Make your HIV Status Real — to Yourself
Accepting HIV as Part of Your Life
By December 27 99
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist and educator who works primarily with individuals living with chronic medical conditions, as well as their families and caregivers. He has written extensively on health and body-mind-spirit topics, including a regular column on mental health in HIV Plus magazine. He maintains a website, JustGotDiangosed.com, with information and inspiration for newly-diagnosed patients.
Before being diagnosed as HIV positive, HIV can feel like something that other people are dealing with but that doesn’t have a lot of relevance to you. It can feel kind of abstract. If you even thought about it at all.
After learning you are HIV positive, you may still be feeling that this isn’t really happening. That your diagnosis is a dream you might at some point wake up from. Or even if you keep telling yourself this isn’t happening, then it might just go away.
On the other hand, you may be asking: What does it mean to accept my HIV status? Does my whole life have to become all about HIV?
When "the Fight" Gets Exhausting
So you might be wondering: What is it I am supposed to be fighting? The HIV or my own attitude toward being HIV positive? When we talk about a medical diagnosis, we often refer to it in terms of war: the beast, the enemy. We refer to treatment as a battle. We refer to ourselves as fighters, struggling to maintain and survive in the face of this tremendous threat.
However, there is a flip side. Living with the mindset that life is an ongoing battle is exhausting. It keeps you in fight or flight reaction, and turns on all of those unhealthy stress hormones that accompany it. The resistance kicks in and you question why you have to be compliant with treatment and self-care. Basically, the constant battle mindset can cause you to focus your energy on how you hate, hate what the enemy is doing to you. Living with all of that resistance a hard way to live.
The Unwanted House Guest
This is not to say that HIV is your friend. Of course it isn’t. Chronic conditions like HIV do require that you do everything possible to protect yourself in any way you can from the progression of your disease.
HIV is like an unwanted houseguest who has taken up residence on your living room couch, who makes demands, interferes with routines, complicates your relationships, costs you money — and won't move out. You’ve tried everything, you’ve tried to ignore him, you’ve had arguments, you’ve threatened, you’ve begged and pleaded. But he’s still there, blasting the TV and demanding breakfast in bed.
So at some point, you decide that since he doesn’t seem to be going away, you may as well stop fighting and learn to live with him. You decide to understand him and therefore understand what you can to keep him in his place, but not to go through each day with your fists clenched and ready to swing. In other words, moving from “You’ve ruined my life forever” toward “How would you like those eggs cooked?”
This is living life on life's terms, recognizing that being HIV positive will mean making changes. This attitude begins with making a slight tweak in the question that is most likely on your mind.
“What am I going to do about…?” becomes “What am I going to do with…?”
Co-Existing with HIV
“With” means co-existing with your HIV, living life on life’s terms. Taking a more balanced — and peaceful — approach to the struggle.
Living with HIV doesn’t mean that it has to be the focus of your life. But it does mean learning to accommodate your HIV status by making your self-care part of your daily life. And not living your life as if you had HIV tattooed on your forehead.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind to help you to maintain a peaceful, balanced approach to managing your HIV by coexisting:
Sync up. Instead of baring your teeth and putting your fists up, swinging wildly in every direction, calmly face your opponent and coordinate your movements with his, as if you were looking at each other in a mirror. If you have ever watched a group practicing tai chi, a form of martial arts, then you know what I mean here. This begins by paying attention to him so that you can learn how he moves, know his rhythms, where he seems to be strongest, and where he might be vulnerable. Coexisting, but cautiously.
Don’t fight with your own feelings. Let yourself feel how you feel. Don’t force yourself to smile and pretend everything is fine when you aren’t feeling well, physically or emotionally. You have enough on your plate without reporting yourself to the positive thinking police. You can be optimistic but still have days when life just isn’t what you wish it would be.
Recognize stress and address it. You can accomplish a lot more for yourself by imagining a sandy beach than imagining a boxing ring. Learn some ways to relax and stay calm.
Stay educated. Working with your opponent means knowing as you can about him. And remember that knowledge is power.
Get emotional and spiritual support. Be ready to call in the troops for backup when the battle fatigue sets in.
The unwanted houseguest can be kept in his place. Face your HIV from a position of competence, calmness, and strength. Stay focused on what can do to take the best possible care of yourself, day by day.
Balance is power!