I often talk with clients who are living with HIV and in midlife, or older. Here are the questions they ask the most:
I’m doing great now, but I wonder if I am on borrowed time and that my health could go south someday if the meds stop working. How do I stop worrying about the future?
It’s only human to want to KNOW and, by knowing, to be in control. A chronic condition like HIV teaches us that we are not in control. What I encourage you to do is to take life one day at a time. Take control where you can, which starts with taking really good care of yourself, each and every day. Start the day focusing on something you are grateful for. Review your strengths and coping skills. Stay connected with your support system. Accept that you can only know what you know. Power up to face today, and you will be that much better prepared for the road ahead.
I don’t have very many friends. Most weekends I am on my own. People at my age kind of have their friendship circles in place. How can I build a support network?
Humans are not meant to be alone. As we get older, it’s important to have people around us. And I think it is also important for people living with HIV to have support. So I encourage you to do some work to build up your network. Are there acquaintances you could reach out to? Have you looked into local HIV support organizations? Depending on your age group, maybe a senior center or an organization like SAGE? How about meetup.com to see what’s going on? Maybe an adult education class? There are lots of people out there who want to make a connection. Finding them will take some effort on your part, but it’s worth it.
I’ve been taking meds for a long time so I should be used to the idea that I’m going to be on them forever. But it bothers me a lot. Some days I just feel sad about my life, and a lot of the way I feel is related to my HIV diagnosis. I don’t think sitting around feeling sad is good for my health. What can I do?
Feeling sad sometimes is just part of being human. So the first advice I would give you is not to pretend you aren’t feeling sad, or to try to make your sadness go away. Fighting your feelings only makes them more intense as they grow and, over time, express themselves in a way that may have a negative impact on your wellness, and lead to stress. One of the lessons of that a chronic condition like HIV can teach us is how to experience emotions like sadness. Sadness brings us back in touch with that sensitive spot we hide from others. Let yourself feel, and talk about your feelings. When you own your sadness, you also are reminded of the sadness that others experience, how we all suffer. The result? More patience, more sensitivity to what others are dealing with. That’s compassion. Recognizing and acknowledging the sadness of life also helps you to be more aware of the joys of life, big and small. So a lesson and a gift.
I think I am at peace with my HIV diagnosis. But I find myself getting caught up in thinking about how I let this happen. I mean it’s not like I didn’t know what could happen if I wasn’t careful. Then I get pissed off at myself. Is there a way to stop feeling so ashamed?
You are sure not alone in feeling this way. But as I always say to my clients, you can’t go into instant replay and change something that can’t be undone. This applies to any number of truths about yourself, including your HIV status. Spending time wishing things were different will only keep you stuck in the past. Sit down with someone you trust – an objective friend or a trained listener – and talk about the shame you’re along with the guilt, anger, and fear that go along with it. Talk it out. And when you find your thoughts drifting into the shame zone, shift your attention from the rearview mirror to what’s possible in the present moment. Show yourself some compassion. Get busy living your life!
I want to fall in love. But I’m older and I don’t feel as attractive as I used to. I’m not gonna be the hot young thing again. And my HIV status makes me feel like damaged goods. Is it too late for me?
Having a chronic condition doesn’t mean that you are a walking medical diagnosis. You are still a human being with a multitude of talents, interests, qualities, hopes for the future and, yes, a few interesting quirks. Along with some challenges. Look at yourself with a wide angle lens that includes everything that you bring to a relationship. Be a friend to the people you care about, be open and generous, and enjoy the love you already have in your life. Be yourself, enjoy your life, follow your passion. You might discover that when you’re simply enjoying your life for what it is – without the agenda of having to find that one true love – you are so interesting and attractive that all kinds of opportunities to meet new friends and, who knows, potential love interests, will present themselves. To paraphrase Ru Paul, we have to love ourselves first. So fall in love with that person you see in the mirror!
I just lost a close friend. I know that happens as you get older. But it’s a reminder of how many friends I lost during the AIDS crisis, and I worry that I’m going to be going through something like that again, watching my friends dying around me. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to stand that. What can I do?
It’s hard to lose people we care about. And as we get older, loss becomes more a part of life. But having gone through the AIDS crisis, as did I, I can sure understand why the loss of a friend would have a special meaning for you as you contemplate the losses ahead. One of the lessons I learned, as I suspect you did too, is that life is random. Loving and losing people is a bittersweet truth of life. Time spent with people we love is precious. So make that time. Honor your relationships with acts and words of kindness. Create beautiful memories that will be a comfort for you in the days ahead.
I got on the cocktail when it first became available. I was lucky. A lot of other people weren’t so lucky, including some of my friends. I feel guilty about getting a chance to live when they didn’t. Why them and not me?
This is a question I often talk about with my clients. The simple truth is that it’s unanswerable. Life unfolds as it unfolds. I encourage you to live your life to the fullest. Be your best self. Be a loving and supportive friend. Give back. And always be grateful. That’s how you can honor the memories of those who were not as fortunate.
I think about my life, how I have lived it, and how I survived. I feel like I should be doing something meaningful with my life. You know, to give back when I have been given a second chance. How do you have a meaningful life?
Start by going into yourself. Meditation, contemplation, prayer. Take some time each day to nurture your spirit. Connect. Spend time with people you care about, who can listen, who care share the hard times and celebrate the good times. Reach out to someone who can use some support, be a listening ear, share some words of encouragement. Volunteer and share your skills and talents. Stay involved with activities that you can participate in and that give you joy. Practice being in the present moment, and not caught up in rehashing the past or worrying about the future. Be aware of the pleasures and the possibilities that exist all around you.
When I got my HIV diagnosis, I grabbed onto what I could control in my life. I became obsessed about my job. And the gym. Run, run, run. Everything else, including my friends, took a back seat. Now, I’m super stressed. How do I get my life back in balance?
Balance is a tough nut. Especially if you think of balance half work and half play. Or if you pressure yourself to turn your life upside down over night. Think of balance as a journey, taken one baby step at a time. And be realistic. Start by scheduling time with friends, maybe once or twice a week to start. Schedule in some relaxation every day, even if it’s only a half hour in front of the TV. Find a way to do some volunteering, even once a month. Try something new to shake up your life, maybe take an art class. Commit to having more balance. If you don’t schedule it and commit, it may not happen. So get it on your schedule.
I have been disclosing my HIV status for years. But every time, I feel like I’m reopening a wound and setting myself up for being even more wounded. And at my age, rejection hurts more than it used to. Does it ever get easy?
First, what does easy mean? Easier to say those words or easier to deal with the reactions you might get? If easy is about dealing with the reactions, you might agree that disclosure doesn’t get easier. That’s because every time you disclose, the situation is completely different. The reason for disclosing, your hopes and expectations for the outcome and, especially, the potential reaction of the person you are disclosing to, especially you are disclosing to someone you haven’t yet built trust with. The key is to be mentally and emotionally prepared for whatever the outcome. Confident in your own essential worth as a human being. Aware of your coping skills. Well supported if you need a listening ear.
Notice any emerging themes here? Here’s what jumps out for me: Take good care of yourself, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Show yourself compassion and patience. Stay connected with your support network. Power up!
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer 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.