I have never feared rejection more than when I faced telling my family that I have HIV. I’d been conditioned, like much of the world, to believe that if I shared my diagnosis, my family would ban me forever.
But I had nowhere else to turn for love and support. So if there was even the slightest chance that my family would understand, I had to take the risk. When I told them, they were shocked, scared and sad—but they didn’t turn their backs. Each of my parents (they are divorced) let me live with them during the first two years of my diagnosis.
It was awkward, at first, for all of us. I remember catching my mom pausing a second before sliding my dirty dinner plate in beside the others in the dishwasher. I remember how hurt I was—both for being made to feel like an untouchable and because I felt bad for making them fear their own kid. It took education and time, but before long, no one batted an eyelash when I accidentally drank out of someone else’s wineglass at the dinner table—something I’m prone to do, especially if mine is empty.
In return for their unconditional love, I have struggled to pay them back in the most valuable currency I can think of: my health. When it’s snowing outside and I’m tucked in my bed and I remember my pills are in my car, rather than just skip a dose, I think of my family, trudge through the icy night and get my meds. Of course, I want to thrive for myself. But it’s a vital added incentive to know that I would be sorely missed if I actually went missing for good.
The power of family support is crystallized in the stories of the many grandparents around the world, including those here in the U.S., who endure their own grief over the children they have lost to AIDS—while they summon the strength to raise their grandchildren (many of whom are HIV positive themselves) orphaned by the virus. Just as many of these grandparents are beginning to peacefully enjoy their golden years, they find themselves rocking a newborn to sleep or wrestling teenagers into taking their AIDS meds. Our feature story on the subject this month shows what happens when an extended family reinvents its roles to give love and support to members lost to AIDS.
One of the most inspiring stories of family support is that of the Glaser family. Even as her own health was failing, the late, great AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser found the strength to launch the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, marching into the White House to demand that the needs of children with HIV/AIDS be addressed. Her legacy lives on in her 21-year-old son, Jake (that’s him on our cover). Elizabeth embraced the needs of children worldwide, advocating for the health of millions of youngsters orphaned by AIDS, many of them HIV positive, who have no parents, no family at all, to offer them solace when the rest of the world rejects them.
If there’s any truth to the notion of repaying your family for their help by maintaining your health, Jake and the AIDS orphans are amazing examples of what can happen when, instead of pushing you away because of HIV, your family holds you tight in its arms and stands behind you all the way.
Regan Hoffman Editor In Chief e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org