HIV is a loaded term: An ignorant world has wrongly stuffed those three letters full of shame and judgment. But no matter what anyone tells you, HIV is not a punishment for sin or immorality. Having HIV is not a crime. HIV is just a virus that causes a disease. It does not discriminate. Anyone can get it.
"In the beginning, I couldn't forgive myself for getting HIV," remembers Heidi Nass, who was diagnosed in 1996. "I felt compassion toward other HIV-positive women, regardless of what led them to their infection, but I could not find it for myself."
This changed for Heidi when she spoke with a close female friend, who had gotten HIV long ago from using dirty needles when shooting drugs. Her friend counseled, "If you're looking for reasons to feel shame, you'll always be able to find them. At some point, though, you might want to look for something else ... like forgiveness." That is the moment that Heidi remembered something she had forgotten: "Forgiveness is something we choose; it only happens when someone chooses it."
Give Yourself Time
There's no rule of thumb that can tell you how long you will need to come to terms with your HIV diagnosis. Some women need a few weeks or months; for others, it can take years.
For Theresa Parrish, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, it was a full year before she learned how to forgive herself: "I realized that I hadn't done anything so terrible to get HIV." It was not an easy year. "It's the stigma that goes along with HIV. That's where the guilt and the shame came from," she says. "The first few months were hell. I was searching for answers, and searching for, 'Why me?' and 'How could this happen?'"
So give yourself time. Everyone adjusts in her own way. Let yourself have the time and space you need to find the answers you're looking for.
"Someone who is grateful for your presence in this world is going to hold you closer, not push you away, because you have HIV."
-- Heidi Nass, diagnosed in 1996
Seek Out Support
Once you have taken the time to get used to your new status, an important step to take is to find someone you can confide in -- someone you can trust who will be there when you need them. As women, we're often too busy taking care of other people to even realize that we might need help taking care of ourselves. However, emotional support is essential for your survival. Of course, figuring out in whom to place that trust can be a difficult decision.
If you have no one in your immediate circle, read Step 3 and contact one of the resources in this booklet. Once you feel confident that you've got a base of support, you can begin to reach out to the people you weren't ready to talk to at first.
Of course, there is no reason to tell everyone you know that you have HIV. The only person you are obligated to reveal your status to is your sexual partner. It's no one else's business -- not your friends, not your family, not your boss or your coworkers. However, you may decide that it's an important part of your own healing process to disclose your status to others, regardless of how they might react.
Ultimately, by forgiving yourself, giving yourself time and seeking out support, you'll be able to get to a place where HIV is just another part of your life -- not what defines your life.
Desiree Herron reveals that after her diagnosis, she discovered an aspect of herself that she never knew existed. "In some ways," she says, "HIV has been a blessing. It's made me extremely courageous, extremely strong."