Feeling less negative about someone being positive...
August 5, 2011 7:43 AM   Subscribe

A good friend of mine was recently diagnosed with HIV. Help me stop feeling super sad about it.

A friend (gay male, late-20s) was diagnosed with HIV recently; the doctor thinks he's had it for at least five years. I know other people who are HIV+, but this is the first person I'm close to who has been diagnosed while we've known each other. He's also the only person I know close to my age who is HIV+ (that I know of).

He's in relatively good health right now and is receiving treatment, so I intellectually know that it's not worth being as sad about it as I am. I know plenty of older people who have had HIV for much longer without it even getting close to developing into AIDS. But for some reason, I'm having trouble shaking the anxiety and sadness over my friend's diagnosis.

Have you been in a similar situation? What has helped you through it? I'm seeing a therapist for unrelated issues, and might bring it up with her at our next meeting (a week from tomorrow) if it's still bothering me then.

Throwaway e-mail: zZklWpOhglIEQbjs@fascism.trillianpro.com
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think it's ok for you to feel sad. Your friend was just diagnosed with a serious disease/condition. If your sadness prevents you from functioning, that's a different situation. If your sadness prevents you from being a good friend to him, that's also something important to address. But to feel this is normal and human.
posted by anya32 at 7:48 AM on August 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is one of those cases where everyone loses. It's okay to feel sad for your friend, for yourself, and even (perhaps especially) for the people he's slept with over the last five years -- whom, incidentally, he should be notifying about their potential exposure (anonymously, if necessary).

What helps me through times like these is to remember that we are all here for a little while, and that it's possible to do a great deal with even just a little bit of life. Meanwhile, focus on the possibility that he may still lead a long and happy life.
posted by hermitosis at 7:57 AM on August 5, 2011

It is totally okay to feel sad and worried - normal human empathy is a good thing. As for the anxiety, it helps to remind yourself that HIV is absolutely not the inevitable death sentence it was ~25 years ago. I know more than a few people who have lived with it for over a decade and are still going strong.
posted by elizardbits at 8:06 AM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's totally okay for you to feel sad -- like anya32 said, it's a serious condition and life changing event that impacts his life negatively.

However, if you need to focus on things to feel less sad, realize that there are so many people who have lived with this disease for many years that it's barely thought an impressive feat in a lot of circles.

The fact that he's gotten tested and caught it, even after 5 years, is, though not something to celebrate, actually the best news in the situation. The fact that he's caught it now means he can watch his numbers, start on meds, and, more than likely after that takes place, have a viral load that is completely undetectable and have a CD4 count that is the same as the average for those who are HIV negative.

Further newly diagnosed people, who won't have had to go through times of actually getting/surviving AIDS/HIV related infections or the original much-harder-on-you medications that used to be the only option aren't having nearly the stress put on their system and, if they take care of themselves, can very likely to die from something else.

By all means, talk to your therapist, especially over talking to your friend about your extreme sadness. If you're a sensitive person, one of the worst things about being diagnosed can be the worry of other people who aren't as educated, so if you have other ways of dealing with this beyond talking to him about it, try to do that. But also, if you are close in that way, be sure to talk about his feelings about it -- because if he wants to talk about it, feeling that others are ignoring it -- even if they are doing it out of their concern or politeness -- can be heart breaking. It's a huge adjustment, but it doesn't have to be a huge deal.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:11 AM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a similar freak-out in my late 20s when someone I knew got brain cancer. He wasn't the first peer of mine who had developed a serious illness, but it felt different when I was younger. I think that in my late 20s I was sort of losing my sense of invulnerability, and it was really sobering to realize that people just like me could get the kind of illness that changes your whole life. Could this be something like that? It sounds like you already know that this isn't a death sentence, so maybe it's not just anxiety for your friend but more a growing awareness of your own vulnerability and mortality.
posted by craichead at 8:17 AM on August 5, 2011

I was just reading this Reddit thread started by an HIV+ person:

IAMA HIV+ person AMA

Personally, I hadn't realized how far HIV study has progressed since the early nineties. You should learn more about it; the knowledge may make you feel quite a bit better.
posted by theraflu at 8:28 AM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend recently revealed to me that he was HIV+, and had been for quite some time. I knew this friend fairly well for quite some time, and honestly had absolutely no idea that he was HIV+.

Stick that on as a data point.

He seems to live a fairly normal life in spite of the disease. I still wouldn't wish HIV on my worst enemy, but modern antiretrovirals are pretty remarkable drugs. After a few years of treatment, the virus is basically undetectable in his bloodstream.

It's good that you're feeling empathy for your friend. However, HIV today is nowhere nearly as scary as it once was. I'd be a whole lot more worried if I found out that one of my friends had a drug or alcohol problem, or was a really bad driver.

We can treat HIV, and I'm fairly confident that we'll be able to cure it outright in our lifetimes.
posted by schmod at 8:29 AM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yr local AIDS Service Org has been helping with this sort of thing for a decade...make sure you and your friend know they are available.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:33 AM on August 5, 2011

Two things to consider:

My husband, a physician, said that nowadays he'd rather be living with HIV than with Hep C, if he had to pick.

One of my closest friends has been HIV+ for around 15 years and he runs marathons. And he's nearly 50.
posted by gaspode at 8:40 AM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

You know that thing where someone says, "Try not to think of purple elephants," and suddenly purple elephants are all you can think about? Same thing goes with emotions. Trying to force yourself not to feel sadness is only likely to make that feeling adhere to you all the more strongly.

Sometimes things suck, horrendously, and it's okay to acknowledge that. Sometimes you just need to let yourself rail at the universe, shaking your fist and screaming aloud that this isn't how things were supposed to be. It's okay to do that. It could even be cathartic.

All my best to you and your friend.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:40 AM on August 5, 2011

As a Ryan White Case Manager, who has worked with and personally known hundreds of people living wonderful lives while managing their HIV disease, I am still sad every time I find out someone is HIV+. HIV is a manageable disease, but it is still a disease. I am sad when I find out someone has diabetes, heart disease, etc.
posted by hworth at 8:41 AM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know one of the longest surviving HIV infected people. She's amazing. This is not necessarily a death sentence. Things have come so far since we were kids (yes, childhood). So, so far.

First, let yourself be sad. This is sad. It's sad because you can't know so many of the details. There are questions. Did the person who infected him know he was a carrier? Has that person, or your friend infected others? What symptoms will your friend experience? But there is also a lot else to feel. Your friend has the opportunity responsibility to stop the spread. Your friend may or may not decide to become an advocate. You may or may not decide to become an advocate. Your friend likely has a better prognosis as a result of being diagnosed, than undiagnosed. Social awareness and acceptance has come a long way. Medication has come a long way.

Try some self soothing techniques when you start to worry. Admit to your friend that you're worried for him.

A technique that works for me for worrying is devoting 20 minutes at a specific time to worrying (being sad). I sometimes keep a list of the things I will worry (be sad) about in that time. The trick is, you have to spend the entire 20 minutes worrying (or being sad). So even if you only have this one thing on your list, you can't stop being worried (or sad) ten minutes in. Mysteriously, it makes the next day easier. And, when a worry/sad thought comes up, it gets easier to say, "I will feel this completely and totally during my 20 minute time."

This is a skill I learned in DBT, while addressing my PTSD. It allows me to acknowledge what I'm feeling, but not get worked up or perseverate about it.
posted by bilabial at 8:47 AM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe the more time you can spend with your friend, the less abstract and scary his diagnosis will seem.

Plus benefit, spending time with your friend at a time when he's probably in need of social support.

Would it help to try to separate out the idea of this being a "special" disease, and just think of it in terms of it's prognosis and risks? Your friend's been diagnosed with a disease, which has X% chance of Y consequences in Z years.
posted by endless_forms at 9:00 AM on August 5, 2011

It's a jolt to suddenly hear that a friend has been diagnosed. It's ok to be stunned by it, and you should let yourself feel that shock. But do know that this is very manageable today, and that your friend is still going to be fine for a good long time.
posted by Gilbert at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2011

When a friend of mine told me he was HIV+ a few years ago, I took it harder than he did.
He told me back then he'd be fine, and he has been.

I also know a guy who has been HIV+ since the late 80's. The medications really do work, and they've come a long way in 20 years.
posted by luckynerd at 10:19 AM on August 5, 2011

N'thing everyone else that this is unfortunate, but that things have changed. I saw a retrospective recently about Magic Johnson's diagnosis in the early 90s. Back then people wondered if he would live to see the end of the basketball season. Today his smiling face is on billboards all over L.A. promoting his clinics.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:26 AM on August 5, 2011

Medications do work. My uncle who has AIDS, had it since the late 80s and he's still living his life. It's normal to feel sad and I want to hug both of ya'll. You'll be fine. Being there for each other as you've always been, is the best way to go about it.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 10:42 AM on August 5, 2011

I suggest you look at this article (it's MSN, but content from Harvard Medical School) : the 5 year survival rate for treated HIV is normal -- there's no increased mortality risk. There's a less than 5% increased mortality risk ovver 10 years. I've tried to dig up the original article, but I've had no luck.

I don't want to minimize what your friend is going through -- treatment isn't a walk in the park, and there's heavy cultural baggage surrounding STIs. But in terms of his increased likelihood of dying, he's better off than a heavy smoker.
posted by endless_forms at 10:55 AM on August 5, 2011

First a disclaimer: My husband has HIV. He has had it for >21 years.

Second: What is making you sad about this? Are you sad that he might be dying? That he got infected? What part of this is making you sad? Would you be the same type of sad if you found out he had diabetes or hepatitis?

These aren't intended to be judgmental questions, just to give you something to think about. Your sadness is coming from somewhere and it might help to know what specifically you are sad about.

I've been in HIV research for 20+ years. I am more than happy to answer any specific questions you might have, both from a medical and from a living with HIV standpoint.

Best to you.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:23 PM on August 5, 2011

I work in HIV, starting as an activist many years ago. I've lost dozens of friends to HIV over the years and work and live with people with HIV on a daily basis. Finding out someone I care about has been diagnosed still makes me sad and angry. Knowing more about the epidemic and the disease gives me more information, but it doesn't lessen the sadness that a friend has contracted this particular disease, and doesn't make me any less angry that we still haven't ended this epidemic.

Which is all to say that it's totally normal to feel sad and you should feel what you feel. Processing your feelings with your therapist is what your therapist is for, and I encourage you to do that. Also check in with your friend, both now, and later after the information has sunk in a bit more for him, about what kind of support he would like from you.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:46 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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