Disclosing one's HIV status in the workplace is a complex and emotional issue, with many different variables to consider. I've made the decision to share my HIV-positive status with my co-workers and I've been rewarded handsomely for it. It's not an easy to "come out of the closet" so to speak, but if one is careful in how they do it, it can be both a positive and rewarding step. The following is an account of what I went through.
Soon after starting my first round of medicines, I began experiencing neuropathy in my legs. It became such an issue that I would be in a lot of pain if I had to stand up for my commute to work on the train. So I decided to confide in my boss, and see if she would adjust my schedule to allow me to come in a half hour early every day so that I'd have an easier commute. I was so nervous that day, wondering what she would think of me.
I stopped by her office one morning when she was in between meetings, and asked to speak to her privately. I then told her of my condition and how the medicines were causing me pain in my legs and feet. I was careful to stress that I was not looking for special treatment, only reasonable accommodation. It turns out that all that stress was for nothing. She was very understanding and immediately offered to adjust my schedule.
I found that it was easiest to let people know about my status by dropping small hints. For example, I stopped hiding my morning medicines from everybody, and began taking them at my desk. If a co-worker asked me what I was taking, I would tell them that these are my morning medicines. If they asked anything further, I would take them aside to speak to them privately and tell them about my HIV. It's important to remember though, that AIDS still scares people, and that many people still don't know a lot about it. If I had to leave work in the middle of the day for a doctor's appointment or if I happened to be going through a bout of bronchitis, I decided that in my case it was much easier just to be honest about what I was going through and if someone was curious, I would explain why I was getting sick and how I planned to get better.
Whenever I disclose my HIV status to someone in the office, I always offer to answer any questions they may have and reassure them that I'm not dying and I'm not sick. I explain that being HIV-positive is now considered a chronic condition, and that with drug therapy and reasonable lifestyle changes, such as a regular exercise regimen, I'll probably not become seriously ill for quite some time. I've noticed that once I've disclosed my status to someone in the office, they tend to treat me with respect and my relationship with that person tends to be closer, most of the time. It's also a lot easier to take the time I need when I'm not feeling better when the people I work with know of my condition. My department as a whole understands, rather than resents, that sometimes I may not be up to my full potential.
I have a different boss now, and he found out after I was in the hospital for a week with bronchitis that required the use of intravenous antibiotics. When I came back to work, I asked him if he'd heard about my HIV, and he stated that he had. As with my previous boss, I reassured him that I didn't want special treatment, just reasonable accommodation. To his credit, he's been one of the best bosses I've ever had. He doesn't question when I call in sick, and always accommodated any request I have for time off during the workday to fill prescriptions, go to the doctor's office, or whatever else I may need to do.
I've received a lot of support from people at work since "coming out" with my status, but I've also had some people back away from me. That is bound to happen to everyone. Telling people you have HIV is not a small thing for many people to swallow and, frankly, it just makes some people nervous. This is something that one must thing about very seriously before making the decision to let people know what you are going through.
The reality, of course, is that each individual must make the decision to disclose based on his or her own situation. The medicines do cause side effects for many people, as do the medicines that treat the side effects. But in some cases it may actually cause more stress to let people know of your situation, which can adversely affect your health as well. But if you spend a little time, as I did, weighing out the options, you should be able to decide which course is best for you.
All in all, my decision to disclose my HIV status at work has left me with less stress, more support, and a better relationship with most of my coworkers. And thanks to the support I'm receiving and the stress I'm not dealing with, I'm feeling pretty healthy, and pretty happy. Life is good.
Steve McMahon is a frequent contributor to Body Positive magazine.