Making Peace with HIV
BY Gary McClain
October 21 2013 7:00 AM ET
Before being diagnosed as HIV-positive, HIV may have felt like something other people were dealing with that didn’t have a lot of relevance to you—if you even thought about it at all.
Even now, you may at times feel like HIV is a dream that you might at some point wake up from. Or even that if you keep telling yourself this isn’t happening, then it might just go away.
But reality gets in the way. The pill—or pills—that you take every day. That little pill that swallows like a vitamin but works like a weapon.
So you might be wondering, Am I living with HIV or am I battling HIV? 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.
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.
However, there is a flip side. Living with the mind-set that life is an ongoing battle is exhausting. It keeps you in fight-or-flight mode 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 mind-set can cause you to focus your energy on how you hate what the enemy is doing to you.
Living with all of that resistance is a hard way to live.
But then there’s that pill. The blood tests. Waiting to let out that sigh of relief when you get the results. The bumps in the road. Maybe more treatment decisions.
HIV is like an uninvited 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 do 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 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…?”
“With” means coexisting 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 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 maintain a peaceful, balanced approach to managing—by coexisting—with your HIV:
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 all you can about him. 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 uninvited houseguest can be kept in his place. Face your HIV from a position of competence, calmness, and strength. Stay focused on what you can do to take the best possible care of yourself, day by day. Take your medicine. Live your life.