Being told that you have tested positive for HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) can be difficult and painful news to come to terms with. To this day, HIV carries a stigma that makes it difficult for many to open up and discuss their diagnosis with friends and family. This stigma can lead to feelings of shame; it is not uncommon for those affected to blame themselves, believing that their behaviour ultimately led to the infection and as a result they are being punished.
HIV has predominately affected gay men and the black African community, however it is important to remember that it is not exclusive to these groups. It is estimated that one in seven people with HIV do not know that they have it, and the only way to know for sure is to have an HIV test. Despite there being impressive medical advances that help manage the infection, there is still no cure. Medication must be taken strictly as directed, because missed doses can lead to the medication no longer being effective and alternative medication needing to be prescribed.
If you are in a relationship and discover you have HIV, this will raise issues that will need to be discussed with your partner. Questions will be raised such as has your partner been put at risk through unprotected sex (i.e. sex without using a condom) and therefore they too will need to be tested. Was it your partner that infected you? Has this happened because you or your partner have had unprotected sex outside of your relationship? Maybe you or your partner were infected before the relationship started. If neither of you had an HIV test before having unprotected sex then you may have to come to terms with the fact that you may never know for sure what events led to the infection. Coming to terms with and accepting you may never know can also be difficult, particularly if you are searching for answers. All of this can put a strain on the relationship, and in particular will often bring up issues around trust.
For those not in a relationship or entering a new one, they will need to consider if and when they will disclose their HIV status to their new partner. This can also be a potentially painful experience, as rejection because of their status is a possibility.
For pregnant women, there may be concerns about passing the infection onto the child, in particular during childbirth, although this is now very unlikely to happen.
A good GP and specialist HIV doctor will be able to provide the medical advice and medication you will need to manage the illness, but what they won’t be able to help with in any depth, is the emotional aspects that are associated. Seeing a counsellor experienced in dealing with HIV related issues can be helpful to come to terms with the emotions and specific dilemmas that arise following a positive diagnosis. Counselling can help to prepare for and deal with the reactions that may arise if and when disclosing the HIV status to partners, family, friends and work colleagues. Reactions to this difficult news can range from disbelief, sadness and fear to anger and rejection. So, in addition to coming to terms with the HIV infection, those affected may need support with the reactions of significant others coming to terms with their news whilst also managing their own feelings about becoming HIV positive.
For anyone old enough to remember the hard-hitting, campaigns of the 80s, they will remember that being diagnosed with HIV (or AIDS as it was more commonly referred to then) meant that death was considered very likely in the not too distant future. Now, in 2017, the long-term outlook for someone living with HIV is much better. The medical opinion is that with the correct medication and a healthy lifestyle, someone with HIV can have a normal life expectancy. As with taking any medication, there can be some very complex side effects and living healthily with HIV is also dependent on how quickly a diagnosis is made, the right treatment prescribed and also on what other existing health issues someone may have.
In my experience of working with clients with issues around HIV, an HIV diagnoses can still bring up issues around mortality. For some people, this can ultimately be a positive experience because as they face their fears around death it can leave them wanting to get the most out of life. This can become a catalyst for making life changes where clients find inner resources and a meaning and deeper connection with themselves, their friends, family and community that they had not realised were there before diagnosis.
If you or anyone that you know is struggling with their own or a significant other’s HIV status then it is very important to find support from an experienced professional. The complexity and emotive nature of the issues that can be awoken at this time in a person’s life means that a cool headed, informed and compassionate counsellor can make a world of difference in both surviving and learning to thrive after life changing news.