Healing Touch and Melting Stress
For those of us with HIV, the challenge of getting close to others may be further complicated. Sexologist and psychotherapist Chantal Turcotte sees diverse clients in her Montreal-based private practice and at Clinique Opus, an infectious disease, addictions and mental health clinic. She notes that each person is unique and their challenges depend on where they are in their journey with HIV, but people living with HIV often struggle with navigating disclosure (when and how should I tell the other person that I'm HIV positive, and how will they react?), practicing safer sex and, for some of us, dealing with health conditions. She notes that feelings of shame are also common, particularly among heterosexual women and men.
Our own concerns aside, we also sometimes need to contend with the fears of others. For gay men looking to meet people online, be it on Manhunt, Grindr or even Craigslist, it seems like every second personal ad wants someone who is "DDF" (drug- and disease-free) or "clean." Many say "HIV negative and wanting same." The not-so-subtle message is: If you have HIV, don't contact me. And, of course, this dynamic plays out in the thousand and one other places where people (gay, straight and everything in between) meet each other, too. No wonder people living with HIV have a higher incidence of depression and isolation.
Friend and fellow long-term survivor Rebekka Valian, who volunteered teaching yoga for years, primarily in the HIV community, offers massage at places like Vancouver Friends for Life, a non-profit that provides complementary and alternative health and support services to people living with serious illnesses. "The need can be so overwhelming," she confides, "that at times I need to retreat and nurture myself."
AIDS service organizations (ASOs) in various parts of the country have stepped up to try to meet this need. Montreal's Maison Plein Coeur, for instance, offers women and men living with HIV free massages, provided by volunteer masseurs who have been trained to work specifically with people living with HIV. And the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (PWA) offers a wide array of touch therapies -- including Reiki, acupuncture, massage and therapeutic touch treatments. People receiving these therapies report numerous physical and psychological benefits. These treatments can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and stress-related conditions, stimulate circulation and possibly boost the immune system.
Another friend, Joel Nim Cho Leung, who lives on a small budget, goes for massages regularly as a preventive measure. "I feel less depressed and more relaxed and nurtured," he says. "The only problem is that there are often waiting lists at my local ASO. This shows that there is a real need among people living with HIV."
There are also people who have seen a need and formed groups that offer creative solutions in the form of workshops.
After my partner died, I was fortunate to find one such group in Vancouver, called Men in Touch. A friend had recommended the retreat -- a safe, nurturing environment where I did not have to be sexual or look my best. A man named Sequoia started the group in the late '80s, bringing men together at retreats in the city to nurture each other through dialogue, movement, breath and sensual but not sexual massage. In the '80s and early '90s, many of the participants were living with HIV, in various stages of disease. There was a lot of laughter and tears at those memorable retreats. Today Sequoia has opened his practice to women and also works one on one with people who are dealing with sexuality and intimacy challenges.
Similar groups and workshops are available to women and men in various cities. One of the first was The Body Electric, created in the early '80s by Joseph Kramer, a teacher in the San Francisco Bay area. He developed it after noticing that people were shutting down emotionally and sexually, especially during the height of the AIDS epidemic. People were overwhelmed and frightened about losing friends and becoming infected and dying. The workshop, now delivered in the United States, Canada and Australia, brings people together to honour each other (there are groups for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations). Over the course of a weekend, participants gradually work toward experiencing intimacy and sensual erotic tantric massage in a safe, caring environment. I have participated in two workshops and used to co-host a monthly group in my studio. Many participants are HIV-positive guys, some with obvious symptoms of AIDS. It is a powerful experience to nurture and care for people regardless of their health status or sex appeal.
My contact with these groups has encouraged me to continue down this path in search of touch and intimacy. Thanks to Joseph Kramer and Sequoia, who both became mentors to me, I have embarked on a second career as a massage practitioner and for more than 10 years have taught and practiced Thai yoga massage (a therapeutic technique that combines assisted moving, stretching and relaxation) in my studio and in schools. I also offer free massages at a few ASOs in Vancouver. This has allowed me to provide touch and intimacy to clients in a quiet, nurturing environment. New clients may be reluctant or nervous about touch. I emphasize that everyone involved needs to proceed with mindfulness and caring, slowly getting to know each other and building trust. To make services available to people on low incomes, many practitioners, including myself, offer a sliding scale. And some massage therapists who provide services to people living with HIV charge no fee at all.
If you feel touch deprived, I'd encourage you to seek out opportunities for closeness. Something as simple as making eye contact or sharing a smile, even with strangers, can make a difference. Or try hugging friends more often, even if it feels awkward at first. Another idea to consider is asking someone to come over and cuddle while watching a movie -- with no expectation of sex. That sounds like a great evening in my books. Pleasant and non-threatening. Intimate contact, after all, eases life's blows and helps us feel better physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Turcotte tells her clients that it can take time to get over the shock of an HIV diagnosis and to build up their self-confidence, but no matter where a person is in their journey, "every person has the right to be accepted for who they are. Every person has a right to physical intimacy, as well as a healthy and enjoyable sex life."
Gordon Waselnuk is a long-term survivor who lives in Vancouver. He has been involved with the HIV community in various capacities for over 20 years, focusing mainly on treatment information and health promotion. Gordon also works as a massage practitioner. Visit www.thai-yoga-massage.ca.
This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication The Positive Side. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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