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Friend Wants to Kill Himself Over Low Risk
Nov 12, 1999

Dear Mr Shernoff,

A friend of mine won't stop talking about HIV. I mean every converstion he brings it up. He had what looked like a small rash on his arm and flipped out saying it was HIV rash. We're having coffee or a beer and I notice he's always feeling his neck. There is nothing wrong with him otherwise, no flu or "syndrome." He's always calling the CDC and AIDs hotlines. At first I thought he was just rationally scared over his having hired a hooker. But it seems to be getting worse than that.

I finally confronted him to tell me exactly what happened and why he was so scared. I had tried to be very supportive, you know, telling him it was unlikely after one risky encounter and just be cool and safe through the window period.

He explains that he hired a hooker to give him a blowjob. I tried to tell him that if that's all he did it doesn't sound too risky to me. He FREAKS OUT telling me that I don't know what I'm talking about. Saying maybe she was bleeding in her mouth, even though he didn't see any blood. Starts talking about ulcers and all of this hypothetical crap.

After this I went home and decided to do a little research to educate myself to help my buddy. I called the CDC and read what the safe sex expert here had to say and I called a local hotline. EVERY counselor I spoke with said that getting oral sex is extremly low risk, and the expert at The Body says he doesn't even recommend testing for getting a blowjob becuase it is such an extremly low risk and only one person was ever infected this way that they know of, and that's because the woman bit the guy's penis. Even the CDC said the risk is theoretical only and there is no real clincal need for testing.

I print this information out, and go to my friend's house, with what I think will be excellent news to allay his fears. I show him that logically he's worrying about nothing. Guess what? My good intentions backfire, he explaodes saying I don't know what I'm talking about and that he "knows" he's infected. I start arguing what the CDC and hotlines say, I tell him it's been six weeks and he hasn't been sick. I explain the odds of getting infected from a low risk exposure, and no having symptoms all point to NOT being infected.

He explodes, saying I'm not being SUPPORTIVE! All I do is listen to him and this irrational overblown fear! Now he's saying he can't wait 6 more weeks for the 3 months test and wants to kill himself. I think he may be serious, this floors me, and I say that he has a problem and needs a shrink if he wants to kill himself over a such low risk exposure, where he hasn't had any symptoms, and even the CDC esentially says "don't worry about it."

Now he's saying I'm not "being a friend" by being there for him, and that's making him lonely and making him want to kill himself. Now I'm starting to feel guilty and don't know what to do. I think he's ill in his head.

This is a really close friend since childhood, 33 years we've been buddies, he has never acted like this before. Is there anything I can do? Why when I confront him with these stats and logic and all of the experts say low/almost no risk does it aggitate him? Should I continue to listen to him talking about symptoms? I think that may be harming him. I don't know what to do to help my friend.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

The only thing you can do is to recognize that he is in a very disturbed emotional and or mental state right now and suggest that he find help from a mental health professional. Though from everything you told me this will only also cause him to become angry at you. For what ever reason he needs to believe that he is infected. So if, and this is an enormous if, you do decide to suggest he get profesional help here are two caveats. First be prepared that he will not recieve your suggestion in the helpful and supportive manner it was meant.

Second, you might consider beginning by telling him that you have been thinking about how angry he gets at you because he does not feel that you are being supportive to him. Ask him what he would like you to do or how he would like you to behave in order to feel supported by you? If what he tells you feels reasonable then try this. But then in this spirit tell him how badly you feel that he is so tortured and afraid, and that you do feel for his situation. Tell him that you can not and will not any longer try to convince him about how low risk his exposure was.

But being that you have been friends for over 30 years you want him to know that you love him very much and that it makes you feel sad and frightens you that he is in so much pain from worrying right now. Tell him that you have been feling overwhelmed by his situation, but want to remain supportive, but this is difficult since no matter what you have done he has not viewed it as your trying to help him because you care about him. For this reason you tink it would be in his best interest to get professional help. Tell him you do not think that he is crazy, but that he just needs more support than you are able to supply him with.

He will most likely not be able to hear this, since he is not functioning or thinking in a rational way. But it is all you can do. He is very lucky to have as caring a person as you for a friend. I hear how difficult and painful this is for you, and am sorry that both of you are going through this. Michael Shernoff, MSW



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