict, Catholic upbringing and went to a convent secondary school. My parents always seemed aware of the potential for judgement and criticism from others. We couldn’t go to the local youth club, we couldn’t date and we definitely could not play out. I think my mum just wanted me and my sister and my brother to be decent. We had to be decent. And decent meant no boyfriends until aged 18 and decent meant combing your hair into two plaits and not letting it hang loose, not wearing short skirts, no speaking to the opposite sex and definitely no going out.
I met my husband aged 18. We were at a wedding and he asked me politely to dance. He didn’t hold me too close or seem to flirt with me, he wasn’t full on like other guys and I liked that. And then he asked me out on a date – another decent thing to do. He ticked the boxes.
Two weeks into us seeing each other, he said: ‘I can’t wait to see a wedding dress on you’. Well of course, that was it. He was a good, respectful, decent bloke with good prospects. He worked in a bank – and that was the icing on the cake. We started dating at 18, were engaged by 20 and had bought a house together by the time we were 21.
Around then, I thought that maybe I wanted to split up with him. He was my first boyfriend and even though I didn’t have anything to compare the relationship to, I knew I wasn’t happy. But he didn’t want to split up so the relationship carried on. We went on to have three children and during our marriage there was domestic violence.
He wasn’t a happy man, he was frustrated at the the cards that life had dealt him, he didn’t get on with members of his family and he wasn’t happy in his work. So when we had our second son, we decided that he would became a stay at home dad and I would continue to work. The plan was that he would go to university to get a qualification in a job he liked – and I was happy to support the arrangement. I worked two jobs (day and evening six days a week) to keep the family afloat.
He wasn’t a happy man, he was frustrated at the cards that life had dealt him.
To be honest, I thought I was sorted. I mean, he chose to do a degree in Economics! I thought all my dreams would come true and he’d start working in Canary Wharf or some other high profile position and make loads of money to invest in our family. But when he finished university he announced that he didn’t want to work in an office and would prefer a job working outdoors. I supported him as there was no way I would want to tell him what type of job he should or shouldn’t do. That wouldn’t be fair. I felt sorry for him.
He ended up working as a labour, a bus driver, a scaffolder and a taxi driver. I supported his career choices as it was my belief that everyone has the right to be in a job they are happy in.
We had a young family and I could see no sign of how things could financially improve. One day, after a few glasses of wine I plucked up the courage to tell him that regardless of what he thought about higher education – I wanted to study for a degree. We argued as I explained to him that he had had his opportunity to gain a degree and now it was my time. I explained to him that my workplace was willing to pay for my degree and they would even give me one day a week off work to attend university. He said: ‘Oh nah, I don’t think that’s a good idea – university is a waste of time! I keep telling you it’s a waste of time! Listen to what I am telling you!’
I will always remember that night, I can picture it. I was sitting on my sofa and I had a bottle of wine, it was red. And I was drinking, drinking, drinking. And I was feeling really frustrated that he wouldn’t support me to go to university. I got annoyed and I said (this is the wine talking): ‘I want to do it, I want to study for a degree, this is what I want to do’. It escalated into an argument and and it turned into a fight and that’s when there were physical blows. I was on the floor, he was punching and kicking me all over my body. The more he hit me the more I argued back.
It felt, in a strange way, that that was confirmation that I needed to end that marriage.
I’d known him since I was 18 and I was now 31. There was abuse and violence over the years but now there was very visible physical evidence, evidence that I just wasn’t able to hide. I was bruised all over with two black eyes. He left the house and I stayed and raised the children alone. After he left, I went from strength from strength. It was brilliant. I got an injunction order to stop him coming to the house and threatening me. It felt quite empowering to do that. It was really hard at the time, having to go to court alone and write up all the court paperwork, but I needed to save money and didn’t want people to know what was going on for fear of judgement. I was very logical – I didn’t do emotions at that time. I wouldn’t allow myself to cry or ask for help. All I kept thinking was: ‘I’ve got my kids and I need to make sure they’re alright and happy and have a roof over their heads’.
Through the marriage and throughout the break-up, I worked hard, in every job I did I gave 100 percent. I became very successful in my career. During the height of success in my job, I was going through a divorce and had to also keep going back to court to get further injunctions, which he continued to breach.
It was really hard at the time, having to go to court alone and write up all the court paperwork.
After the divorce, I dated, but I didn’t really want anyone full-time in my life. I was sorted: I had a job that I loved, I felt my kids were fine. And I was absolutely certain that I didn’t want a man coming into my house and having to explain to the kids who he was. But one day, I met this guy – oh my god he was so perfect! I think I actually fell in love for the first time, like proper in love.
I believed I had met my knight in shining armour. He was attractive and I liked his energy, but more than anything…he had tattoos! And I love tattoos. He had his name tattooed on his stomach. I mean, what more could you want? And he had a job in a bank. He actually worked in Canary Wharf!
In my marriage, I had felt I was carrying the relationship. But I felt this guy was my financial and emotional equal, I felt that this guy had his life sorted. He had his own property and a stable job. We respected each other and we fell in love.
When we broke up, I was devastated. I was devastated. I’d now experienced real heartbreak when I was 35 years old. Up till then, I had been a tough stiff upper lip strong woman. I had to put up with stuff from the ex husband, I was the provider, breadwinner, the carer, the giver, and I held stuff together. But when I finally decided to let my barrier down and allow myself to love someone – it ended. I feel Walt Disney had a lot to answer for there. Bloody Walt Disney. Happily bloody ever after.
That’s when I discovered Norah Jones. The bottle of Chardonnay would come out and I’d sit at my computer, crying, smoking and typing and listening to Norah Jones. This guy had laid in bed with me and described our wedding. He described how we would get married on a beautiful beach – he’d be wearing white linen. But then he ended it with me, how could that be true love?
It was at this point that I went a bit doolally. I started to reconsider what love was – if it wasn’t this. I started to drink and smoke heavily. I realised that my ex-husband had always been there for me, had never wanted to leave. Maybe that was true love after all?
I realised that my ex-husband had always been there for me, had never wanted to leave.
I look back now and I think: ‘Did you forget about the injunctions?!’ How could I forget about the injunctions and the terror? I literally forgot all the shit. I forgot about it. All I could think about was that my ex-husband had loved me since the age of 18 and he never wanted to split up – therefore I decided that must be true love. The other guy didn’t truly love me – he’d described our fucking wedding in detail – then dumped me.
I forgot about the violence and abuse and felt he had changed, so I decided to give my relationship with my ex-husband another go. He moved back into the family home and it was a nightmare. I soon realised that he hadn’t changed. I felt very afraid and tense living with him. One day, I remember, he was calling me constantly and I didn’t answer my phone. He burst into my house through the side entrance and came into the back garden where I was sitting. He tried to attack me and my son had to try and get between the middle of us to protect me. It was awful.
I was scared that he would come back to the house, so that night I took the kids to a hotel for the night. I remember we were driving all around and we couldn’t find a hotel that had vacancies but eventually found one. We got to the hotel and I wanted to lighten the situation after such a traumatic experience. I said to the kids: ‘Let’s jump on the bed and pretend we are playing guitar’. It was great fun, all four of us jumping on the beds. I look back now and can see how I tried to mask situations with laughter. I just wanted to put some fun back into our lives, because it was just so tiring, with him bringing my family’s positive energy down. I’d do those kind of things to keep the kids upbeat. I was worried that the kids might get depression or suffer from anxiety as a result of their experiences.
During the the divorce, I had put my emotions aside and remained in the marital home. At a later stage, I let that property out and went on to buy a larger property.
The renewed relationship with him lasted less than a couple of months. As the relationship fell apart for a second time, I suggested he move into my rental property. I couldn’t think of any other way to get him out of my home. Eventually he agreed to move out into my rental property. There followed a series of threats and abuse which resulted in another court case to get another injunction.
During that time he stopped paying me rent and persuaded our sons to move in with him. It was a struggle for me to pay for two mortgages so I ended up moving back to my mum’s house with my daughter.
It was a struggle for me to pay two mortgages so I ended up moving back to my mum’s house
Once my sons moved to live with their father, he promptly made a claim against me for child support. I didn’t resist paying because they were my children and I felt it was my duty to financially support them. It was an extremely stressful time for me as I had to pay for my ex-husband’s rent and CSA payments.
In many ways, getting back with my ex-husband was worse the second time around. I carried a lot of shame, I judged myself and felt a lot of embarrassment that I had taken him back. I felt like I had failed as a mother because I had exposed the children to more negative experiences. I felt so much pain and helplessness when my sons went to live with him.
One day, I got a call and was informed that my sons were going to appear in court as a witness for their father. When I spoke to the boys about it, they said: ‘I’m really sorry Mum but we can’t let Dad go to prison’. So I went to court, got the injunction extended and things settled down again.
After things had settled down, I started dating again and went out with a few guys. I wasn’t worried about getting pregnant as I had been sterilised when I was 28 years old. But I had started seeing this guy and decided to go for a STD test, as I never had one before. I’d always been careful to teach my kids about STDs. I remember being at home with my sons and getting a condom and a cucumber and I showed them how to use condoms – I also remember the boys blowing the condoms up and making them into balloons to have a balloon fight. I was thinking of their sexual health but I wasn’t thinking of my own. I just didn’t think anything would happen to me.
I went to get a STD test to reassure my new boyfriend that he didn’t have anything to worry about. I went to the clinic and after a while got called in to collect my results. I went into a consultation room and I sat down and the nurse said: ‘Louise, all the tests came back clear apart from one – you’ve got HIV’. My heart went ‘boom, boom’. I actually heard it beat. It was a dream, everything went fuzzy, I felt like I was on gas and air, the room started to spin. She talked to me and I remember how kind she was. I went home in a daze – everything was a blur. When I got home, I lay on the sofa thinking ‘I’m going to die’. ‘I am going to die’. And I remember looking for my will, thinking ‘I need to get an appointment to see a solicitor and to get my will sorted out’ so that the kids will be okay. I had a strong feeling that I was going to die. It was a horrible deep dark time and I told no one. I was just lying on the sofa alone in unbelievable shock.
The next time I saw the guy I had been seeing I told him. He was really, really good about it, he gave me a cuddle and said ‘it’ll be okay’. He got tested and he was negative. We stayed together for 6 years.
I was raised in a staunch Catholic household. I never thought that I could get HIV. Publicity surrounding HIV centered on people who lived in Third World countries or gay men. I just couldn’t understand how I – a heterosexual woman – could get this virus.
I just couldn’t understand how I – a heterosexual woman – could get this virus…
I gave the HIV nurse at the clinic contact details of all my sexual partners. Then I stayed quiet and told no one apart from my sister and my boyfriend. I lived in fear of being judged as a promiscuous black woman.
I stayed with that boyfriend for six years before I ended the relationship, though we remain good friends and we keep in contact with each other to this day. After we broke up I thought : ‘Right, now I’m Louise, I’m single, and I have HIV. How is that going to work? Am I ever going to be able to have sex again?’ I really enjoy sex but I lived in fear about what a potential partner’s reaction would be when I would tell them about my status.
As it turned out, I ended up dating quite a few people, both negative and positive. One day actually I must tell my story – it’d put ’50 Shades of Grey’ to shame! But whoever I dated, I always told them about my status.
During those dark days I discovered meditation, mindfulness and yoga and it helped me to live a more peaceful life. I completed an introductory course to meditation and loved it. So much so that I bought a course in meditation for my sons as a Christmas present. I knew that they would go through suffering in their life and I wanted to give them life skills to help cope with the challenges that life would throw at them. Needless to say, however, they were not impressed and I had to get a refund for the course. I brought them an Xbox instead!
I have had a roller coaster of a journey and I am at a stage in my life where I feel comfortable in telling my story. My children have grown up and I have started to invest in some self-care. I got a personal trainer and started to work out at the gym, went down two dress sizes and switched to a plant-based diet. Following on from that I quit smoking and drinking. I am on medication and my viral load is undetectable. I guess that means I’m HIV negative.
Over the years, I used substances to help me suppress the pain and suffering that I felt. Smoking and alcohol became my companion and helped me fit into social settings. I struggled so many times over the years to give them up. Smoking and drinking were there when I felt happy or sad, excited or lonely. But every time I gave up smoking and drinking I felt better – so why did I always go back and continue to abuse it? Mindfulness and meditation helped me to dig deep inside myself and question my true relationship with substance misuse. I was that scared and lonely little girl who had to be strong and resilient – and substances helped to blot the pain away. Giving up smoking and drinking was therefore one of the most empowering things I could do for myself. It made way for me to clear the mist and noise and tell my story.
I always used to think to myself how I wished more heterosexual people would stand up and talk about their status. It was just so lonely being this heterosexual woman with HIV.
One day, I was writing my journal and I started to cry, thinking about how I would tell my children about my status and what their reaction would be. I told my daughter first. I went into her room, sat on her bed and told her. I was crying and she hugged and told me she was proud of me and how it would be okay. I felt so relieved. But then I had to tell my two sons.
In the end, when I told them it was a non-event. Their response was: ‘Is that it?’ They made my HIV status normal, they normalised it. And a few days later my son sent me a text and said: ‘I admire you as a women and as a mother’. I felt years of suffering had been lifted, I felt free, I felt happy.
I recently took redundancy and it’s the first time I haven’t worked full-time since the age of 18. I took redundancy because, for the first time, I felt I could. This is really important what I need to say here: once I told my children about my HIV status, it felt like a weight off my shoulders. I took the backpack off and I felt my wings had been unclipped and I could start to fly, because nothing was holding me back anymore from living my life to its full potential.
I started to evaluate materialism and all the shiny objects I would buy to make myself feel better. I am now the happiest I’ve ever felt. I’m being honest here – I do wonder who I would have been if I hadn’t had HIV. I think HIV humbles you. It humbled me. I am fully present in life and I care a lot more about animals, the environment and myself.
Having been a woman who lived with adult abuse and fear of judgement about domestic abuse and HIV – I am now publicly sharing very private areas of my life. The reason I am doing this is to show women that sometimes we can be our own worst critics and fear can hold us back. I want to help women realise their potential and purpose in life. I want to share with other women the techniques that helped me through the dark days and the bright days. I particularly want to let other women know that they are not alone and that they are resourceful, creative and whole. They are loved.