07/10/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2015

When Rape, HIV and Drugs Collide, There Is Still Hope

Elizabeth Shepherd contracted HIV when a gang of five men pulled her into an alley, beat her with nail-studded boards until bones crunched and both lungs collapsed, and raped her. Everywhere. They kept screaming, " B----ch, we gonna Fu---- you 'til you're dead 'cuz some girl gave us AIDS".

It was 1997 in Charleston, South Carolina and like most people, Elizabeth knew nothing about HIV except that it could kill you. She was so sure she would drop dead at any moment that as doctors pieced her broken body back together, she wondered why they even bothered.

Subsequent blood tests showed up negative for HIV, but even so, no one in Elizabeth's family would take her in over fear that she had the virus. After repeated rejections from shelters and community programs as well, she found temporary refuge with a pastor's family, though she had to sleep in a cot on the far side of the house and eat from paper plates so as not to share anyone's dishware. She wasn't allowed in the same room as the pastor's wife, who was pregnant.

About a year after the incident, Elizabeth was starting to hope that she might not become HIV positive. Then on Christmas Eve the call came from a counselor at a rape crisis center. Elizabeth had the virus.

"I didn't know what to do," she says, "so I went out and started using drugs. I'd been clean and sober for over a year before the rape, trying to turn my life around. But that hadn't done me any good, so I said screw this and went back [to that lifestyle]."

Several more years of drug use, physical and sexual abuse, and prison time would pass before Elizabeth came to an important realization in 2001.

"I finally realized that I wasn't going to die [from drug use]; I was probably just going to become a vegetable," she says. "I couldn't get high enough or drunk enough. Couldn't get beat up enough. Couldn't get raped enough. I just got sick of it. A voice in the back of my head started saying 'you know you are better than this.'"

With the help of a drug court and treatment programs, she was able to stop using drugs and has been sober even since. She received her GED, attended a technical college, and in 2012 graduated from East Carolina University with high honors and a Masters in Health Education and Promotion.

"When I first found out I was living with the virus, I was devastated," she says. "I thought everyone around me could tell I had it. But once I went to college and got educated about HIV and AIDS, I learned to take better care of myself. Now my viral loads have been undetectable for years. I don't think [HIV] is such a big deal anymore. I can beat this."

Elizabeth's life has become a success story, but she says the road is still hard for millions of people struggling HIV/AIDS, stigma, and substance use.

"Some of us never find a bottom. Some of us can't find a bottom deep enough. Some of us just dig deeper bottoms," she says. "At some point you just have to start climbing back to the top."
Her message to others involves a quote from George Elliott: You're never too old to be what you might have been.

"That quote hits home for me," says Elizabeth. "Because of the substance abuse, the rape and HIV, I always thought I was less than. I even figured I deserved it because I had hurt so many people in my life. But when I started getting clean I realized it wasn't too late to do something different. My advice to others is to give yourself a chance for one year to become who you always wanted to be. If you don't like it, you can always go back. If you are alive enough to walk away from negative people and things, doors will open for you. It's never too late."

Elizabeth currently works as a patient care coordinator at Primary Care medical home and serves as a board member for the ADAP Advocacy Association, a group that improves access to care for people living with HIV/AIDS. She lives in Summerton, South Carolina with her husband and daughter.