When discussing your HIV or AIDS diagnosis with your loved ones, it is important to remember that their knowledge of HIV/AIDS is probably limited. In many cases, their knowledge base may be incorrect due to the ongoing stigmatization and fear about what it is and what it means. Since its official discovery in the early 1980s, our knowledge of what HIV and AIDS are and how they’ve evolved has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, people have clung to outdated information. A lack of widespread education and awareness is largely to blame for this, so when a loved one finds out you have HIV or AIDS, they may react out of fear: fear for you and what it means for your life, fear for them and whether or not they’ve been “exposed,” and fear of the unknown- what happens next?
You can’t predict how your loved ones will react, but you can prepare by arming yourself with as much information as possible. It is important to educate yourself as thoroughly and accurately as possible. There is a lot of information on the internet, but it is best to stick to sources that are medically based, like www.aids.gov or www.thebody.com, both of which serve to educate people, not scare them. You also don’t want to overwhelm your loved ones with too much information at once, so sticking to the basics is often best.
What do the basics include? First and foremost, a positive diagnosis is not a death sentence. HIV and AIDS are not considered terminal illnesses. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and it is possible to live the rest of your life being HIV positive, but never progressing to AIDS. The difference is your t-cells, or white blood cell count. Because HIV compromises your immune system, it lowers the number of white blood cells in your body that fight off infections. With treatment, living a healthy lifestyle, and medical monitoring, your t-cell count can stay above 200; if it falls below 200 at any point, that is when a person is considered to have AIDS. While this irrevocably damages the immune system, it still doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy, healthy, long life. Doing that includes taking your medications consistently, eating healthy, exercising- all things you should be doing regardless. Another important basic fact is that HIV is not transmitted by things like sharing utensils, kissing, holding hands, hugging, sneezing on someone, toilet seats, handrails, or any of the ways a person may catch things like the common cold. HIV can only be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk.
Your loved ones may be overwhelmed at first, but as they become more educated and see you are taking care of yourself, it will become easier to process. Often, counseling can help with this, especially if the counselor has experience working with HIV/AIDS. An accurate understanding of what is happening to your body is important for you and those you love, but your mental health as you navigate your diagnosis is critical to how you handle it and should be a priority just as your physical health is.