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Important Truths

Important Truths


I recently ran into a friend who had just learned he was HIV-positive. He was devastated. As we spoke, he expressed great sorrow about how his life had forever changed and worry about how the virus would affect his future. Shame imbued his language. He chastised himself for 'knowing better,' and heaped guilt upon himself for engaging in risky behavior. He was bereft, angry, and overwhelmed. I have to admit, his reaction surprised me. He lives in a big, progressive city that's home to many HIVers. The social circle through which I know him has a number of HIV-positive people. In fact, I would say most of us are positive. He knows our stories, and knows that our lives did indeed go on after our diagnoses. He certainly shouldn't feel as though he's alone. And it certainly isn't the early days of the pandemic when being diagnosed with HIV was akin to being handed a death sentence. I imagined that his response to the news of his infection would be one of sadness and disappointment. I didn't expect the despondency and despair that came instead. But as much as I was puzzled by his reaction, I ultimately was even more surprised by my own. I am hardly a long-term HIV survivor; in fact most would call me an 'HIV baby,' having known for just four years that I carry the virus. HIV isn't old hat for me. But I have been immersed'personally and professionally'in a community that is grossly affected by the virus. I've spent more than half of my career working in the AIDS arena. I have dozens of friends who are HIV-positive, some who've been living with the virus for more than 20 years. HIV isn't something unknown. And I know, without a doubt, that I am not alone. As I thought about my friend's reaction, I slowly came to remember that I too had responded with shock and horror when I was diagnosed. How quickly I had forgotten! It wasn't all that long ago that I was sobbing in my hospital bed after my doctor gave me the news. It hasn't been that long since I looked with a mixture of sadness and shock at the medications that from that moment on were going to be a daily part of my life. So, why had my memory become so short? Why didn't I immediately get what my friend was now feeling? I eventually realized the answer, and it was something so wonderful and so powerful that it should have been much more obvious'I am not the same person I was four years ago. The initial trauma of my diagnosis had yielded to acceptance. I was no longer stuck. I had grown. And in that dawning realization, I began to see two distinct and important truths for all of us'change is possible and community matters. I even began feeling grateful. I no longer feel stinging shame about being HIV-positive or experience paralyzing fear about my health. While living with HIV is still an issue, it is no longer theissue. I truly believe my friend will grow to feel much the same way over time. I also have every confidence that most of you reading this column who are newly diagnosed will grow to feel similarly as well. Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker who is in private therapy practice in Chicago. He welcomes feedback at

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