An HIV+ diagnosis is not what it was 10 years ago. Huge strides have been made in terms of treatment, prevention, and medical access. Yet even given this monumental medical progress, being diagnosed can feel like one of the most devastating experiences of your life.
With the right tools, support, and knowledge, though, hope awaits. Your life might not be the same, but you can choose to prioritize your happiness and health. Here are five tips for navigating a thriving, HIV-positive lifestyle:
1. In the midst of emotional turmoil, take extra strides to be kind to yourself
When diagnosed with HIV, your life may feel turned upside down. Your hopes and dreams for the future can seem like they are pushed to the side, or even annihilated at the time of diagnosis.
It is crucial at this junction to be kind to yourself. Give your body the care it needs. Get plenty of rest, opt for light and enjoyable exercise, and choose to fill your spare time with things you love – like reading, and listening to music.
2. Share your diagnosis with loved ones you're most comfortable with
A diagnosis like this can make a person feel like they are the only one affected, and that they are all alone. It is very important that you have friends or family that you can talk to in those initial months after you receive a diagnosis.
Here are tips for sharing your diagnosis with loved ones:
- Start with your closest friend – the person you know will always have your back – as a "trial run" conversation.
- Keep the conversation simple and direct.
- Let them know that you have your health under control; they don't have to worry about your management, but they can provide emotional support if they would like.
- Remember that they may have questions and concerns, and be open to answering them as best you're able!
- Request that your conversation remain confidential (unless you are okay with otherwise).
I know people who have kept their diagnosis a secret. They live in isolation and they are constantly afraid that the secret will be found out. What often keeps them silent is the fear and worry they experience. They may feel afraid that if they tell someone their secret, they will be judged, ridiculed or shunned – but oftentimes, disclosing your status can lead to even stronger relationships!
Remember that you're still you, and you are worth every bit of love (if not more) as you were before your diagnosis.
3. Consider joining a support group or taking advantage of free resources
If you feel that no one in your life will understand what you are going through – or even if you just need extra support from others who "get it" – find a support group near you.
You may prefer to start with an online support group, or go through your doctor or clinic for referrals. Some websites like Meetup have ongoing HIV support groups (or you could be a positive force of change in your community, and start your own!).
You can also call hotlines, such as:
- The GMHC hotline: (800-243-7692), a great resource for people who have questions about HIV. If you are newly diagnosed, they will be a great support in helping you in your coming out process.
- HIV Nightline: 800-628-9240, open 24 hours/7 days a week to provide emotional, real-time support.
4. When you're ready, do allow yourself to date again!
Dating for anyone can cause anxiety, fear, worry and raise insecurities among non-infected people – but when you have HIV, everything becomes heightened. The fear around dating and disclosure is palpable.
You may doubt yourself more than you ever have before
“Will I ever date again?” “Will I ever find love again?” “Who would want me?”
These are all questions that go through the mind of someone who is recently diagnosed. These thoughts can cause our self-esteem to plummet and can stand in the way of us putting ourselves out there.
Let me be the first to tell you: Yes, you are worthy of love. Yes, you can have the life you want and have always dreamed of. Yes, there are people out there who will appreciate the person you are.
Just because one person may reject you doesn't mean everyone will
It just may be difficult to put yourself out there, and you may be rejected, but just because one person may reject you, it does not mean that everyone will.
The idea of when to disclose is very scary, and very personal. “Do I tell them on the first date? Do I wait? Does the three-date rule apply here?"
When you're ready to share your diagnosis with a partner, be patient
In order to have this conversation with a partner, you want to treat yourself and the other person with respect. Allow them the space to process the information you have given them.
Share the current facts about your likelihood of transmitting the virus
One thing that we have learned about HIV is that it is a manageable disease. If a person is undetectable, they are not at risk of transmitting the virus to another person. For more information on U=U, please read this article from Plus Magazine.
5. Work with a therapist who can help you navigate an HIV-positive lifestyle
In my experience, the type of therapy you have is not as important as whom you speak to. When choosing a therapist to help you with your diagnosis you will want someone who is compassionate, understanding, and at least a little knowledgeable about HIV.
The last part is important because a therapist who is knowledgeable about HIV will support you and will not shame you if you start talking about having unprotected sex with your person.
It is important to feel supported in the therapeutic alliance so that you can work through your guilt, shame, depression, regret, anxiety, or any other number of emotions that you’d expect to experience after diagnosis.
I feel very lucky to be living in a time where there have been so many advances in the field of HIV. We are in a country where our healthcare is a right, and a privilege. There are many medication options, and many of us live with the experience of only taking one pill a day. I encourage all of us to live proudly, without shame, and to become a better version of the person we were yesterday. Good luck to you on your journey!