Getting HIV Isn’t a Death Sentence

You just got home from your doctor, your local sex clinic and you’re still reeling. You will for a while. You’re HIV Positive. Let’s face it; it sucks to have HIV even today. I hate taking pills – even though there’s only three HIV pills a day, they do have side effects, for me mostly gastrointestinal ones. I hate that there are still people who look at me as a pariah even though they are an ignorant minority. I hate that being HIV positive is still an invisible minority in this country – fear keeps too many people outside the big cities closeted. Even those brave enough to have come out in hostile environments as gay wouldn’t take that next step to come out as HIV positive.

I just commemorated two years since my doctor told me that I tested positive for HIV. I accept responsibility for my actions that caused this to happen. More than anything, it is imperative that you do whatever it is you need to do to accept what it is you did to test HIV positive. Even if it was trusting a cheating partner, you have to ask yourself difficult questions about what inside you may have caused you to trust someone who may not have deserved that trust.

But accepting responsibility and torturing yourself with guilt are two different things. You have to accept your role only so you can let go of any lingering anger. Everyone engages in self-destructive behavior in their life to varying degrees. Acceptance brings forgiveness – and forgiveness is essential to learning how to live going forward with the disease.

If you are having trouble accepting it or moving past the anger and depression, don’t be proud – the mental health industry can help. Psychologists and social workers provide therapy. If need be, psychiatrists can provide anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. There is no shame in asking for help.

When it comes to HIV, there are lots of places to seek both physical and mental help. Seek out your city’s local AIDs agency – if you don’t know who that is, call the National AIDs Hotline at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636). They take calls 24/7 and should be able to tell you the agencies serving your city.

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make concerns your choice of health care. If you already have a doctor, you should consider if he or she will continue to be the best choice for your primary health care given this change in circumstance. Many people move to HIV specialists but that’s not an absolute. When I first tested HIV positive, I remained with my internist because he is gay and already was treating other HIV positive patients. Then about six months ago, I changed to a doctor who’s part of a group that specializes in HIV. I made the change more for geographic reasons of convenience but it changed the level of my care to have a group of doctors supported by a large staff. Ultimately you should choose the doctor that you’re most comfortable with – but remember you can always change doctors should things change.

Once you find the local HIV/AIDs agency in your city, you can start learning about the services available to you. Many agencies have support groups or orientation sessions designed to educate you on the basics of what HIV is, how medications work, and lifestyle choices – nutrition, fitness – that boost your immune system. Some agencies have a case management system whereby you’re assigned your own case manager – for free – who can help you find the resources you need to address your new status.

Not everyone who tests positive will need to go on HIV medicines right away – this will depend on two numbers: your T-cells, also called your CD4 count – think of this number as the number of helper cells you have so the goal is to try to keep that number high. The other number is your viral load – this is the amount of HIV in your body that can be counted in your bloodstream. The goal is to keep this number low and in fact many on medicine have viral loads that are “negligible” – meaning that the test can’t find the virus in your body to a measurable degree even though it’s still there.

Many people who test positive will not go on medicines right away because their CD4 count is high and their viral load is low. There are generally accepted medical guidelines that you should discuss with your doctor on whether you need meds or not.

If you do need to go on medicines, don’t freak out – educate yourself. Know what side effects to expect and what steps others have taken to deal with them. For instance, one of the meds I take causes periodic nausea and my own internet research revealed that others have used the herb Ginger to combat that queasiness – in ginger tea, in candied gingers.

Ultimately you are the one putting these medicines in your body – not your doctor, not your caseworker, not your spouse, significant other, or parent – and you must make the decision that is right for you.

The last of these first steps you ought to consider implementing in learning to deal with your HIV is to establish a physical fitness program into your life – check with your doctor but ordinarily just having an HIV diagnosis shouldn’t preclude exercise – that combines both strength training and cardiovascular exercise. Many doctors believe that eating right and staying physically fit are the most important things a patient with HIV can do – staying fit strengthens the immune system, exercise releases endorphins which are known to alleviate sadness and depression, and working out is believed to belay and often prevent the paunchy look and drawn-in cheeks that some with HIV can develop (the jury is out on whether this phenomena – called lipodystrophy – is caused by the HIV or the medicines or both). But don’t fret about getting that look – if it does affect you, it won’t be overnight, it’ll most likely happen gradually over decades and, over the past few years, the first plastic surgery product – called sculptra – created specifically to deal with filling out the faces of those afflicted by lipodystrophy has gone into widespread use.

I hate being HIV positive and I would trade it in a heartbeat. But I can’t deny it’s made me more conscious of my health – something a 42 year old man ought to be anyway. I eat healthier, I work out which has made me thinner and more fit than I had been in the five years prior, and I live for today with an eye toward the future.

My life has good days and bad days – some of those bad days are caused by HIV and some aren’t. But everybody has things that happen in life that test your mettle. Cancer. Car accident. Paralysis. An abusive husband. If, like me, one of your things is “HIV”, take baby steps day by day, surround yourself with allies, and arm yourself with facts. And then go forward with living your life.

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