Obviously, our current COVID-19 crisis brings up a lot of anxiety, even PTSD, for folks living with HIV/AIDS, especially longtime survivors. All the talk of who's spreading it and how, the daily nationwide sickness and death toll, the dread that oneself or loved ones will suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the frequent examples of government incompetence and apathy amid a crisis—let's face it, it's all a little too reminiscent of a certain epidemic many of us remember too well from the 1980s and 1990s.
But the flip side of all that devastation and grief is resilience and grace, and that's what so many folks living with HIV/AIDS—nationwide and globally—are exhibiting as we hunker down through this pandemic of indefinite length and scope. TheBody spent the past few days talking to 10 people living with HIV nationwide to find out how they're affected and why they're scared—but also how they're coping, adapting, and staying connected in these challenging (and isolating) times. Send your own COVID-19 stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to stay on top of how the community is faring.
Today, we check in with Charlotte, North Carolina, service provider Chelsea Gulden. She’s anxious about getting sick, even though she suspects she’s already had COVID-19. Meanwhile, “junk” TV and phone calls with her sisters are helping her through the stress of homeschooling her teenage son.
Chelsea Gulden, 37, vice president of operations, RAIN
Diagnosed with HIV in 2003
Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
Chelsea Gulden: Although my physical health has been fine, my anxiety about COVID-19 has come in waves. My partner is still going to work, and that is scary to me because I am afraid they may bring something back. I sometimes wish I would just get COVID-19 and get over it. Or I wish I had gotten it early on, because if I get it when the health care system is overwhelmed, I may not get appropriate treatment. I also think about the ventilators running low and if the clinical staff will have to “decide” who gets one and who doesn’t. Will my HIV or my smoking cause them to not choose me? All this runs through my mind and heightens my anxiety. And I've never had anxiety before.
I also have been fighting with my teenager, as he says I’m being “extra." He turns 16 next week and is continuously asking me if he can go play basketball in the neighborhood or have one or two of his friends over to play video games. I keep telling him no. Finally, homeschooling the kids and working full-time from home has been a struggle. I have to continue to work full time. It's important not only for me and my clients during this time, but also for our household finances. This means homeschooling takes a back seat, which brings about a lot of feelings of guilt.
TM: How are you getting social interaction and staying connected?
CG: I have had Zoom video calls with my sisters and with my staff and coworkers. But I also have a houseful of four children, so it’s more of the quiet adult time that I am missing.
TM: How are you getting exercise?
CG: I was never a regular exercise person—but I have been very intentional about getting outside and taking a walk nightly.
TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?
CG: I’m too scared to eat out, so I have been cooking nightly. I hate cooking, but it’s been working very well. The stores are rationing the amount of food you can buy, though, so with a family of six, I find myself at the store a lot. This just increases my anxiety.
TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?
CG: At first I was watching a lot of news, but I had to stop doing that to preserve my mental health. I have been watching a lot of trash TV on Hulu and Netflix.
TM: How scared are you on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?
CG: I’d say a 7.5 on most days. Some days it’s worse—it can go up to a 9 but never less than a 7. I’m mostly scared because I smoke, and also, a bigger fear, the worst-case scenario: If something happens to me, my kids are young, and I wonder what would happen to them. Where would they go? Would they remember me?
TM: What is giving you hope and strength?
CG: Keeping my mind off what I just said. Also trying to play with the kids and talk to friends on the phone. I also really hope that I had it already when I was sick in February. But without a test, there’s no way to know. The sickness wasn’t that bad, but it knocked me down for about 10 days and I tested negative for the flu. I really do hope it was COVID-19, which would mean I have antibodies for it.
TM: Tell us any other corona-related stories you might have.
CG: Helping other people that are in worse positions than me has really been the highlight of this. We did a food giveaway through RAIN yesterday, and it really brightened my day because I heard about so many people who really needed the food and I was able to see them receive it. The gratitude was awesome, but of course there were mixed emotions because the stories of survival are so deeply touching.