Being diagnosed with HIV brings up a lot of questions. People wonder: Is my life over? What’s it going to be like living with HIV? Will my boyfriend leave me? Will I ever find love again? It's also common to ask thing like: What did I do to deserve this? And the ultimate question: Why me?
It's likely that some of these questions have come up for you, along with a few of your own. Fortunately, other people have been through this before you; so we know what you can expect. Most likely, you’ll have your share of emotional ups and downs. Like anger, sadness, and fear. Those are the big ones.
I grew up in Michigan where we used to have a saying that went something like: if you don’t like the weather in Michigan just wait awhile because it’s sure to change. It’s been my experience in working with my clients that this might also be a good way to describe the emotional impact of being newly diagnosed. There are steps forward, followed by steps back, then forward: it's all part of getting through that first year.
My clients talk to me about how the initial shock of receiving an unexpected diagnosis at some point gives way to feelings that can be unfamiliar, scary, and at times overwhelming. Experiencing all those emotions, as difficult as they can be, is a big part of learning to live with HIV.
Here’s how to deal with all that emotional turmoil.:
Let yourself feel. Putting a lid on your emotions doesn’t make them go away. Actually it does the opposite. It makes them stronger. Feelings are just feelings, so let them bubble up and release them into the light of day. Go off to a quiet place and do it on your own, if that works best for you, or with a willing listener. Have a good cry if you need to.
Be kind and patient! Show yourself the compassion you would show to someone else in your shoes. You’re doing the best you can.
Find a safe place to talk. Find someone who can listen without making you feel judged, and who won’t get caught up in trying to “fix” you because of their own feelings of helplessness. You may have a family member of or a friend who can help, but if you don’t, consider talking to a mental health professional who is experienced in working with clients who are facing chronic conditions like HIV.
Don’t report yourself to the positive thinking police. Familiar feelings, new feelings, “good” ones, “bad” ones; don’t confuse maintaining an optimistic attitude — which promotes health — with denying yourself permission to let yourself feel the way you feel. It’s all normal.
Confront the fear factor. Fear is only a feeling. Struggling against it can keep you frozen in place. Acknowledge your fear, and you take a lot of its power away, even if it comes back to visit once in awhile.
Consider this perspective: You’re going through a grief process. Being diagnosed with HIV most likely means that life isn’t going to go the way you thought it would. That doesn't mean it will be bad, just different from your expectations. You’re dealing with some new responsibilities. With that realization comes a feeling of loss. And like any other loss, it is only human to grieve. Through grief, we learn to accept, and prepare ourselves to move forward in life.
Make a spiritual connection. Embracing a higher power can mean a lot of things. Being part of a religious denomination. Incorporating spiritual practices like meditation. Spending time with people you care about. Reading books or listening to music that inspires you. Spirituality, as you define it, can help you to get through difficult times.
Accept the “new normal.” Why me? Go ahead and ask that question. A diagnosis is another reminder that life isn’t fair. And it has left you at a fork in the road. You can fall into hopelessness or you can be hopeful. Sure, life may be different. And no, you didn’t choose this. But look at it this way: when you admit to what you don’t have control over, you free yourself up to focus on what you can control.
Choose to move forward. Update your life strategy based on what’s realistic and what’s possible. Seize the day, each and every day.
Bottom line? If you've just been diagnosed with HIV, take good care of yourself. Your whole self: body, mind, and spirit.
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He runs JustGotDiagnosed.com.