When you have HIV, you shouldn’t have to go it alone. But how do you break the news to your loved ones? Here’s advice that could make a difficult process a little bit easier
If you just found out you have HIV, you need support. But telling your family, friends or coworkers about your status can be a scary prospect. With the exception of sexual partners, there’s no deadline for telling people. Some do it right away. Others take time to adjust to the news.
Telling Your Partner
Telling your other half about your positive status, whether you’ve been together a few weeks or a few decades, may be your toughest assignment. If your significant other is negative, you should disclose as soon as possible, so he or she can get tested. Not only will your partner have concerns about you and your relationship, but he or she will potentially be at risk for having the virus too.
“You have to expect that your partner is going to be in shock and afraid,” says Michael Shernoff, an HIV positive psychotherapist in New York. To cushion that shock, tell your significant other in person. That way, you can educate him or her about HIV and how it’s a manageable illness. (If you’re worried about domestic violence, your local ASO can help mediate disclosure in a safe environment.) Having information or a Web address—such as POZ .com or AIDSmeds.com—on hand, can help. Your partner might want to get tested right away, so bring the addresses of nearby anonymous testing sites, as well as a 24-hour hot line, and offer to go along.
William Brawner, 26, hadn’t planned to disclose the night he told his new girlfriend Bridgette, 24. “But,” he says, “we were watching movies and talking about the things that shaped our lives. I told her the whole story of how I was infected—and my viral load and CD4 count.” Bridgette says the timing was perfect. “Since it was early on, it allowed me to decide whether I could deal with it.” It turned out she could. “I realized that God blessed me with this man, and we’ll work through this together.”
Bear in mind that sometimes you are legally required to disclose to a sexual partner. Many states have laws that make it illegal to transmit HIV or to have unprotected sex without telling your partner your status. Don’t panic: Prosecutions are relatively rare because prosecutors usually have to prove that the person with HIV intended to infect his or her partner, which isn’t easy. To find out if your state has a criminalization law on the books, visit www.lambdalegal.org.
Telling Family And Friends
Sharing your status with loved ones or friends is much like sharing it with your partner. Be ready to educate and reassure them, and be prepared for negative or fearful reactions. You can start with the family members or friends you’re pretty certain will be supportive, then move on to those you’re less sure about.
Rocky Rankin, 25, who is close to his grandmother, told her first. “Once you tell your grandmother, everybody knows,” he laughs. Make sure whoever you disclose to understands how open you are with your status—he or she might disclose to a person you’re not ready to tell. If you’re having a hard time disclosing to someone important, consider bringing along a friend or sibling who can support you—and the person to whom you are disclosing.
Telling Your Coworkers
Coworkers are often friends, and having their support can be a boost. While you’re protected from workplace discrimination by law and not required to disclose at work (see “Work It Out,” below), if you tell a coworker, you run the risk that others, including your boss, could find out your status. Not all employers or fellow employees are HIV friendly. Be choosy about telling coworkers and clear about how open you are with your status. Todd Murray, diagnosed in 2000, disclosed at his corporate job in San Francisco. “My boss was shocked and asked that I not tell anyone,” Murray says. “But my coworkers were friends. I told them, and they became a big support.”
WORK IT OUT
Your rights and risks when it comes to HIV and the office
You aren’t required to reveal your status to an employer unless it relates to your job, and there are pros and cons to doing so. Ideally, your boss and coworkers will support you when you need to make frequent doctor visits or take sick days. However, you could find yourself subjected to ignorant colleagues and even get handed a pink slip.
Legally, unless your HIV affects your ability to do your job or endangers others, you can’t be fired, thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). If you need special accommodations because of HIV, the ADA also requires your employer to help.
If you’re thinking of disclosing, assess the friendliness of your workplace. John Riley, work services counselor at AIDS Project Los Angeles says, “How do they react to women leaving work to care for sick children? If there’s any gender or sexual orientation bias, I don’t recommend disclosing.”
HOW DID IT GO?
A mother-son disclosure
Debra Lyn McCarthy, 48 Diagnosed 1986: One morning when Kevin was 7, he asked if I knew anyone who had HIV. My husband was adamant about not telling him, so I said no. I asked why he wanted to know. He said he had a homework assignment. I thought, “I can’t lie to my kid on a daily basis.’” So I asked him, “How would you feel if someone in the family had HIV?” He said he’d be OK. So I said, “Your mom has HIV.” And off to school he went.
Kevin McCarthy, 19: She told me not to tell anyone at school. In class, we watched this horrible video of people dying from AIDS. It freaked me out. I thought Mom was going to die.
Debra: I was naive. But I do think when kids ask questions, they’re ready for answers.
Kevin: It would have been better if Mom hadn’t been forced to tell me. Parents should throw out basic concepts and say, “You can ask me questions.” Don’t candy-coat it.