When a friend says “I have HIV”
Well into the fourth decade of the HIV epidemic and countless safer sex lectures, every year thousands of gay men and others discover they have the virus. Some suspected for a long time before formally finding out; others are so surprised it’s as if they’ve been hit by a ton of bricks.
Even today, for a friend who receives the news the feeling is often also one of shock: how can this be? Unfortunately, that sense of distress can lead people to say things they later regret.
We’ve come a long way since the early days of the epidemic when people often talked about some people with HIV being “innocent victims,” while others – presumably, gay men – were assumed to be anything-but-innocent. Just the same, it’s easy to look at someone who has been recently infected with HIV and think: What went wrong? How could you let this happen?
Questions like that are the surest way to alienate and burden the person who’s disclosing the news. Somewhere along the way, your friend took a risk he now regrets, or he made a mistake, or he slipped when he shouldn’t have.
But a lot of other men do the same thing every day, and not all of them become infected with HIV. Your friend, though, is hoping for your love and support. He doesn’t need the Inquisition. He may be doing that to himself.
It is not easy to find out you have HIV. There are typically a lot of questions. Some of those questions are medical, but often the most painful ones go something like this: What will my friends say? Will they reject me or think less of me? Your friend’s disclosure of his diagnosis is an intimate act. He’s letting you know that he trusts you.
Here’s what you friend doesn’t need from you:
- Pity, fear or panic. Don’t leave him you’re so upset he needs to take care of you.
- Nonstop questions, especially about how he got infected. If he knows and wants to tell you, he’ll tell you.
- Especially avoid questions that essentially amount to “How could you be so stupid?”
- Happy talk about how HIV is no big deal nowadays. HIV is very manageable, but that doesn’t mean it is a walk in the park, or that your friend may not go through a period of adjustment and concern about his health.
- Gossiping about him or sharing the news with others without his permission.
What does your friend need instead of this stuff? The best way to find out is to ask him, of course. A listening ear is usually welcome. If you don’t hear from him, reach out and call. Some people withdraw from friends when they feel vulnerable. Your friend may not need to talk about HIV all the time, but he’s still the same guy he’s always been and we all need love and support.
Empathy is good. Listen to the emotional content of what your friend is saying and see if you can share some of what he’s feeling. Empathy is different from sympathy, which usually has a bit of condescension about it. If it’s not too glib or too quickly offered, reassurance can be helpful. You can remind your friend that HIV treatment is very different from the way it was years ago. Most people with HIV live long and healthy lives. HIV is not nothing, but it’s not a death sentence, either.
Your friend may need education; here’s a good place to start. Ask him if he’s up-to-date on the realities of treatment. (A surprising number of people just haven’t thought about HIV in a long time, and their ideas about HIV may be way out of date.) Your friend’s physician will have more information, but he may have to ask for it. HIV medication can be crazy expensive, but resources are often available to cover the cost of treatment.
When the going gets tough in life, we get to find out who our friends really are.
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