A client I’ll call Sarah told me about a recent incident. “My sister asked me point blank how I became infected. She told me she knew it was either drugs or my ex-husband. It really took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure which was worse in her eyes, but I would learn that once I told her. What was I supposed to do?”
Another client, who I’ll call Joe, reported the question that wasn’t asked. “I had lunch with a friend that I had disclosed my status to awhile back. He went through the names of guys who we both knew and who he suspected could be HIV-positive. I knew where he was trying to go with this and I wasn’t going there. Was I wrong?”
That “who gave it to you?” question can cause a lot of pain. It’s not really meant to be hurtful. Sometimes people are thoughtless, or can’t help but want to know someone else’s business. Still, it can leave you feeling like you are being judged or blamed. This question can bring up a lot of painful memories when you are focused on acceptance and moving on in your life. That question can also be disempowering if it puts you on the defensive and leaves you feeling that you somehow owe them a response.
Has anyone asked you that question? Or, left it unsaid and waited for you to give them the details? Not sure how to respond? Here are some ideas to consider:
First of all, you have a right to your own privacy. You don’t have any control over how other people choose to think, feel, or behave—or the questions they ask. But you do have a right to choose how, and if, to respond. A simple response would be: “I am moving on with my life. My focus in on the future, not the past.”
If you aren’t sure why you are being asked, then ask your own question. Start with: “Why do you ask?” This can be a good way of jolting the other person into realizing that they have asked a question that you may not be comfortable with. If they can’t come up with a reason that makes sense to you then, again, you don’t have to answer.
Keep in mind that they may have no idea how this question makes you feel. After all, they haven’t walked in your shoes. Be honest and let them know: “It really hurts to be asked that question.”
Maybe it’s time for some “patient” education. The “how did it happen?” question can present you with an opportunity to educate someone that you care about. If you feel like they can benefit from your knowledge, and want to educate them on HIV transmission, give them a mini lesson. This can also be an opportunity to ask for support. “I’m dealing with this. I have accepted my diagnosis and I’m ready to move forward in my life. I hope that I can count on you to be in my court.” Patience and compassion can benefit you and the questioner, and bring you closer together.
However, here are a couple of other things to think about:
While you may not want to disclose how you were infected with the insensitive person who has taken upon him/herself to blurt it out, the question may be a reminder that you have never really talked with anyone about your HIV infection. Or maybe you tried and had a bad experience.
So a question for you: Does this question bring up feelings of shame or guilt? Pain that you haven’t really dealt with yet? Living with HIV brings up a lot of feelings, from the time that you receive your diagnosis and onward.
And another question: Have you sat down with someone that you trust and had this conversation? Don’t keep all of those feeling inside. Dealing with your emotions is an important part of the process of integrating your HIV diagnosis into your life, as well as your ongoing self-care. Maybe it’s time to sit down and have a talk with a peer educator, or a mental health professional, or a friend that you trust to be a good, non-judgmental listener.
Just because someone asks, doesn’t mean that you have to tell. You’re in charge of the message. But when you need to talk, reach out to someone who can listen!
GARY McCLAIN is a counselor in New York City with a speciality in coping with chronic health conditions. His books include The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breaking Bad Habits, and Empowering Your Life With Joy.