How to Respond When Your Friend Tests HIV-Positive
Ian Awesome is a disreputable Occupy organizer and general rabble-rouser living with HIV in the Pacific Northwest. A former anti-DADT activist and current radical ne’er-do-well, he can usually be found publishing his ire at OneAngryQueer.
How we think about HIV/AIDS and the demographics it affects has expanded and changed since gay men first started falling ill in the 1980s. First called GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder), AIDS and the virus that causes it now touches every walk of life regardless of race, class or age.
Even with miracle pills such as PrEP and the latest treatment news, gay men are still the most at-risk demographic for contracting the virus. This means that we have to get tested regularly, understand how to protect ourselves and be prepared to support friends should they test positive for HIV.
My last piece focused on how to manage romantic entanglements with HIV-positive people. Now we’ll talk about how HIV — especially among the newly infected — will impact our friendships.
Question: My friend just tested positive for HIV. What do I do and how can I support him?
This is without a doubt one of the more common questions I get asked.
HIV is a terrible, scary virus that intimidates not just those that contract it, but also those around them. It can be positively (ha) terrifying when coming up against HIV. But let’s deconstruct that fear and figure out the best ways to help your friend. It’s actually not as hard as you think when you’re adequately prepared.
1. Offer to go with him to get tested. This is something that you would, of course, do before he even gets his results. Getting tested is scary. When I tested positive, I was lucky enough to have a friend deliver my results. But if I had been in a room alone with a stranger, I probably would have been even more terrified than I already was.
If your friend thinks he may be at risk for HIV infection, offer to go with him. Since I tested positive, I’ve offered to accompany every friend and man that I date to the clinic. Having someone sympathetic who will offer a shoulder to cry on and a safe ride home are critical should your friend receive the life-altering news.
Of course, you should only do this if you can actually hold it together if your friend receives bad news. If you think that a positive test result will make it impossible for you to keep your composure, tell him that he should get someone else to go with him.
Let’s be real; your friend is going to be feeling pretty horrible and he shouldn’t have to deal with your feelings about his test result (yet).
2. Let him know that he’s still the same person he always was and still is deserving of love and friendship. When I tested positive for HIV, my life changed. Practically overnight I changed from a happy queer secure in his romantic and platonic relationships to an insecure mess who felt disgusting and unworthy of love.
We live in a society where men proudly declare that they are “clean” in order to signify that they are HIV-negative. The reverse implication that people living with HIV are somehow “dirty” and undesirable is intrinsic to the culture we live in.
After testing positive, I called a friend of mine in Baltimore to tell him the news. His response was immediate: “So?” While I don’t necessarily recommend this blunt, off-the-cuff sort of remark, his assertion that nothing about me was different was reassuring. I was still Ian. I was still Awesome. Everyone would still love me.
The truth is, your friend’s life will of course be different. He will hopefully access treatment, and end up dealing with doctors and taking pills and making considerations about his health for the rest of his life. What he shouldn’t feel, however, is that he is “dirty” or without friendship.
3. Be careful how you relate your feelings to him. Testing positive for HIV is a traumatic life event like any other, and it is almost certain that your friend will go through the stages of grief, anger and depression. This is a lot to process.
However, as their friend, you might also go through some of these stages as you wrap your head around the idea of your friend dealing with the virus. This can make it hard to relate to your friend; while they are dealing with their own feelings, you may feel the urge to express your own sadness and anger to them.
Now is not the time to do so, however. It’s important that you eventually share your own valid, if different, trauma with him, but don’t do so during the early stages of his infection.
Frankly, he’s going through enough and doesn’t need to deal with your more extreme feelings on the topic. You can be honest with your friend by expressing solidarity: “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this right now.” Just do it without distracting him with your own deep pain. Definitely avoid saying things like: “I’m sad and worried about you and this is causing me emotional distress.”
So how do you process your own feelings on the matter? Talk to someone else in the meantime. Talk to a therapist or process with another friend. Careful here, though. If your other friend already knows about your friend’s test result, you should be okay with speaking freely. But if your other friend doesn’t know, you’ll need to speak in general terms to protect your newly poz buddy’s identity. No one likes a gossip.
4. Encourage him to make healthy choices. When dealing with the demise of their sero-negativity, many turn to harmful, destructive behaviors in order to manage their grief. Some may turn to drugs and alcohol in order to kill their pain; some may use promiscuity (perhaps without safer sex practices) as a way to feel desired and normal, while some may abruptly isolate themselves because they can no longer deal with the world.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m notorious for my love of booze, like to fuck around as much as the next guy and love a quiet evening at home alone, especially when I’m upset. But engaging in these behaviors too often may not just be physically harmful but will also keep the newly infected person from dealing with the realities of their virus, their relationships and their work in a productive and healthy manner.
This doesn’t mean that you should harp on your friend to put down the cocktail and lecture them about their sexytimes; instead, encourage them to go with you on healthy activities.
Try to get him out of the house and doing things productive and healthy. Take him on a walk through the park. Make yourself available to him in ways that won’t possibly trigger him into making unwise choices.
You can’t stop him from drowning his sorrows at the Eagle but you can encourage him to do things that don’t involve destructive behaviors.
5. Help your friend find resources that will help him. The most important thing your friend needs to do is work out how to find access to the mental and physical care he’ll need to survive HIV.
If he hasn’t had any major health problems in his lifetime, he might know nothing about getting himself a primary care physician and finding a doctor that’s right for him may be intimidating. If he is low-income, he may need to find out how to find government-funded insurance that will get him his meds. He may, for the first time, find himself in need of a support group or a therapist. This can be daunting, but you can help.
Keep in mind that this is a scary and difficult time, and you may be better able to help him research his options. This is not to say that you should do all the work yourself; he needs to learn the ins and outs of all his care. However, you can provide assistance during his search for health and happiness and let him know that he doesn’t have to take care of these daunting tasks all by himself.
So research the local HIV specialists in your area. Find out what funding options there are for insurance in your state. Look up local mental health institutions or HIV/AIDS resource organizations to locate a support group.
These steps are solid ways of providing support for someone who has recently tested poz, but keep in mind that not everyone is, of course, going to react to their test result in the same way. Many do not turn to alcohol or drugs, many are uncomfortable with joining a support group or finding a therapist, and many wouldn’t want a friend in the room when they get tested to save their life.
In the end, the best thing you can do, which is pretty inherent in all these suggestions, is to provide love, support, and act in ways that express solidarity for their predicament. The worst thing about HIV is the fear of being alone in one’s struggle. The best thing you can do is let them know that fear is an unnecessary untruth.