“Do you know what it’s like to have AIDS?” my friend asked. “Everyone looks at you as if you have a skull and crossbones over your head. They treat you like you’re already dead.”
Another man with AIDS I knew said he believed he dropped into a coma because he didn’t have the strength to fight people’s constant projections. “It’s hard to keep living when people insist on seeing me as dead or dying,” he said. “I’m not dead yet. I wish people would stop burying me.”
The denial of death in our culture is ever-present. People get sick but resist their own sense of frailty; people witness another’s death but deny their own mortality; people age but fight against every visible reminder. As a result, they are compelled to project death and dying onto someone else, and people with HIV become prime targets. Whether people are caring, dismissive, or contemptuous, the projector escapes the disquieting experience of seeing their own death in the mirror while forfeiting its gifts—the way it can reorganize priorities and bring people closer to their loved ones and spirit.
Being looked on as diseased or dying saps people’s energy, devaluing the life they are living, hypnotizing them to stop living before their time. However, because this particular projection is so prevalent, it is hard for many to fight back, to defend their humanity, to remember they are full of living experiences—feelings, conversations, touches, spiritual states, not to mention loving and being loved.
But this projection doesn’t only injure those with HIV. It costs everyone. When sickness and weakness are projected onto another, our ability to be compassionate turns into pity. People become blind to how they can learn from the psychology of HIV.
As a dream analyst I sometimes imagine a community of people coming to my therapy practice with the following dream: There are two groups of people. Some have a weakened immunity and are open to feeling—but defenseless against even the mildest breeze. Others are more insensitive and try to stay away from people in the first group, not wanting to catch their illness. They ask for my interpretation and I say, “The first group needs more protection and care for their vulnerability; the second group needs more contact with life and receptivity to its pains and pleasures. In this way the community can become more healed.”
Essentially, those of us who are HIV-negative must learn from those of us with HIV. We must learn how to lower our guard. Simply put, many of us who live as if being invulnerable is the key to living a long life need to learn that being vulnerable, touched, moved, and affected is what it means to experience being alive.
I still feel close to my friend who died some 15 years ago. I can hear him speak to those who project death and sickness onto those with HIV and AIDS: “We are not dead. We are dying, but so are you. If you could be more open to your own frailty, if you were less consumed with overcoming your own insecurity, if your psychological immune system wasn’t so good at making you feel that it’s not you who’s dying, it would give many of us a bit of reprieve and you the chance to touch life more intimately and to know more of the beauty of giving and receiving love.”
DAVID BEDRICK, JD, Dipl. PW, is a counselor, educator, attorney, and author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. A blogger for Psychology Today, Bedrick has also taught courses for the U.S. Navy, 3M, the American Society for Training and Development, the Process Work Institute, and other psychological groups.