Overcoming Obstacles in Living With HIV

Nicky Bravo shares her journey with HIV

This article is part of Health Divide: HIV, a destination in our Health Divide series.

Photo of Nicky Bravo

Photo courtesy of Nicky Bravo / Designed by Julie Bang / Verywell

Meet the Author

Nicky Bravo is a peer mentor in the women’s program at Alliance for Positive Change in New York City. She helps women with HIV get access to medical care, learn financial management, and maintain their treatment plans.

It would be an understatement to say that I had a troubled childhood. As a child, I was physically abused and taken away from my birth mother. I dropped out of school and grew up fast by getting into unhealthy relationships with men. I started using drugs: first cocaine and alcohol, and later crack cocaine and injecting heroin.

I became a sex worker and took HIV tests at mobile sites, because they paid you to get tested. That was how I found out I was HIV-positive in 2001.

I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t have any friends or a support system, and I hadn’t seen my family for years because I didn’t want them to see the way I was living. I was alone, and this diagnosis made me feel even more alone.

Following the Diagnosis

After my diagnosis, I was still doing sex work, which was the only work I knew that was able to put money in my pocket and support my drug habit.

I ended up getting arrested and was sent to prison, where I started to see a doctor. This was the first time I had seen a doctor beyond mobile pop-up events. I started taking care of my body and got on an HIV medication, Atripla.

There was a stigma associated with HIV in prison. I saw how people with HIV were treated, so I would sit in my cell and cry, because I couldn’t share this big secret. Imagine being in such close quarters with a thousand women and not being able to tell them this huge thing that affects you every day of your life.

Nicky Bravo

I had a lot of guilt and a lot of shame in my life.

— Nicky Bravo

I did a drug program and became eligible for work release. I spent some of my time in groups with other women who had experienced some of the same issues I had.

During these sessions, I started opening up about myself and my status. I started to take accountability for everything and all the people I had wronged. After talking about it, I started to feel a little bit better about myself, because I had a lot of guilt and a lot of shame in my life. I always thought that I was damaged goods. This was the first time I had felt real companionship.

Returning to the Community

After my release, I knew that if I came home I couldn’t be around the same people and places as before, because I could get caught up in drugs again. But I thought maybe I could give back and help people struggling to accept their status.

I went to HIV information trainings. I got a room through Housing Works, and one of the counselors there took me under her wing, which made a huge difference for me. I started to put myself back together, and I wanted to help people.

I met the love of my life through the Family Center’s Positive Life Workshop. We’ve been married for nine years. He understands my journey, and we support each other.

I was also able to get my sister back into my life, and I was able to reconnect with my father before he passed away.

Working With the HIV Community

I’ve been with Alliance for Positive Change for about eight years. They have been amazing and treated me with kindness.

A big part of my job is recruiting women to our programs who are in situations I used to be in and helping them feel supported, like I wish I had been before I went to prison. I visit them at their homes and help them manage their money, like going food shopping with them. I go with them to appointments and the pharmacy for medication.

I also help them move from single-room-occupancy living situations to permanent housing, and help facilitate groups for hundreds of women in Alliance programs. Basically, I give them the support network I wish I had then and do have now.

Nicky Bravo

If it wasn’t for people who do this kind of work, like I do now, nobody would have helped me all those years ago.

— Nicky Bravo

My responsibilities don’t end when they walk through our doors or join a group workshop. I follow their journeys, oftentimes for years.

One woman I’ve worked with was living with an abusive relative, and I walked with her to the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) and sat with her for almost 10 hours as we met with people to go through the bureaucratic process toward getting her safer housing.

Where I Stand Today

I’ve learned how to deal with a lot of my guilt and shame. I don’t medicate my feelings anymore. I have a good network of people in my life. I feel that if you can’t accept me for me, I don’t need you in my life, and you’re not worth being around. I need productive, positive people in my life.

You have to have some type of passion in order to be in the line of work that I’m in. Everyone that I’ve come across at Alliance has a passion. We’re here to provide important services. I’m going to continue to stay active and continue to help whoever comes to Alliance, because if it wasn’t for people who do this kind of work, like I do now, nobody would have helped me all those years ago.

I’m really grateful that I am where I am today. I’ve been through a lot, but despite everything, there is a reason why I’m here, even living with HIV. I’m just going to enjoy life, because for a lot of years I wasn’t able to enjoy it. No matter what, people can change their lives. They just have to want it and have a support network.