In the best of circumstances, living with HIV can sometimes be a lonely and isolating experience. During this COVID-19 pandemic, when many of us are staying home—not only to help prevent the spread of the virus but also out of justifiable fear and self-preservation—that loneliness can feel overwhelming. Adding to it, news stories that use phrases like “testing positive” and “widespread infections” trigger some people living with HIV with reliving the trauma of their HIV diagnosis and difficult memories of the AIDS epidemic.
I have been struggling with some of that sadness, anxiety, and worry related to coronavirus and sheltering-at-home. I’ve found some soothing in phone calls and FaceTime dates with family and friends, social media connections (including my weekly “At Home With” Live chats for TheBody on Instagram), and extra comforting helpings of cake, cookies, and other carb delights.
In seeking out more coping tools and resources, I recently was invited to a weekly meeting called Living Successfully with HIV/AIDS, facilitated by Scott A. Kramer, LCSW-R, a New York City–based psychotherapist. The group meets every Tuesday evening from 6 to 8 p.m. Eastern Time on the Zoom video conferencing platform.
“This particular group started meeting together in 2018, and it ran for several months,” Kramer told me in a recent, socially-safe, in-person interview. Living Successfully was initially formed as an outreach program of the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) synagogue to support New Yorkers living with HIV. The group, which is funded by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene through a contract with Public Health Solutions and CBST, originally met in person (pre-coronavirus) at the synagogue on West 30th Street in Manhattan. After a hiatus, the small group of mostly gay men had just reconvened in March.
“We had one in-person meeting, and then COVID happened,” Kramer said. The in-person meetings had to be cancelled with the closing of the synagogue and new social protocols surrounding the virus. It took a few weeks to figure out how to move the meeting to a virtual platform. “We’ve been meeting on Zoom for a couple of months now, and it’s been really great,” Kramer said.
“I didn’t know how it was going to work on Zoom, because, well, it’s a community that’s used to being together, and it’s going to feel different,” Kramer said. “But then we got on Zoom, and everyone was so happy to be there.” Some members of the group live alone and had not even been out of their homes since the start of the shelter-in-place. Seeing each other’s faces on video was a welcome relief. “To have something like this meeting is really valuable,” Kramer said, “in terms of lifting the members’ mood, reliving anxiety, helping with depression or depressive symptoms, because there’s people to talk to, people that they know.”
One charming facet of the weekly meeting is that the synagogue’s Rabbi Marisa Elana James hosts the first half hour of the group. She’d always greeted during the in-person sessions, so to keep the sense of consistency and normalcy, she’s on Zoom too. The rabbi is online for the first half hour to offer a relaxed, warm, and heart-filled welcome, and provide a space for the group to say hello, schmooze, joke, and share stories.
Although the group has its core members who’ve been meeting since its outset, the assembly is very welcoming. When I attended, I was worried that I’d be seen as an outsider. I needn’t have given it a thought; the group was earnest and utterly glad to have me. There is a unique comfort to being in a room, actual or virtual, of all people living with HIV, a shared experience. I certainly felt it there. Scott Kramer is experienced at facilitating support groups and makes sure that everyone feels included and heard.
“Interestingly,” Kramer said, “a lot of times we don’t even talk about HIV, because that’s not what’s in the forefront of people’s minds right now.” Most group members are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and have been living with HIV for a while. “Members talk more about issues about aging and health,” Kramer said, “and what’s going on in the world.”
The night I joined, one member opened up about a health problem. He was worried that he might have some bleeding in his digestive tract and knew he should visit his physician, but he was also concerned with the possibility of contracting the new coronavirus at the doctor’s office. As he expressed his fears, the group lovingly rallied around him offering support, suggestions, and encouragement.
“The beautiful thing about the group is that people are able to exchange information and ideas, and they’re also able to exchange their experiences,” Kramer said. “And that is so helpful for all the members.”
He added, “And it’s social, too. Because we’re doing it virtually, people can do things like play a song for us on the piano or show us their collection of trinkets or show us a map in their home. One member had a collection of old [HIV treatment] pills that they have, like AZT. People have these artifacts in their homes from the AIDS crisis that maybe we wouldn’t get to see or even know about if we were meeting in person at the synagogue.”
Living Successfully with HIV/AIDS is a small group, and they are always welcoming to new members. “The group is open to any gender, any religion,” Kramer added, “anyone, really, living with HIV.” Since the group has gone online, Kramer said he’d be happy for non–New Yorkers to join this loving little group. “We’re a community, like a chosen family,” he said.
Living Successfully with HIV/AIDS meets every Tuesday evening on Zoom from 6 to 8 p.m. For information on visiting or joining the group meeting, email Jesse at TalkHIV@cbst.org.