Diagnosed with HIV at 14, Robin Barkins Wants You to Know She's Loved and Living Abundantly

Robin Barkins is HIV positive and living well. That's the message she made sure to communicate to me during our conversation about how she lives with the disease. Diagnosed at 14, Robin's path to becoming an advocate was a long one. But she's overcome familial abuse and personal denial to become a strong voice for HIV prevention.
That Robin continues to thrive is a testament to the side of living with HIV we rarely see. With the work of Robin and so many others, we're slowly chipping away at the stigmas attached to it.

She spoke with me for the A Day with HIV campaign to give us a glimpse into her important story. On September 22, we're joining the fight to stop HIV by sharing photos of ourselves with hashtag #ADayWithHIV.

FH: Lets kind of start from the beginning of the story. When did you learn that you were HIV positive?

Robin: I learned I was HIV positive when I was 15 years old. I went to use the restroom one day, and when I went to urinate, it burned. One of my friends, who was 18 years old, just so happened to go to the clinic the same day that happened to me. By her being 18, I was able to see a doctor without having my mother present. When I went in to see the doctor, I let them know what happened and they tested me. It came back positive for Chlamydia.

The doctor asked me did I wanted to take an HIV test. I told her of course because I didn't look like I was positive and the person I slept with didn't look like he had HIV or AIDS. Because I thought that you were supposed to look skinny or have black spots. I didn't know that you could look good, have gold teeth, be fine, smell good and look good. I didn't know that it didn't have a look.

They tried to get me to start treatment,  I refused treatment because I felt like I was going to die anyway. I had no hope. I had counted myself out. I felt like I was not going to live until I'm 21 so I might as well do something to cover this death up so nobody's going to think I died of AIDS. That's when I started using heroin, doing ecstasy and snorting cocaine. I got into prostitution real heavy. I just didn't care about my life and I didn't care about the lives of others.

FH: Did you have anybody to talk to after you found out that you were positive?

Robin: I could've talked to my sister because I found out that I was positive at her house, I still didn't talk to her because I felt like I couldn't talk to anybody. I felt like that because of the way my mom was. Everything I told her she felt like she always had to go run and tell the church—Everything. I didn't want her to go run and tell the church that and I didn't want people to talk about me or disown me or judge me or think I was going to give it to them. I was just that ignorant too because I didn't know anything about HIV.

FH: You were also very young.
Robin: Yes, it was four months before my 15th birthday.

FH: When you found out that you were positive, did you have a desire to get into contact with the person that you believed gave the disease to you?

Robin: Well, when I found out I was positive, I didn't even know his full name. I didn't even know where he lived. I just knew that he would come pick me up. All I had was his number. I didn't find him, but I talked to one of the girls we'd had a threesome with. I didn't necessarily tell the girl, but she told me that it was rumored that he had AIDS. After we had sex with him, she said she heard that rumor. That still wasn't enough for me to disclose my status to her because me keeping secrets goes back to when I was 11. My grandfather used to molest me from 11 to 15 and told me to keep my mouth closed, so I was really good at keeping secrets. It was like an art for me. It was easy.

FH: When did that change for you? When did you start to talk about having the disease?

Robin: Well, it wasn't until I was 23 because I was so strung out in my crack addiction and not caring about nothing. One day I just realized that something had to change in my life. I ended up getting arrested, and when I ended up getting arrested I was in a holding tank with some girl who was talking about they were here for prostitution and all different types of stuff like that. She was the bottom chick, which is the main chick for the pimp. We call them the bottom chick. I just came out. I was like, "you don't think he's sleeping with those other girls as well? You don't think that HIV can't happen to you?" I just started trying to get her to open her eyes that HIV is real, and I disclosed my status.
Once I disclosed my status to those women, they were glued to me asking questions. As I started sharing my story, I started feeling the shackles were breaking loose off of me. It felt like a big weight was lifted off me. I was freeing myself, but at the same time helping women and getting them to think about that behavior and that lifestyle they were living. When I noticed that, I went to rehab. I started going to trainings, getting educated and learning more about the disease I had because I knew nothing. I didn't even know what the acronym meant. I educated myself, and I started doing speaking engagements, going to group homes and talking to young teen girls. As a teenager, you think HIV can't happen to you. I have to let them know HIV don't care how old you are or what you look like, it's real. Anybody can get it. I don't care what type of occupation you have or how much money you have. That doesn't matter because HIV doesn't discriminate against anybody. I'm still constantly educating myself more and more about HIV because I don't have all the answers and I don't know everything about HIV. I'm still learning as I travel this journey.

FH: What has been the most rewarding part of being an advocate for you?

Robin: Being able to leave an impact on somebody's life. Somebody calling me saying, "because of you I took an HIV test, because of you I had the conversation with my boyfriend about getting tested, because of you I decided to take control of my life and use condoms and make the right decisions." That right there in itself is rewarding to me. It's more than enough for me because I never thought in my wildest dreams that I'd live to be 30 years old. I'll be 31 next month. I was a young girl, and I counted my self out and said, "Girl you're not going to make it to 21."  It's just totally amazing, I still can't believe it sometimes.

FH: People make a lot of assumptions about what it's like to have this disease or be infected. What is a typical day like for you?

Robin: A typical day for me with HIV is just like anybody else who isn't HIV negative. I live a normal, regular life, and at 7PM I have to take my HIV meds. That's it. That's the only difference. I have people that love me and support me. I have a wonderful loving relationship with an HIV negative partner who accepts my status. His family accepts my status. I'm loved.

FH: You mentioned the medication. How many medications do you take?

Robin: For HIV I take one. I just take the pill along with my vitamins and stuff.

FH: What do you think is the biggest misconception or the biggest wrong assumption that people make about people living with HIV?

Robin: That we can't have sex or we're not supposed to be in a relationship. Or that we're going to die soon. People really think that it's a death sentence. People don't take HIV as serious as they should. They think it won't happen to them.

FH: Right, we don't take the time to learn about it.

Robin: You don't, and as much as people are on Instagram and Facebook, they can download the HIV app on their phone. There's an app called HIV services anywhere in the United States. You can type in your zip code and they will tell you where HIV testing places are. Most of the time they're free services. If people just take the time out to do that, stop thinking that it can't happen to them or I got my boo, I've been in a relationship with him for so long that it can't happen to them. Even if they just start having a conversation about it.

This post is made possible by support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. All opinions are my own.

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