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Will I ever be happy again?
Jun 30, 1998

Perhaps my greatest fear (recently infected and diagnosed) is not of dying, but of ever finding happiness during the time that I have left. I have been in therapy for five weeks and on anti-depressants (Zoloft) for three weeks. Despite these interventions, I feel myself retreating from life a bit more each day. How might I find the serenity I need to stop focusing on what I have lost and instead begin imagining what I yet have left to accomplish? I have spent my entire life working directly with kids, but I fear that in my current fragile and bitter state of mind I may not be able to continue! Thanks for your advice.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

Since you are newly diagnosed it is important that you be extra gentle with yourself. You are in a state of crisis. Most newly diagnosed people are in such a state of crisis and shock that they believe they will be dying immediately. You have already taken two very important steps by beginning therapy and also anti-depressants. Both therapy and anti-depressants need time to work. Plus, it will take time for you to realize that while you definitely do have a life threatening illness, you need to learn to think of your situation as living with HIV and NOT dying from AIDS. This is a slow process that therapy with a clinician who is skilled in working with people with HIV and also a support group of other people living with HIV can both be enormously helpful in accomplishing, but this change in attitude does not happen over night.

Ask yourself to look at what have you really lost? If you are still healthy you have lost the illusion of your own immortality. I am by no means saying that having HIV is no big deal. It sucks and is a terrible, terrible thing to have to live with. Taking the medications are a real pain and often complicated with lousy side effects. But you can learn to make all the necessary accommodations. I have been living with HIV for over 20 years. Increasingly more and more people are what are known as non-progressors, people living with a long term HIV infection who have never become symptomatic. You must not give up hope of still having a meaningful career and satisfying, love filled life. Your work is with children, they are a perfect way to take you out of yourself by focusing in on them and what you offer them in helping shape their lives. I do not believe that there are any silver linings to having HIV. Yet, it does present each of us with the opportunity to live our lives to the fullest, access what and who is really important in our lives, and do everything to maximize the quality of what ever time we have left to live...and as new medical treatments become increasingly available to those of us lucky enough to be living in developed countries, the time that people with HIV have to live healthy and productive lives is growing.

This is a hell of a hard adjustment, but hundreds of thousands of people are learning to live with HIV as an unwanted intruder in their lives. You also can learn to do this. Best of luck and let me know how you are doing from time to time.

Michael Shernoff, MSW



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