Aging with HIV isn't just about caring for your body and your mind. There's also your soul -- that intangible quality that makes life worth living, even when the going gets rough. Check out this treatment plan for happiness!
"I was raised to believe I was an abomination in the eyes of God." So says Charlene Arcila, 51, who identifies as transgender and who is an executive assistant, prevention specialist, and site supervisor for the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, Arcila has been through the worst -- multiple bouts with PCP pneumonia and thrush initially, and now arthritis and neuropathy, plus financial instability. "We've all had to take multiple salary cuts the past year," she says. (Federal budget cuts have hit AIDS agencies hard nationwide.) "If I didn't have faith in a higher being, I could understand how people could consider suicide."
Thankfully, Arcila does have faith, but it's not in the traditional, judgmental God she learned about growing up Baptist and Catholic. A few years ago, she was asked by the LGBT-friendly Unity Church of Christ to come preach -- Arcila is well-known in Philly's LGBT community for founding and speaking at the city's annual Trans-Health Conference -- so she did. "I preached about the eunuchs in the Bible, saying that transgender people today have the spirit of the eunuchs in them," she says.
Arcila couldn't believe a church could be so accepting. "At first I thought, is this for real?" she admits. But she came back and preached a second time. Six years later, she attends services every Sunday and is about to become an ordained minister.
"It gives me spiritual rejuvenation and growth," she says. "I see the Bible as a guide, not as the one right way. I don't take it literally."
Arcila's journey points to the tremendous importance of having a source of meaning in our lives. It doesn't have to come from a traditional house of worship. The important thing is to feel connected to people or communities beyond yourself. That plays a major role in reducing isolation and helping us get out of our own heads, gives us a framework for coping, and provides support when things get tough. Start this way:
Make a gratitude list. Even if your list includes not much more than being in stable health, having a roof over your head, and having enough food to eat, you're well ahead of many people in the world! Build your list from there: Loved ones who are there for you? Sources of fun and passion? Events that bring you pleasure? Looking at an actual list can make you realize how much you have to be thankful for.
Take a happiness inventory. Write down points in the day when you're happy. Meditating as you watch the sunrise? That daily chat with a relative or best friend? Walking your dog? Making your regular 12-step or other support group meeting? If you can't identify more than one point in the day when you're happy, it's probably time to add some new elements to your life. Let the adventure begin!
Reach out. You might start with a call to a relative or friend you haven't chatted with for a while. Laugh about something, catch up, and then make a plan for lunch, or dinner and a movie. Start weaving such mini-reunions into your life and you'll see how much it refreshes your spirit.
Join something. If you're struggling with depression, anxiety, life crises, or substance issues, talk to your doctor or someone at an AIDS agency about joining a therapy, support, or 12-step group. Coping with life's challenges is easier in a group. If you're simply lonely and bored, join something fun, like a local reading group, a community project, or a recreation team. Don't wait for others to put a plan together -- be the one who offers to organize things. It'll make you feel great.
Consider meditation or prayer. Recent research has shown that daily meditation can actually improve blood pressure and change parts of the brain that regulate stress, memory, and empathy for others. Don't know how? Just Google "how to meditate" or search to find a meditation center near you.
Don't forget activism. Everything we have today that keeps people with HIV/AIDS alive is at least partly the result of activism: The Ryan White CARE Act and ADAP, modern HIV meds, anti-discrimination laws. When you get involved with AIDS activism, you're helping yourself, but you're also helping others and tapping into the power of community. Start by finding an HIV/AIDS agency that has an advocacy or policy department you can work with. Visit sites including positivelyaware.com, housingworks.org/activism, blackaids.org and c2ea.org to stay informed and see how you can get involved. Or join an advocacy organization. ACT UP!
Follow Charlene Arcila's example. Not only is she connected to others via her job, her trans-health organizing, and her church, but she's also been going to 12-step meetings for over 14 years since she kicked drugs. "It all helps give me spiritual and mental balance," she says. That's not to say she doesn't know how to chill out. "My fiancé and I have a date night every Wednesday," she says. "And I often start the day with meditation, a bubble bath, and baby oil. I know how to pamper myself!"
|Tips From the Pros|
Sean Strub, 55
Strub is the director of The Sero Project, which fights HIV criminalization laws across the country. He is also the founder of POZ magazine and the author of the newly released Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival. Here he shares his top five tips for surviving and thriving with HIV.
Be constructively skeptical; "conventional wisdoms" about HIV have changed over time. Educate yourself so you can make treatment decisions with confidence. Respect those with expertise, but trust your instincts, too.
Connect with other people with HIV; they can provide you support, help inform and empower, and understand what you are going through in a way no one else can.
Love will always be more powerful than any virus or treatment; you have as much right to love and be loved as anyone else. Sometimes an HIV diagnosis is a transformative wake-up call that leads to a peace and joy that might seem unimaginable.
Find purpose in your life that includes service to others, whether expressed through volunteer activities, your faith community, political activism, or helping an infirm neighbor. It is good for the soul and good for your health.
Forgive yourself and watch out for self-stigmatization; how we stigmatize ourselves is often far more damaging than how others stigmatize us.