It’s not often that you hear someone describe their HIV positive status as a blessing, but that’s how Arthurine “Cookie” King sees it. “When I look at my HIV status, I look it more as a blessing than a curse because it redirected me to change and learn some life skills that I didn’t have.”
Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, King’s status is currently HIV undetectable. It’s been a long and hard road for the veteran social worker, who’s become a fixture in the community for her tireless AIDS advocacy. A testing and Linkage-to-Care Specialist at the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, King has been active in a variety of support groups and nonprofit organizations that do community work.
“I go all the way back to 2005 when I worked for Ebony House as a street outreach worker,” King says. “I also worked as an intervention specialist. I did that for over a decade until I came to Southwest Center. I’ve worked as an HIV tester, and now I work in case management—So I’ve had my hat in all sorts of different areas.” King is also passionate about animals: She works with animal rescues and supports people that have service animals or therapy animals.
For King, transitioning from substance abuse work to AIDS advocacy felt natural: For her, the two worlds were closely linked. “When I was diagnosed in 1985, I thought I was going to die,” she said. “That led me to a lot of substance abuse, which is how I ended up in rehab myself.”
It was during one of her meetings that her experiences as an HIV positive individual put her on the radar of community activists. “I shared about my HIV background at a meeting one day, and someone there said, wow, we could really use her at Ebony House. So I left the rehab center and went to Ebony House to do advocacy work.”
One of the most impressive things about King’s long career as an advocate is her lack of formal training. “My longevity and my life story have gotten me the job that I have today because I don’t have the college education that most people that have the job that I have,” King says.
While we tend to place a great emphasis on diplomas and credentials, that hasn’t stopped King from becoming a credible and sought-after expert in her field. “I cannot tell you how many people that come to me with triple masters degrees to get advice on dealing with someone who’s HIV positive because they don’t know what the struggle is.”
Because of King’s background as someone who’s lived with the virus for most of her life, she’s able to strike up a fast and graceful rapport with the people she deals with in her casework. “When people find out I have it, a big weight comes off their shoulders,” King explains. “They relax their body, their body language changes. They’re more apt to open up to you and tell you what’s really going on with them.”
For King, establishing an empathic connection with the community members she works with is a crucial part of the advocacy process.
“You can’t tell me what it’s like to want to stop smoking unless you’ve ever smoked and tried to stop smoking,” King says. “You can’t tell me what it’s like to be on drugs when you’ve never been on drugs. When someone’s actually walked in those shoes and lived in that space … That’s what I’m finding out in case management. I know where they are, I know how they feel, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and you can’t read that out of a book.”
To King, being a positive role model is also an important part of being an AIDS advocate. It’s why her calling her HIV status a blessing is so significant: She’s trying to counterattack the feeling of doom and hopelessness that can often overwhelm someone after they get their diagnosis.
“It’s serious, but it’s something that people can live a full life with,” King says. “Sometimes people live behind the HIV; Sometimes they live above the HIV. Some folks really struggle with being HIV positive, which is why I’ve been so loving and accepting and embracing of my own HIV. That set a foundation for me to not live behind the HIV.”
And while the AIDS tester and case worker is happy to dispense broad life-changing advice, she’s also good about sharing small lessons that can make a big impact. Case in point: She often stresses the importance of stress reduction to her people.
“Every time we get upset about something it adds stress and makes us lose 10 T-cells,” King says. “So don’t sweat the small stuff. That’s my motto.”