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College roomate is positive

Jul 15, 2003

Dear Michael,

My college roomate for three years has just tested positive for the HIV virus. I really do not know what to do? We have become good friends over the past three years. It is painful to observe his hurt and fear. My biggest concern is his reaction to the situation. He tested positive in 3/03 after being hospitalized for a lung infection. His T cell count was 130 and his viral load was over 200,000. After being treated with antibiotics for the initial lung infection, he stopped seeking further medical care. He has not been physically ill since March, but with his numbers being so bad, it is only a matter of time. He feels he can no longer be a chemical engineer even though he got all A's throughout school. He has decided not to finish his last semester. He is drinking scotch to excess even though he rarely drank before the diagnosis. He does not bathe or get off the sofa. He is only 21. I try to be helpful and point to all the positive people who live productive lives, refer him to counselors who are trained in dealing with HIV depression, but he ignores my suggestions. It is like he is waiting to die. I rented a motivational speech on video. He did watch it. The problem, however, was that the only quote he took from the speech was " If you don't like your're siuation find a way to change it ". He now thinks he may be able to change the HIV. I think I made the situation worse. Am I overlooking something? What do you suggest I do to point him in the right direction? It seems everything I do is either ignored or twisted out of context. Your advice would be most appreciated.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

You're friend is really wallowing in inappropriate self pity and has apparently given himself a death sentence that with today's antiretroviral therapies makes no sense. The best thing you can do is to tell him that you consulted with an expert on HIV, who is someone who himself has been living with the virus for almost 30 years now without literally ever having one day's HIV related illness.

Tell your friend that he is too young to just throw in the towel. It is understandable that he feels overwhelmed and despondent. Most people who are newly diagnosed feel this way. But if he takes the correct actions now, he can overcome these feelings. But he needs help to make this transition and there is no way he can or should do it alone.

First he must find a licensed mental health professional who has experience in working with people with HIV and begin to consult with this person. You can help him locate such a professional by calling your local AIDS service organization and asking them for a referral and insisting that he call for an appointemnt and committ to beginning professional counseling. Secondly he must join a support group for other newly diagnosed individuals so he can learn from them what he has to do to adjust to living with HIV and not assume that he is dying from AIDS, when clearly he is not dying. If left untreated your friend's depression and drinking will kill him.

If he can not stop drinking then he must also begin to attend AA meetings. Most large cities even have special interest AA meetings for people with HIV and AIDS.

All you can do is to remind him that you love him so much and care about him so much that you have located these resources for him. But you must remember that there is not any way that you can make him go. You can urge him to take the steps necessary for him to help himself.

There is not any reason why he should not finish college and continue to pursue his career dreams.

Michael Shernoff, MSW

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