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Op-ed: Embrace Happiness and Your HIV

Op-ed: Embrace Happiness and Your HIV


An HIV diagnosis isn't the end of the line  — it's the beginning. Here are five points that will help you embrace happiness and manage your chronic illness.

Charlie Sheen’s high profile disclosure about being HIV-positive served as a reminder of how far we’ve come in treating HIV in the past 30 years — and how much farther we still have to go in the fight against stigma.

HIV is now a chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease or emphysema. But many people who have just been diagnosised still wonder: Can people with HIV really live normal, healthy lives? The great news is that you absolutely can! There are more treatments available now for HIV than ever before and people on treatment are living almost as long and healthy lives as people who don't have HIV. Of course, people with HIV still face challenges; especially when it comes to dealing with the lingering stigma of HIV and overcoming feelings of shame or guilt that are common when first learning of a positive status. It's importantn to know it doesn't matter how you got HIV, you are still, absolutely worthy of a long and happy life. 

So how do you achieve the things you still want to do and to get pleasure out of your life, despite having HIV? Well, for someone newly diagnosed, it helps to remember a few key points.

1.  You do not deserve to be sick. HIV is an infectious disease not karmic justice. All chronic diseases, including HIV, involve a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. For example, factors like stress or substance abuse can increase your odds of getting sick, but they don't directly cause your chronic illnesses. Mind matters, but mind cannot always triumph over matter. If you don't get well, it is not because you lack the right mental attitude. But there are still many things you can control that will help you manage your chronic illness. Remember, you do not deserve to have HIV but you are responsible for taking action to manage your illness.

2.  Don’t do it alone. One of the side effects of chronic illness is a feeling of isolation. This is often a big issue with HIV because stigma and discrimination are still pervasive. As supportive as friends and family members may be, they often can't understand what you're experiencing. That''s why it helps to talk with other people who know firsthand what it is like to live with the same chronic condition you're dealing with. Connecting with other people with similar conditions can reduce your sense of isolation, help you understand what to expect, offer practical tips on how to manage symptoms and feelings on a day-to-day basis, and inspire you to take a more active role in managing your illness. You might even have the opportunity to help others cope with their illness, to share your experiences and begin to recognize and appreciate some of your own strengths. Support can come from reading books, newsletters or blogs by people whove had similar experiences. Or it can come from talking with others on the telephone, in support groups, or even linking to online support groups.

3.  You’re more than your disease. Some people fear having HIV will consume them, that trips to the doctor, taking medications and managing symptoms will begin to dominate their lives. But it doesn't have to be that way. Sure, it can take a little while to get your HIV under control, but you will continue to be more than your status. It's essential to maintain aspects of your life that you enjoy and to cultivate new interests and activities to replace any that need to be curtailed because of your HIV. 

4.  Embrace moments of joy. Even small daily pleasures can help balance out the times you have to manage uncomfortable symptoms or emotions. Try finding ways to enjoy nature by say growing a plant or watching the sun set. Indulge in the pleasure of human touch or a tasty meal; or celebrate companionship with family or friends. Finding ways to interject moments of pleasure into your day is not only vital to HIV self-management but to living a happy and healthy life. Even if you find your old life disrupted by your illness, you can choose to focus on your abilities and strengths instead of the problems you're facing or the way you're being thwarted by HIV. Helping others is another proven way to distract yourself from your problems and instead focus on what you can do and what you can give others.  Celebrate small improvements. If chronic illness teaches us anything, it is to live each moment more fully. No matter how difficult things get with your HIV, there will always be ways to enhance your function, assert control, and enjoy life.

5. Illness can be an opportunity. Illness, even when it comes with pain and disability, can enrich our lives. It can make us reevaluate what's really important in our lives, shift our priorities, and move in new directions. It can give us an opportunity to explore and grow in new ways. It can challenge us and reveal hidden strengths we didn't know we had. It can make us more appreciative of the moments of health and happiness we still have left. In the end, HIV will help you become the person you've always meant to become.

Health is soundness of both body and mind and a healthy life is one that seeks soundness. A healthy way to live with a chronic health problem is to overcome the physical mental and emotional problems caused by the condition. You may not always be able to overcome your HIV, but if you remember these points you'll be more successful at managing not only your HIV and other health conditions—but even life itself. (Check out these four skills you need to successfully manage your HIV.) 

Allison Webel is the lead author of Living a Healthy Life with HIV, an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a part of the Stanford Patient Education Research Center.

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