My Friend Is Living With HIV. How Can I Help Them Stay Healthy?

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Question

I had very little in the way of education on HIV, and I know how you get it. But what I am not clear on is a friend of mine told me he had HIV. Is there anything I need to do, like when he comes to my home, so that he doesn't get sick? Does the house need to be extra clean? Do I need to do anything when cooking for him?

—Being a Good Friend

Answer

Dear Being a Good Friend,

Your initial reaction to help and care for your friend who disclosed their HIV status to you is lovely and kind. You don't have to do much different in the way of caring for your friend. People living with HIV do not require any special care or catering when they are healthy (although I'm sure your friend would not mind being catered to!). Many people living with HIV live long, healthy lives if they choose to and are able to adhere to their antiretroviral regimen, take care of their physical and mental health, and keep their mind and body active. A healthy person with HIV is generally somebody whose viral level is undetectable. Ask your primary care physician about other lab tests and facts that indicate good health for those living with HIV.

So, no need to go out of your way to deep-clean your house or be choosey with food options. However, diet is an important part of living healthy with HIV. A good resource for nutrition guidance for those living with HIV can be found here.

If somebody discloses their HIV status to you, acknowledge the courage it took for them to share this and the trust they have instilled in you to hold this information and confide in you. Disclosing your HIV status to your friends, family, peers, medical and mental health providers, and colleagues can feel scary, vulnerable, and uncertain. When a person living with HIV discloses their status to you, let the person know, through your words or actions, that their HIV status does not change your relationship and that you will keep this information private if they want you to. This will validate their experience. Sharing personal information like your HIV status is an act of trust. Sometimes, it is an attempt to connect. Not accepting or reassuring a friend or loved one who discloses could make it harder or impossible for them to share their status again in the future; and for the receiver, it is a missed opportunity to be present and supportive. Also, ask your friend what you can do to support them, how you can help, and how private they would like this information to remain. Some people are very public about their HIV status, while others choose to remain more private.

Disclosure is often hard for people to navigate, particularly due to HIV-related stigma and discrimination. When I am working with clients who are newly diagnosed or who are navigating disclosure, I encourage them to self-assess prior to making a disclosure. For those reading this who are living with HIV: Ask yourself, "Why am I sharing my HIV status with him/her/them?" "What do I hope to gain from this disclosure?" "Am I sharing with a person I completely trust?" and "When I am feeling vulnerable, can I trust this person to be sensitive or to validate my feelings?" These questions are a good self-assessment to protect your safety and peace. Many of my clients have expressed relief, empowerment, and confidence after sharing their status with trusted peers, family, or even on social media. Often, your experience in disclosure is dictated by the reaction from people you share with, your environment, and your expectations. Be realistic and honest with yourself before disclosing, but also be brave.

The special care that your friend requires now has little to do with what food to cook, or what temperature to keep the room, but is more so about having a trusted person to confide in, a friend who will debunk or advocate against HIV stigma, a friend who is willing to educate themselves about HIV, and a friend who will show lots of love and respect. I think your friend will appreciate all of these gestures. The most valuable investments you will ever make are in your relationships. As they say on the sitcom The Golden Girls, "Thank you for being a friend." You can find more information about supporting people living with HIV at Resource Center for Living Well With HIV.