How do you tell friends or family that you have been diagnosed with HIV? It's one of the greatest challenges you'll face -- and it's not something to rush into if you're not ready. There are some important personal steps you should take before you disclose your status to others.
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 others, 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 people need a few weeks or months; for others, it can take years.
So give yourself time. Everyone adjusts in his or her own way. Let yourself have the time and space you need to find the answers you're looking for.
"When I told a friend I was positive, she got up off her chair and hugged me. I think at that time, that's all I needed. I needed to see that -- even though I had this dreaded disease that everyone was saying was so terrible and only bad people got -- I could still get some affection, care or concern from somebody else."
-- Bernadette Berzoza, diagnosed in 1989
Seek Out Support
Once you have taken the time to get used to your new status -- and this may take awhile -- 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. Emotional support is essential for your survival. Although figuring out in whom to place that trust can be a difficult decision.
When Joseph Torres, who was diagnosed in 1995, told his family, they were "shocked, and there were a lot of tears. But there was also a lot of support from cousins and aunts and my brothers and sisters. … There are a lot of people out there in this world who haven't read about HIV, who haven't really looked into it. They make comments that don't make any sense, whereas my family members and friends, they went and studied HIV."
If you have no one in your immediate circle that you feel you can trust, read Step 3 and contact one of the resources. 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 absolutely 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.
Some people find that it's an important part of their own healing process to disclose their status to others, regardless of how they might react.
Ultimately, by forgiving yourself, giving yourself time to deal with your diagnosis and then seeking out support, you'll be able to get to a place where HIV is just another part of your life -- not something that defines your life.
Ed Viera Jr., who was diagnosed in 1987, says, "My advice to newly diagnosed people is to develop a support network. It's really important to have one -- to have a second and third family. In my case, my family turned their backs on me, closed all doors. I had to develop support networks by going to HIV support groups. Go to a library, just talk to people, get out there and stop being isolated."
"When I told my parents that I was positive, they said, ‘You are our daughter, and we love you and we will love you, three months, six years, 10 days ... whatever the time you will live, we will be with you.'"
-- Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, diagnosed in 2000