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May 13, 1998

Dear Doctor, I am a female with AIDS for 12 years, married to the love of my life for eight years, he is HIV-. Three months ago he told me he is not in love with me anymore and would like to be single. After a trial separation of two weeks, we decided to live together because being away from him was killing me.

Now we live more or less as roomates, I still adore him but I can see there is no love in his eyes. We get along very well, we don't fight, but my pain is unbearable. I NEED his love, so I decided to end my life "indirectly" by stopping all my medications. My doctor is very much against this decision and my husband says that I should love myself and want to live for me. I don't know what or how you can love yourself. How do you love yourself, how do you know you love yourself, what do you do to love yourself? This is such a foreign idea to me. My husband says that for anyone to love me I must love myself. Why is that, I only know and feel that I love him more than anything in the whole world, I don't know what I feel about me, I didn't know I should. I just want to die if life is without him or without his love.

I love him, why do I need to love myself to love him? Please help me, the pain is so terrible.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

Your pain is palpable from just your e mail, and I feel deeply for you during this terribly difficult time. But your husband could not be more correct. It is never reason enough to wrap your entire meaning in life around another person. It sounds like you were getting all of your sense of self- worth and self esteem from the fact that you loved your husband. You were getting lost in the equation, and the fact that you do not love yourself, do not know what this means and are baffled by his reaction may have played a large part in why he ceased to love you and find you an interesting enough partner to want to spend the rest of his life with. For any relationship to work, remain vibrant and interesting it must be composed of two autonomous people who choose to merge and share their lives. This means that there have to be two adults present, each of whom cares enough about him or her self to feel complete even in the absence of a beloved.

I would strongly urge you not to stop your anti-HIV meds, and to see this as the opportunity of a life time to discover and create who you are. This will be an arduous and long process since obviously something happened to you during your childhood upbringing that never communicated to you that you were a valuable and lovable person in your own right. It is very painful to have to confront the reality that one's parents did not know how to adequately parent and nurture us. If you are not in an HIV support group I would urge you to get into one, in addition to psychotherapy with someone who is skilled in working both specifically with women and with people with HIV.

Unfortunately, too many women in this culture are not raised in an environment and family where they are taught to recognize their own needs and worth as independent and intrinsically valuable human beings. All too many women are taught to achieve their central self-definition in terms of taking care of other people, i.e. men, children, and their elderly parents. Often as a result, many women never learn to develop a healthy sense of themselves as complete human beings. What you are feeling and going through is one extreme example of the end result of this process. In addition to a support group and individual psychotherapy, preferably with a feminist therapist, I would suggest that you find some books on feminism and read them to understand that it is not your fault that you now feel the way you do, but rather the fault of a sexist society combined with poor parenting.

It will be a long and difficult journey, but one of enormous satisfaction as you begin to discover your own unique worth and personality. Best of luck and let me know how you progress.

Michael Shernoff, MSW

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