It’s heartbreaking when your own body seems to rejectyou by “accepting” HIV, thus ushering in a lifetime of pills and doctor visits. But an HIV brush-off from family, friends, lovers or the rest of society can feel as sickening as the disease or the drugs you take to treat it.
Whether doled out by the cousin who serves your dinner on disposable plates while everyone else gets china or the coworker who steps back when you stand too close, rejection can increase cases of depression and substance abuse, experts have found. More important, they’re finding some solutions to tackle this all-too-familiar aspect of life with HIV.
For Rocky Rankin, HIV positive since 2003, the road has been, well, rocky. -After Rankin landed in a Seattle hospital with pneumonia and an HIV diagnosis, his new lover told him they were “no longer compatible.” Looking for comfort, Rankin turned to his family. Their response: “You wouldn’t have HIV if you weren’t gay,” Rankin recalls. “It was devastating,” he adds. Eric Schneider, director of counseling at New York City’s Friends in Deed, agrees: “Rejection just sucks.” But there’s hope, he says. “It’s the beginning of the story, not the end.”
The first step, Schneider says, is confronting your own HIV issues. “No matter how someone contracted the virus,” he says, “they go through the same guilt, embarrassment and shame.” To move on, he suggests remembering that HIV doesn’t change who you are. Dázon Dixon Diallo, of SisterLove Inc., an Atlanta AIDS service organization (ASO) that serves mostly women of color, encourages clients to accept HIV without being defined by it. “The more you figure out how to live with dignity—deciding that you are a human being and not the virus—the less rejection will affect you,” she says.
Easier said than done? Not when it’s part of a plan, the second step of which is realizing that “rejection usually has nothing to do with you,” Diallo says. It stems from the other person’s fears, anxieties and insecurities. Schneider adds, “If your mother says ‘Get out of my house,’ that says more about your mother than about you.”
Third step: Get support. Forgiving yourself and understanding others’ prejudices are enormous tasks, and no one can do that alone. Diallo advises having as many relationships with your peers as possible. Most people with HIV have already gone through what you’re going through,” she says, “and that’s your safety net, the place to fall back on for the extra love you need.”
ASOs and peer groups can help educate others for you. “We’ve talked to someone influential in the family,”
Diallo says, “so that a shunned person with HIV could return safely home.” Fourth, as you begin to feel more comfortable in your own skin, remember that how you disclose can affect others’ reactions. While you shouldn’t be responsible for helping others adjust to the news, they’ll often respond in kind to your tone. If you’re matter-of-fact and confident, the news won’t seem as scary to them.
And finally, as Schneider puts it, “Don’t go to the hardware store for doughnuts”—don’t keep trying to force rejecters to come around. Focus on pals or your ASO mates instead. Rankin agrees. He calls his therapist and friends at a local ASO “a lifeline.” Catch!
For advice and support, find an AIDS service organization (ASO) near you. You can locate one on POZ.com.