Before she ever stood in front of a group of college students, waving condoms in the air and telling stories about adult diapers, Miss September 1986 came out as a woman with HIV to some gang members in her neighborhood.
They were young men she’d gotten to know in Los Angeles, and one of them started telling her about his life – about seeing a friend get shot in a park, describing the smoke as it exited a bullet wound. So the Playboy model, Rebekka Armstrong, told him about her life. She’d been diagnosed with the virus at 22, six years after she believes she was infected as a 16-year-old small-town high school student at a college party. Her treatment, high doses of a then-new drug called AZT, wracked her body.
The young man, blown away by what had happened to Armstrong, brought his friends to meet her.
“So I start educating these gang members about HIV and how to prevent it,” Armstrong said. “And I was like, ‘OK, this is kind of cool.’ ”
Young audiences today are probably less surprised to hear that HIV can infect anyone and everyone. They’ve probably heard that condoms can protect them from dangers that birth control can’t, a consideration Armstrong never made at 16.
But despite all they know, they’re still getting HIV, Armstrong told students at Spokane Falls Community College last week after stops at Washington State and Whitworth universities. People ages 13 to 24 in the U.S. are infected at a rate of two people an hour, she said.
“You’re not hearing about that,” she said. “You’re hearing about how people living with HIV are living longer lives, how the disease is treatable and manageable. This is sort of true.”
While Armstrong, 46, said she’s grateful for the medications that keep her alive, survival has been a torturous process.
By the time she was diagnosed in 1989, she said, her illness required aggressive treatment. She was prescribed AZT, or azidothymidine, in large doses. Its effects, and those of later medications, were excruciating.
Armstrong told the students about bleeding from every orifice in her body; about losing her bowels and vomiting on her mattress, then sleeping on it for another two days before she could get up; about her ruptured pancreas; about pulling over her car just crying, too tired to do anything else; about being unable to remember what it was like to feel just a little bit good.
She told them about the five years she spent shifting between “Good Bekki” and “Bad Bekki,” exercising and eating well and then abusing drugs and alcohol, as long as she was dying anyway. She told them about her suicide attempt, her subsequent coma and her weeks-long hospital stay.
For Armstrong, and for many people, treatment of HIV is easier today. But each infected person has to find the treatment that works for them.
“What I’m getting at is people will say to me, ‘Well, if I test HIV-positive, it’s manageable and it’s treatable now. I can just take those drugs and I’ll be OK,’ ” she said. “Yeah, maybe. But is it worth it? I have to take medication every single day for the rest of my life, or I die. And the drugs have side effects.”
After talking to her young neighbors, Armstrong started giving safer-sex presentations at nightclubs in L.A. Then she traveled to Ridgecrest, Calif., her hometown in the Mojave Desert, where she told her story to students at her old junior high and high school.
Still, when she decided to go really public, she was really scared, both of the effects of the publicity on her family and of being ostracized. But she was watching friends die of AIDS. She was angry that the drugs used to treat HIV weren’t being tested on women.
And Armstrong knew that if sex had been discussed openly during her own younger years, “maybe I wouldn’t have made the decisions I did.”
She came out to the world via a cover story in The Advocate magazine. She’s been touting HIV prevention and awareness since, traveling to talk to student groups, appearing in TV ads and on billboards.
“It’s not that I think I have all the answers,” Armstrong told the few dozen students gathered in a lounge last week at SFCC. “But I just don’t think that sex, or the talk of sex, should be shelved. I think if we put it right here, then many of us maybe don’t have to go through what I went through.”
People ages 13 to 29 accounted for 39 percent of new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. According to the agency’s National Risk Behavior Survey from the year, 46 percent of high schoolers reported having sexual intercourse. Of the 34.2 percent who’d had sex in the past three months, 38.9 percent hadn’t used a condom.
The CDC cites a lack of awareness among factors that put young people at risk: Research has found that, for many of them, getting HIV is just not a concern, the agency says.
“I think people write it off a lot nowadays. They’re just like, ‘Oh, yeah, HIV – that was that thing that happened awhile ago,’ ” said Andriana Siefe, 20, a pre-med student at Whitworth hired by the university to organize cultural events through its student government.
That was one reason Siefe wanted to bring Armstrong to campus. Among Whitworth’s basic rules: No sex on campus. Just talking about sex is “kind of taboo,” Siefe said.
“Just because people don’t talk about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen off campus or even on campus illegally,” she said. “People aren’t getting the information they need about things because they don’t even want to talk about it.”
She said at least 200 students attended the lecture, voluntarily, and lined up afterward to meet Armstrong.
“You could hear a pin drop, people were so enthralled with what she was saying,” Siefe said.
Martina Davis, 27, an SFCC student who plans to become a medical examiner, said she was surprised to hear about HIV infection rates among young people.
“We don’t have the education, and then we have the fantasy that nothing’s going to happen to us,” she said. “ ‘You can take a pill and get better. You have Magic Johnson – look, he made it.’ ”