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Ask the Next Question
We Don't Always Seek Our Teachers

By Lesley Brogan

August 1999

Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by expectation or awareness of danger. We've all experienced that lump of ice in our stomachs.

I have no idea how it feels to be HIV+. I've been tested for HIV, because I believe that everyone needs to be tested (one woman's opinion). But when I went back to receive my test results, I was pretty sure that I was negative -- I didn't have much of an aching in my gut. I have no idea what it would be like to walk into a medical facility with a genuine iceberg in my stomach, sit down in that straight-back chair, and expect to hear the results that might very well be, "You have tested positive for HIV."

Recently I caught a shadow of a glimpse of the iceberg. Something was told to me about my body that I didn't want to know. I felt out of control and afraid.

About three months ago I was having difficulty swallowing, at times to the point that I couldn't catch my breath. It was a frightening experience. It was alarming, mainly because I didn't know what was happening. I felt out of control. My doctor ordered an upper GI and we talked briefly about the possibilities of what might be discovered. She said she would notify me with the results. Well, it turned out that I didn't have to wait for her notification. Almost as soon as I took a long swallow of that wicked-tasting stuff, the attending physician said, "There it is." "What?" I asked innocently. "There is your hiatal hernia," he replied, so matter-of-factly.

So how did I respond? Did I research the Internet for "everything you've always wanted to know about hiatal hernias?" Did I reach for the phone and call my physician and begin treatment? Did I change one thing in my routine? Nope. I waited. Believing that, if my very own doctor didn't tell me this news, then it obviously was not true. And if it wasn't true, then I was off the hook for any personal participation.

Granted, my experience with this darn hernia is not even in the same league with HIV, but in some ways, it is similar. When I attended an HIV/AIDS conference in Chicago earlier this summer, one of the presenters went on and on with reasons why folks don't go back for their HIV test results. She listed transportation, child care, difficulty in getting off work -- and I grant you, all of these are valid reasons. But I think there's also the truth that sometimes, we just don't want to know.

We don't always want to have our eyes fully opened. We don't always want to be in the position of, "OK, now what?" Yes, I am a believer that information = power. That is a truth. But with that truth often comes burdensome responsibilities. With that truth, often comes lifestyle changes.

After a frustrating phone conversation, not long ago, a peer counselor came to me to vent his feelings. He was frustrated because the caller had a pretty good idea that he needed to go get an HIV test. The peer counselor believed the caller knew this even before his call to ASP. Our volunteer was furious, because -- even after this phone call -- the caller was most probably going to continue to avoid getting tested.

This good-intentioned, well-trained peer counselor had provided "perfect explanations" and an ironclad case for HIV testing. He shared reasons such as: 1) You don't really know whether or not you are HIV+ until you have this test (i.e. you don't even know yet if you need to be upset), 2) You will have more choices and more power if you know this information, 3) There are so many resources available to folks these days, and 4) With all of the new medications, there are many varied avenues for treatment.

Red-faced and exasperated, this volunteer looked to me for his validation. All I could say to him was "Sometimes we don't know all that we are asking of folks to take the next step." Fear is a powerful feeling.

For me, there were several contributing factors to denying my doggone hernia. One is shame. This hernia is probably a result of not taking good care of this earthly vessel. Another factor is laziness. I've got plenty going on now, and frankly, changing my diet and my ways of responding to stress are not changes I welcome with open arms. Another is this "fast-fix culture" of ours. I'm used to drive through windows (I know, I know, see my earlier factors about shame and laziness) and TV's melodramas that resolve every week in less than an hour (counting commercials). This new "problem" should be equally as cooperative and quickly solved. Or maybe not.

They say teachers come to us in many ways. This dad-gum hernia is already proving to be one for me. Polly Berrien Berends says it well, "Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your life and be taught." And so begins the lesson.




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