Life Beyond Therapy
A psychological look at HIV
Published Thursday, 23-Sep-2010 in issue 1187
I am sometimes asked to help facilitate workshops at The Center for people who are HIV-positive. As an HIV- person, I consider this quite an honor…and I have learned A LOT in doing so. I’ve learned that, for many people, an HIV+ diagnosis feels like your world is falling apart. After the initial shock wears off, most people feel a lot of grief and depression. Over the years, so many people have asked me some version of these two questions: “How do I keep my sanity when I get an HIV+ diagnosis?” “What do I do when it feels like my life is falling apart?”
To answer these questions, here are some questions that I have offered participants in workshops for HIV+ folks. [Note: If you’re HIV-, these questions may still be useful you. For example, substitute “I just found out I’ve lost my job” for “I just found out I’m HIV-positive”.]
Looking back at my life, have I ever struggled with grief and depression? At the present, how much of this is related to my HIV status and how much isn’t?
Our HIV status is not just ours; it becomes part of the world of those people who care about us…family, friends, and anyone we choose to share it with.
How have my family and friends reacted to my HIV+ status? What do I want from them?
Many people have told me that they have experienced some kind of rejection as a result of their HIV status. If this is true for you, please consider:
How have I dealt with rejection because of my status? What worked well? What didn’t?
As trite as it seems, things can actually turn out better (in the long run) even when they appear to fall apart (in the short run).
An HIV-positive diagnosis can be a major trauma. Please don’t try to handle it all by yourself. Get help, love and support from wherever you can. The Center has individual/group counseling. Allow your friends/loved ones to help you cope. However, be mindful of whom you tell and where/when you tell them. Many of my recently-diagnosed HIV-positive clients are confused about whom to share the news with. I recommend that first they “come out” to themselves as HIV-positive and give themselves plenty of time to adjust to their new status BEFORE they share the news with others. Maybe you’re a private person who only tells a couple of people. Share the news in the way that works best for you. If you find yourself severely depressed, anti-depressants could be a useful tool to help you through the worst of the crisis. Consider:
Could counseling help me? Would anti-depressants help?
When things fall apart, whether you’ve just found out that you’re HIV-positive, or you’ve just lost your job or home, it usually means you are on the brink of a change of some kind. You may be tempted to resist the change and hold on to the familiar ways, but usually that doesn’t work. As trite as it seems, things can actually turn out better (in the long run) even when they appear to fall apart (in the short run). Please consider:
Have I ever tried to get help for myself when things fell apart?
Starting today, how can I get help for myself if/when things fall apart?
Any time you feel that your world is falling apart, whether it’s from health challenges like HIV or the daily difficulties that everyone faces, please be gentle with yourself. The most efficient way to change how you feel about yourself, your life, and other people is to start by being really kind to yourself. You’ve probably been punishing yourself for years and it really hasn’t helped, right? That’s not the way to do it.
When you feel scared or angry and don’t know what to do, ask yourself: “What’s going on with me?” and just notice. Don’t condemn; just notice. It’s just information. Your crisis, your HIV diagnosis is all about YOU, and YOU are the only one who can really take good care of yourself. Other people come and go, but YOU will always be there for yourself. When it feels like your life is falling apart – whether it’s from an HIV diagnosis or other life crisis – will you be loving and supportive of yourself, or punishing or judgmental? The choice is yours.
Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist ( LCSW 20738) with a private practice in Kensington. Contact him at or call 619-995-3311.

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