During the past eight years I have spoken with thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS and, like me, most of them have gone through some form of denial shortly after finding out they were positive. My period of denial lasted for several years. I was asymptomatic for quite a while, and most people couldn't tell I was positive by looking at me. So, "out of sight, out of mind," as they say. Even though I knew I had it, I nevertheless believed (on some level) that if I didn't put any energy into thinking about it, I would never get worse.
And when I met others that I should have told (like potential sex partners), I just wouldn't bring up the subject at all. I was shocked at how few of my partners would simply not talk about it, either. I definitely wasn't alone on the big river in Egypt. The only problem was that when I finally met a partner that I really cared about, and didn't mention the HIV, I nearly lost him. Eventually, I vowed to myself that I would disclose my positive status to any sex partner from then on -- the risk of losing someone I loved was scarier than the risk of embarrassment.
When I started getting sick in 1992, I couldn't stay in denial any longer -- I could then see what AIDS was starting to do to my body. After going on disability, and discovering the Atlanta chapter of NAPWA (soon to become AIDS Survival Project), I proceeded to immerse myself completely into martyrdom. I was going to make the big sacrifice before I died -- I would devote myself to helping others with HIV to ensure that my name would be spoken with the appropriate sense of awe after I was gone. My being sick made others feel sorry for me, so when I went out of my way to do something for someone, I felt I was being an especially worthy person. And sometimes I was. But most of the time I was just collecting brownie points and gold stars for my good deeds. If I sacrificed enough, I was bound to go to heaven, after all.
You see, the problem with being a martyr is that you begin expecting others to do things for you because of the great sacrifices that you make for them. Only, since most people didn't agree to do something in return for my sacrifices (I just felt that they "oughta"), I would end up being disappointed in everyone that I felt wasn't as noble as I was. It took a lot of therapy before I decided that I would leave being a martyr to the saints, and that if I wanted someone else to help me, I would just ask.
It wasn't until much later in my therapy sessions that I began to realize what my biggest enemy was: self-pity. In fact, the other two behaviors, denial and martyrdom, often stemmed from my feeling sorry for myself. I felt it wasn't fair that I had HIV, so I just pretended that I didn't for as long as I could. As when I could no longer pretend, I felt like "I might just as well be dead." Ironically, although I had told others that I didn't like people feeling sorry for me because of my illness, I spent more time feeling sorry for myself than anyone else had.
I have come to learn that self-pity is the most dangerous of my three enemies because it is so insidious. While I occasionally indulge in vociferous whining (at least my friend Guy whines about my whining all the time), it is far more common for me to delude myself into believing the pity is something else. For instance, I'll get depressed about the fact that I don't have anyone to go out with on Saturday night. I tell myself that I'm just not attractive anymore because of the HIV. The truth is that no one wants to go out with a sad sack, no matter how they look. And I'm not that ugly, it's just easier to feel sorry for myself than to get off my butt and be assertive at a bar or something. Or I'll get mad at my mom or my friends or my therapist because they point out something I don't want to hear. Don't they realize I have AIDS? How can they be so cruel? Poor, poor, pitiful me.
After 40 years of living, and at least 17 of it with HIV (poor me), I'm just now getting to the point where I can recognize that voice in my head as self-pity. I may never get to the point where it goes away completely (poor me), but I'm determined not to give in to it (what a brave soul!). And while I tell myself that the HIV (that bad, bad HIV, look what it's doing to poor me) has probably caused most of these ugly behaviors, the truth is that I learned them long before I was infected (it's my parents' fault -- poor me). Regardless of why I do it, it's time for me to find a way to stop. They're not making my life any easier. They just keep me from feeling my real feelings.
You know which feelings I mean. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Despair. The real stuff that we use things like denial, martyrdom and self-pity to keep from feeling. We have to remember that real emotions -- even if they cause us pain at times -- are what remind us that we're alive.