An Opportunity to Overcome My Fear of HIV
Sometimes Our Greatest Fear Is Fear Itself
While registering for my fall 2007 Honors class at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I stumbled upon a seminar titled "Becoming a Straight Ally to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Community," and knew right away that I should take that class. I realized that becoming an ally was not such an easy process, but I needed to start somewhere.
Throughout the following weeks, I met and listened to various speakers, such as a gay psychologist, a transgender person, a bisexual person, and parents of lesbians and gays. I became well aware of the struggles that some of the members of these communities face and really became motivated to help.
In the class, students are required to participate in an LGBT themed activity. I decided to attend a Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN) meeting. My reason for attending TPAN was quite simple, but difficult to admit. I have always had a fear of making contact with HIV-infected people. I found this out after learning that my friend's partner had the virus. I was always filled with anxiety when I was around him. I knew the facts of how HIV is transmitted but somehow still thought that I could catch it. It was as if HIV was an airborne virus or could be contracted by shaking hands. After spending countless times with this couple and being around someone with HIV, I could not get these worries out of my head. These worries got me depressed because I was concerned that I might have contracted it, and no matter how I tried to rationalize it, the worries persisted.
After a year I finally got the strength to put worry to an end and got tested for HIV. Part of me knew I was not at any serious risk of testing positive, but I still had to do it. My results came back negative, but the experience still taught me a valuable lesson. The counseling showed me that even though I am a Caucasian heterosexual female, I am still at risk of contracting HIV. Because of this, I apply extra precautions in my dating life as well as at my job at a hospital. I still needed to resolve my fears of contracting HIV for my own mental health. I needed the knowledge and confidence to help myself and others who were afraid of acquiring the virus.
TPAN seemed like a safe place where I could go and meet counselors and educators who could provide me with what I needed to overcome my fear. Prior to the meeting, I called TPAN to confirm my visit. Driving there, I started to become anxious the closer I approached.
So many thoughts were rushing through my head. Were they going to think that my motive for wanting to know how infected people deal with HIV was an invasion of privacy? My stressful thinking was interrupted by the staff member who greeted me, shook my hand and then escorted me into a tiny office. I sat next to him and he passed to me some paperwork that I was asked to fill out. The paperwork asked me various questions about my basic information and sexual orientation. Wait ... sexual orientation? Did he not know I was straight? He asked me if I needed to get a test done. A test, what was he talking about?
Now, not only was I in doubt about being here, but also extremely nervous. Fortunately he smiled, which assured me that everything was okay. I said that I do not, and know that I do not, have HIV. We both laughed and I started to explain exactly why I came to TPAN. I carried on and on about my fears about contracting HIV that I knew were not true, but my attempts to use my rational thoughts were not enough to resolve my fear.
While we talked, he told me that he has been living with HIV for 20 years. I have to admit my heart wanted to jump out of my chest. My fear was right in front of me! Not only did I shake his hand but I was sitting and breathing the same air as him! And then it hit me -- I was confronting my fear. I told him exactly how I was feeling at that point and was soothed by his kind words. He explained that this was a common fear and that it really was not that big of a deal. I smiled, and finally for the first time realized firsthand at a deep emotional level that people with HIV are people too, and that my fear was extremely ridiculous. I had officially confronted my fear!
TPAN accepted me and he shared events that I could attend, and interested me in some volunteer activities. I gave him my email address, and before I knew it my great experience at TPAN was over.
Driving home, I realized what an incredible experience I had. I learned firsthand how it felt to have someone question my sexual orientation, and how when a person has HIV it is like having to "come out" again to society. Not only did my interaction with an HIV-positive staff person enable me to overcome my fear, but he also made me realize that having HIV is not a death sentence. I am ever so grateful for attending TPAN and meeting that man.
Carolyn Paulius is a third year senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a nursing major and enrolled in the Honors College.
Peter Ji, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the leader of the PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Chicago Metro chapter, serves on the board of the Hinsdale, IL PFLAG Chapter, and president of the Northern IL Council of PFLAG.
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