When my doctor told me that I was HIV-positive, I decided I was going to need to really take responsibility for managing my own health, that nobody could do that for me. I was kind of already aware of that. My family has never been all that supportive, they don’t like the way I live my life and have been clear about that. Okay, fine. But among my friends, I couldn’t think of one person who I felt I could really talk to about my HIV diagnosis, who could understand me the way I wanted them to. But living with HIV has made me realize how much I need to be able to first and foremost be able to depend on myself, to make smart decisions, to take care of myself. And expecting someone else to anticipate my every need is not very realistic. I can’t depend on other people to do that for me. You know that term, port in the storm? I want to be my own port in the storm...
So, how do I learn to be more self-reliant?
I often talk to clients about how to be self-reliant. But let me first tell you something. That’s not how the conversation begins.
My clients often talk to me about how they feel let down by friends and family members who don’t take the time to listen or give them the emotional support they need. They may express their disappointment that they don’t have that special someone to share life with. Or they might talk about a decision they have to make and how alone they feel.
They tell me how much they need a port in the storm, but don’t see one in sight.
I feel for them. It’s hard when you feel like you’re being tossed around in turbulent waters and nobody’s there to make sure you don’t sink. But here’s my concern. The port they are looking for is outside of themselves. At the risk of being too blunt, this port is dependent on what they can get from other people.
And here’s the problem with depending on other people to be our port in the storm: We can’t force people to be who we need them to be. As much as we might feel we deserve it. We can’t force someone to magically appear and fall in love with us. As much as we might feel lovable. And we can’t force a confidant to step up to the plate and guide us to the right choice. As much as we may feel that’s the only way to get there.
These are the truths that I try to help my clients to see. It’s not easy for me to articulate. Nor is it easy for them to hear.
This conversation is especially difficult to have with clients who are living with a chronic condition like HIV. They are feeling especially needy. With good reason. The news of their diagnosis may have left them feeling as if their life has been turned inside out, maybe even at great risk. The ongoing challenges of living with their condition can feel overwhelming at times, maybe all the time.
They ask me: How am I going to do this on my own?
And yes, you know the answer I give them. Self-reliance. What does that mean? Listening to your own inner voice. Tapping into your own strengths and abilities. Appointing yourself as your own best advocate. Taking ownership of your own life. In other words, being your own port in the storm.
Here’s what I tell my clients to help them become more self-reliant:
Go with the flow. All that lamenting about feeling alone can be a form of denial. Why? Ask yourself if, in the back of your mind, you also have a wish for someone to swoop in and make things better. Or maybe even make it all go away. A chronic condition is like an uninvited houseguest. It’s not going away. Sure, other people can stand with you, but this is still yours to face. And you can do it!
Let yourself feel vulnerable. The strongest and most competent people I know, including some of my clients, are willing to admit when they don’t know how they’re going to cope with a curveball life has lobbed in their direction — if they have the strength, the knowledge, the ability. They admit that they are feeling lost. But what I remind them of is that feeling lost doesn’t mean that you are lost. And admitting what seems to be out of your control frees you up to see where you do have control. Being a self-reliant person doesn’t mean you don’t feel scared, even helpless at times. It just means that you don’t allow this to be the end of the story.
Accept that you might slip up along the way. It has been my experience that becoming more self-reliant is a learning process. One step at a time. There’s no self-reliance textbook. We learn by taking action. Success teaches us what we did right, mistakes teach us what we did wrong. Either way, your ability to rely on yourself increases.
Tune into your intuition. Over time, your life experiences have provided you with wisdom you can rely on to help you make difficult decisions. Listen to your gut, that little voice inside of you. Open up to what it’s trying to tell you. You might need to go off by yourself in a quiet place. Listening to your intuition requires patience. Don’t try to force it. And don’t be quick to jump to conclusions. Allow your inner voice to emerge at its own pace, and then sit with it for awhile, let it sink in, before you make your next move.
Arm yourself with knowledge. One of the keys to being self-reliant is knowledge. Do your research on your HIV and its treatment. Ask your healthcare providers questions. Give yourself permission to question their recommendations, too. The more you know, the more prepared you are to be the CEO of your own healthcare.
Define your foundation. Take an inventory of your strengths, your knowledge, your experience, your skills. Make a list. Keep adding to it. And each time you feel shaky, pull out that list. Your foundation is basic to who you are. It’s unshakeable. Define it. Review it. Own it.
Take stock of your support network. I’m all about support. But I am also realistic. As I said earlier, we can’t control how other people think, feel, behave. So as you assess who is in your court, be honest with yourself. Know what you can and can’t expect from the people in your life. And be okay with that. Let them be there for you in the way that they can be, and be everything you can be for them. But know that you already have what you need within yourself.
Feeling adrift in the often turbulent waters of life? There’s one port in the storm that you can always count on. And that’s the person you see every time you look in the mirror.
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 maintains a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.