I can hardly believe it has been over a year since my diagnosis. The news that I was HIV positive, delivered just days before Thanksgiving 2012, caught me off guard and threw me into a tailspin immediately. But I knew that I could not afford even a moment of self-pity, anger or regret. Sure this was shitty news, but I still had a lot to be grateful for. I decided to make a “gratitude list” as a way to focus on the positive in my life. It might be cliché to be making a gratitude list at Thanksgiving, but it works for me. And I wanted to share this strategy with readers.
Over the past year, I’ve been really good about remembering all I have to be grateful for in my life. Now be assured, that my life is NOT perfect, by any means. But after a year of emotional, physical, vocational and romantic challenges, my glass remains half full. I think this is something we can all do consciously. For me, it starts with pen and paper. Make your list. It’s hard at first, but it gets easier. And it makes life more enjoyable.
One of my friends that I had confided to last year has been living with HIV for many years. I have had some valuable heart-to-heart talks with him about all the emotions surrounding diagnosis, disclosure and the challenges of ongoing care. He generously shared his experiences going through these things. He is a charming and bright guy who is smart and fun to be with, so I cherish his friendship and just wish we had more time to hang out.
He had some very good practical advice, and he shared his experiences with different medications and doctors. He spoke to me about my physical health and how it would take an extra degree of vigilance to really listen to what my body is telling me. This was great advice - a small infection or cold could become a big deal for me. I had learned that lesson the hard way this past year.
He also shared how important it is to really work at maintaining good mental and emotional health. I have a good sense of humor and don’t take myself too seriously, which helps. But I did harbor a lot of cynicism -- and before my diagnosis, I could get pretty negative about almost anything. After diagnosis, that changed to a kind of manic behavior which eventually led to a period of compulsive eating, exercising, and shopping.
But soon, I landed in this very zen place where I was just grateful to be alive, have friends, and a meaningful job. I shared my strategy of making “Gratitude Lists” with my friend and remarked about how helpful that had been. It almost seemed as if my diagnosis had given me a new perspective, and that I was seeing life from a new vantage point.
Vantage: I wondered if I was using the word correctly. Curious, I decided to look this up, which provided the startling definition of “vantage” below:
1. an advantage in a competition or conflict; superiority;
2. A position, condition, or opportunity that is likely to provide superiority or an advantage;
3. A vantage point.
This HIV diagnosis resulted in a different vantage. And this condition presented a new opportunity that was more advantageous or superior to my old view. Hmmmm. This was very interesting to me.
My friend seemed to know exactly what I was talking about. He is a smart guy and is studying Psychology in a very challenging Masters program. He explained there is a psychological concept called “Benefit Finding” which is akin to seeing the bright side of life or being grateful for basic things in the aftermath of a traumatic event. I was intrigued, so I looked it up, and was pretty blown away:
Benefit Finding refers to an individual’s perception that major positive changes have occurred as a result of challenging life events such as major illness or trauma. After a trauma, illness or other negative experience, some individuals report a new appreciation of their own strength and resilience. Other people may feel that their relationships are stronger and that they feel emotionally closer to others, especially family and friends. Yet others report that they have become more compassionate or altruistic. Life philosophies may also change. Some people cite an enhanced appreciation of “the little things in life” and redirected priorities. Finally, some individuals note a new openness to spiritual experience or religious activities. Succinctly, benefit finding is akin to the adage “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Interest in the ways in which individuals may grow or change following stressful life experiences paralleled the formation of the positive psychology movement. By focusing on well-being instead of pathology, the study of benefit finding and growth has articulated people’s positive adaptation to stressful, traumatic, and negative life events. (Suzanne C. Lechner)
It goes on and on about how this “benefit finding” phenomena is correlated with higher resilience, post traumatic growth, feelings of spirituality and purpose. There are also studies showing positive correlates in the form of better health outcomes, slower disease progression, and ability to let go of unhealthy behaviors in favor of healthier choices.
I don’t want to get too far gone in this (although it is very interesting). I just wanted to share that this gratitude listing, benefit-funding, staying positive stuff works. If there is one thing that got me through this year, it is realizing that I am quite fortunate. As you move through your first year of living with HIV, I hope you find a way to see all the great things you have going for you, and all that you are blessed with.
I want to share a bit about my hopes for the New Year. The first year of this blog has been a cathartic and wonderful gift where I have focused intentionally on my internal emotions and mental and physical health. In 2014, I want to share a bit more about my work in HIV/AIDS fundraising, and some of the real obstacles we face trying to take care of ourselves. I would also be open to any suggestions from readers.