A few days prior to writing this article I was asked by my therapist where I was emotionally with my HIV. The answers to such questions tend to be revealing, and mine was. 'I don't really think about it much, except for the expense.' The coinsurance for my medication borders on the absurd. But aside from this, my attitude toward the virus is relatively benign. As I told him--and as I tell you now--my diagnosis was a wakeup call to a pattern of self-destruction. It slammed brakes on a locomotive seriously out of control, bringing it to a screeching halt. I was hospitalized on a unit with other immunocompromised patients, not able to even leave my room for five days.
HIV was, in a twisted way, good news.
Don't get me wrong, though. I am no Pollyanna, gazing at the world behind rose-colored lenses. I still recall the incredible sadness and disbelief when taking my meds for the first time. I recently thumbed through an HIV drug guide, cringing when seeing the pictures of my medication. Their shapes and colors evoked something within, a deep shudder as I recalled holding them in my hand that first day. This is my life from now on, I sighed to myself.
I also recall how wretchedly sick I was at the time, warming up chicken broth for my dinner, since it was the only food my stomach could tolerate. I was 34 years old, confronted by mortality in a real, unshakable way. Mortality was no longer theoretical. HIV was, and is, something that changed me in a fundamental way.
I believe it's this way for everyone, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their seroconversion, regardless of how they contracted it, their age, background, sexual orientation, race, gender, etc. It's universal. The diagnosis 'positive' changes everything.
But while I might not be a Pollyanna, I'm also not a Debbie Downer. If I were, I hardly think I would be in the right field, since my career is about change and transformation. And it has been my experience that people seldom seek change just to improve themselves. They do so because they're stuck. Because they're suffering. Because they're confused. Because bad things are happening in their lives. Because they want to make sense of things. Ultimately, what brings people to change is that their behavior is no longer working. Their behavior worked for a while, but it isn't any longer. And sometimes, since we are stubborn creatures it takes something cataclysmic to make this evident. Contracting HIV certainly qualifies as 'cataclysmic,' presenting an enormous invitation to ask whether one's behavior is still working. It also raises the question, 'How do I make sense of this?'
When I asked myself whether my behavior was working, I instantly knew the answer. It wasn't. I was stuck in a familiar pattern in which I was lonely and in pain, habitually using chemicals to medicate feelings of discomfort. I didn't know other ways of living. I knew that as afraid as I was, something needed to change or my next consequence could be even worse.
I never have been someone who believes that people 'just need to cheer up.' Again, I've chosen the wrong profession if I believed that it were that simple. However, I do believe in our capacity to change. I also believe that we can use tragic events to make better sense of ourselves, our world, and who we are meant to be.
Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker who is in private practice in Chicago. E-mail him at email@example.com.