Whether you're newly diagnosed or have been living with HIV for years, each time you disclose your serostatus, to someone who is going to be a friend or more than a friend, can feel like the first time. A client, whom I will call Jane, had this experience: "Last week I told a new friend about my HIV status. We used to talk about things like meeting guys and keeping our weight under control. Now she constantly asks me if I'm feeling OK and worries that I'm not eating enough. She looks at me like I'm wearing a hospital gown."
While Jane's friend was trying to be supportive, she was also showing her own lack of education. And Jane, having been diagnosed more than 10 years ago, wasn't taking to being treated like a patient. Jane and I decided she needed a "tune-up" of her disclosure skills as well as her self-image, so we devised a strategy for her.
Be a peer educator. While attitudes about HIV have changed, there are still a lot of people out there who aren't up on the latest progress in anti-HIV treatments, which allow most people to have long average-length lives. Enlighten your friend with some pamphlets or a guided tour of your favorite website on information about the virus.
Insist, gently and repeatedly, that you don't need anyone to watch over your health. After learning someone we care about has a health condition, it is only human to want to "fix" them, both out of real concern and to avoid our own feelings of helplessness. But mothering can feel like smothering. Assure your friends that you are handling things and refuse to be their partner in anxiety. And if any of your friends can't or won't see beyond your diagnosis after you've given them time to process, then this is a friend you don't need.
Gather the evidence. If someone asked you to describe yourself, how would you answer? Make a list of truths about yourself: your values, skills, and interests; your roles as a friend, parent, or partner; your accomplishments. The fact that you have HIV is only one of many truths on that list of who you are.
Take a look at the vibes you are sending out. Remember that you are much more than a medical diagnosis. And don't let the ignorance around you get you down. Live your own truths, and let them speak for you!
GARY McCLAIN, Ph.D., is a counselor in New York City with a specialty in coping with chronic health conditions. His books include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breaking Bad Habits and Empowering Your Life With Joy.