Here are my 5 grains of wisdom on talking about HIV:
1)Tell yourself first
This may seem a strange piece of advice. But it is easy to stay in a place of denial and self –rejection after HIV diagnosis. Reaching a place of acceptance and overcoming any feelings of shame we may have connected to our diagnosis, is an important process in being ready to tell others that we live with HIV.
2)Talk to other people living with HIV
Talking to others in a similar situation is important: it helps us clarifying what we are feeling. It offers an opportunity to develop a way of communicating about what we are going through safely. It is crucial to have a support network that can act as a safety net, if we have negative experiences after telling some body. Moreover by talking to others with HIV we can learn from their experiences and strategies of discussing HIV.
3) Know the facts
The more we know about HIV, the less we have to fear. In the process of telling others it is important that we are able to explain basic things about HIV. When we tell people, we may have to answer many questions so it is important to be able to give simple but accurate information. If we cannot remember everything ( who can ?! ) we can also point out resources which are accurate and reliable. I always recommend the Ibase website because it is up to date and easy to understand, plus they respond to your questions if you email or call them. It is also useful to find out how much the person we want to tell knows about the subject. Try and throw in casual questions. If they are very naive about the subject it may be useful to prepare more.
4) We are not a threat
Scientific research has shown that HIV transmission doesn’t happen easily. Barrier methods such as condoms and female condoms are extremely effective in preventing HIV transmission. Moreover people on HIV treatment are very unlikely to pass the virus, so much so that the British HIV Association Treatment Guidelines recommends that people who are unable to always use barrier methods and are concerned about transmission can start treatment, to reduce risks of transmitting HIV sexually. I also often explain that women with HIV who have access to good medical treatment and ARVs have 99% chances of having an HIV free baby. This delivers a very clear message of how effective treatment is in preventing HIV transmission. I am still so shocked how few people in the ‘wider world’ do know this. The majority are incredibly surprised when you tell them. Dah!
5)Tell from a place of power
One of the difficult things of telling is that it makes us feel very vulnerable. It is easy to feel like you have handed over all the power to make a choice to ‘accept you or not’, to the other person. Telling can become a way of feeling extremely disempowered. But we can reverse this through our awareness. We can liberate ourselves. It is important to make the conscious decision that telling is ‘our choice’. By making this choice we create an opportunity for our personal power to be expressed. When we take the step to talk openly about the difficult topic of being HIV positive ( even to just one person) we are manifesting many positive qualities: strength, honesty, courage, caring, understanding of our health , openness towards others etc. We have to focus on the power we have. I always recommend to practice, what we are going to say. But also to practice how we are going to stand. How we are going to be in our body. We need to be sitting or standing well grounded , with our feet hip width apart, solidly on the floor. Keep ourselves relaxed. We have to remember to breathe deeply and slowly, our spine erect. Feel strong, act strong, be strong. I really believe that being mindful about our body will support our feeling of power and our ability to talk about HIV confidently and safely. But this can be different for each and everyone of us. Ask yourself how can I talk about HIV from a place of power?
It is impossible to know 100% how a person will react to us. If people react negatively and reject us: we must remember we are not the problem, it is not our fault. Their ignorance, and failure to grasp the facts and the truth about this small virus is the problem: their problem.
Nevertheless, rejection is a very painful experience, raw, and hurtful. For many of us it is not possible to go trough it, especially if we are emotionally or otherwise dependent on the person we would like to tell we have HIV. Having been at the forefront of the battle to recognise the links between Gender Based Violence and HIV, I know that for some of us, revealing our HIV status is just dangerous.
Stigma thrives in silence
The fact that many people are still trapped in silence, makes it even more compelling, for those of us who can, that we have a duty to talk about HIV.
I strongly believe that each and every time we talk openly and safely about living with HIV, event to just one person, there is a little less stigma and prejudice in the world.