Worried About Disclosing Your HIV Status During the Holidays? Here's My Advice

Tim Hinkhouse
Selfie by Tim Hinkhouse

Happy holidays! I want to wish every one of my HIV-positive brothers and sisters a blessed and safe holiday season. This is the time of year when our family and friends can make time for us from their busy schedules to exchange pleasantries and gifts with us. I just wanted to remind you to keep humility in your hearts, even if someone won't share kind words with you or they give you a gift that isn't what you had wanted. (Make sure you kept the receipt!)

This is the time of year when we are supposed to open our hearts and share ourselves with other people, which leads me into something that I want to share with you. No, it's not an $8 check from your grandma that was accidentally mailed to me by mistake because of her advanced age.

This time, I wanted to touch base with those of you who maybe wanted some suggestions on how to disclose your chronic HIV diagnosis to your friends and families. Depending on your personality, the way you determine how you want to share this life-changing information is up to you. Now, if you are introverted and don't want to call attention to yourself, I wouldn't suggest you hire the local college marching band to play "When the Saints Go Marching In" on your street or in front of your place.

I would suggest something a little more low-key, and definitely a private place that is a "safe zone" for you and the person you are disclosing to. This interaction would have to be done face-to-face for all parties involved, and here is why: I think it would be best to be able to look into their eyes to not only see, but to feel what they are feeling in the moment you disclose to them.

This sounds easy enough, doesn't it? Yeah, I know. I can hear you saying, "But Tim, it's more complicated than that. How am I supposed to bring it up in conversation? Do I tell them, 'Here is your Christmas present. I hope it is in your color? By the way, I am HIV-positive now!'" This, in my opinion, would probably be the wrong approach to disclose your HIV status.

Let me share with you how I told my mother. It was in the spring of 1990, and I was running the streets of Portland, Oregon, homeless and without close supervision. I used my mom's home telephone number to receive messages, including those from the local department of health where I got tested for HIV after being told by the plasma center that I could no longer donate because my blood reacted to the HIV virus. My mom told me a few different times that this place called and urgently wanted me to come in and talk with them.

When I finally decided to go in and find out the results of my HIV test, I was told by the counselor that I would be dead by my 22nd birthday, which gave me no hope at that time to live any decent quality of life. I called my mom's office where she worked and asked to see her for her lunch break, which she agreed to do. By the time I saw my mom, I was already very emotional, with tears in my eyes, and when she asked what was wrong, all I could do was blurt out the bad news that I had just gotten. I remember there being lots more tears, and after breaking my mother's heart, I cried for days after that and stayed drunk and high. Looking back on this time in my life, I wish that I had handled the way I disclosed to my mother differently. The right thing would have been to go to a "safe zone," like going out to dinner, and inviting the man she was married to at this time, to disclose my status.

It's been 29 years since I tested positive. There are so many advocates, supporters, counselors, case workers, medical professionals, and many caring people to be there for you when you want to disclose to family and friends. I promise that you don't have to be alone! Back in my day, I wished that I had all these resources available to help me through my HIV diagnosis.

Having one of these supporters present while disclosing can also make a huge difference. They can be the cool-headed individual who has your back and best interest. They can explain things clearly while answering any questions being asked of you that you might miss because you're in defense mode, trying to protect your feelings out of fear of rejection. Having someone there in your corner can also help you keep yourself and your words in check. I know that I have said things I've regretted when my feelings have been hurt by someone I care about, and they are words I can never take back.

Reach out to your local HIV organization and find a person who can assist you on the road to disclosure. If you need help, I am sure that you'll find someone who has a big heart and will be supportive of you during your time of need.

Whether you decide to disclose or not, I want to recommend that you have a support network for the sake of your own mental health. We need to clean house sometimes to make ourselves feel better. That is why we have to have a sounding board to just unload and be heard by someone who cares. More importantly, we need to be heard by someone who walks in our shoes, rather than by a person who doesn't share our chronic infection. There are some days when I feel tired for no reason whatsoever, but I know it's HIV-related, and a person who is HIV negative wouldn't understand this. This is another reason why I need HIV-positive people in my life -- because we can relate to each other. Sorry, negative folks! I won't count you out of my life, because I need you as well -- and here is why ... I don't always like to talk about HIV.

Please remember for the holiday season what I have said. Just to recap here:

  1. Think about how you want to disclose your HIV status to friends and family if you choose to do it. You decide when and where.
  2. Make sure that you have a supporter -- preferably HIV positive -- there for you to keep you calm and thinking rationally.
  3. Choose your words wisely if someone says something toxic after you open up and disclose your status, because it could do further damage. Making ourselves vulnerable to people we love doesn't have to be a bad thing.
  4. When situations are leaving you feeling like you are drowning in a sea of loneliness and hopelessness, make sure that you find mental health treatment, because we all need someone who will carry us through whatever we face alone. Be careful to not use cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol as a way to mask your feelings or cope with depression and anxiety.
  5. Finally, have a great and safe holiday season. Make good choices, and remember that you are needed by someone who is worse off than you are. Take care. Stay healthy!.

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