Being diagnosed with HIV creates a weird emotional conflict. First, you are told you have this horrible disease, and then five seconds later you're being told to think positively because 'you will live longer than anyone else ever has!' At least that's what my doctor said in a chipper voice the day I was diagnosed. I remember crying and smiling at the time because I was worried he would think I didn't hear him.
But the smiling disappeared. I found myself disgusted by my own body. I cringed at the sight of my urine. My own blood was jarring to me. Even though I was by all accounts perfectly healthy, I soon found the mental impact of this experience to be more than I could handle. One day, I was so paralyzed by my own thoughts I couldn't even muster the energy to get out of bed. That was the first time I ever missed work.
I was constantly trying to make sense of an issue it seemed the rest of the world had long ago figured out. I watched HIV-positive friends date and form great outlooks on the world. I tried, but I only grew sadder each day. I would wake up feeling drunk and nauseous each morning due to my medication. Each day was becoming more unproductive than the previous. I was exhausted. I once had run seven miles a day, and now I barely went to the gym. My personality was gone. The former me'outgoing and assertive'was now withdrawn and unhappy.
I didn't know how to fix it. Mind tired, body weary, spirit a void, I hit rock bottom. I don't recall much from one particular Friday night, but what I do remember is waking up barely dressed, my apartment in shambles, and with the sickening realization that it was now Sunday morning. Seeing the ground littered with broken glasses from my kitchen, the AIDS-related book my sister had made me ripped to pieces. An open bottle of Ambien lay under the bed. It was clear my intention had been to not wake up.
I am thankful every day since then that I did wake up.
The human mind is so complex in the way it processes feelings, emotions, and the actions that follow. But I do think we can't overlook the need to globally add a layer of emotional care to any treatment plan for HIV and AIDS.
How? Well, it requires everyday people to take everyday actions. I think back and wish someone simply asked me how I was doing. I would later find out another friend of mine had a similar experience after diagnosis, and I wish he had shared it early on. It's not as much the disease that impacts the soul and spirit, but rather how we react to it, how we hide it, how we ignore it.
People who are uninfected must force themselves to develop a new understanding and compassion for those living with the virus. And every step helps. Even mundane tasks like updating your online profiles, asking each person about their status before sex, or simply getting an HIV test are tasks that remind people HIV is not only very real, but it's also OK. In these moments we have the power to help someone be OK with themselves. Imagine the impact if there were a few less bruised souls and a few more caring spirits. Perhaps it starts by simply remembering that though we as individuals are responsible for our own journeys to happiness, it's OK'and perhaps even our unspoken duty'to care about someone else's.