By Bruce J. Little
We sat around the pool chatting and laughing about stuff we’d gotten up to over the weekend. We loved to do this; get together and compare dating war stories, and this always left us both wheezing from too much cackling and not enough breathing. I was still mid the descending voiced sigh that usually ends a long spell of laughter when he said: "I need to tell you something."
The news left me completely stunned with absolutely no idea what to say. This is a guy that I could usually tell anything to, a person that shared my un-PC sense of humour and also loved to play in the realms of the inappropriate. He and I sang Gaga together and flirted outrageously with petrol attendants. But I knew that what he had said was not meant to be funny.
He wasn’t the first person I knew that was HIV-positive, but he was the first person that I knew well, and the last person I thought would ever acquire it. My first lesson, HIV is indiscriminate.
I said so many tactless things, and looking back I admire how well he coped with some of the stupid things I said and asked. Knowing that I can't go back and change how I reacted then, at least, I can now help people to know what they should say if they ever find themselves in the same situation.
My first big mistake: I got all formal and not like myself. Because I felt unsure of what to say, I suddenly started to edit myself and to speak in a way that wasn't authentic. I must’ve sounded like a call centre agent from a complaints hotline. He picked it up immediately. Authenticity is the best first response. "I'm sorry to hear that", wasn't the wrong thing to say so much as it wasn't the kind of thing I would usually say to him. It was the kind of stuff you say to an acquaintance or disgruntled customer. I should have sworn out loud and grabbed and hugged him; that would've been more me. What you say is not as important as the way that you say it.
Another mistake was to be disappointed and disapproving. I started to reprimand him. “What did you do?”, “Why did you do that?” and I asked the worst questions of all: “How did you get it?” and “who gave it to you?” He had trusted me enough to share his status. He made himself vulnerable in the hope that I wouldn't judge or reject him, and I failed him. As close as we were, how he contracted HIV and from who was none of my business. That he trusted me enough to tell me he was HIV-positive was a privilege. I had no right to demand any more information from him.
A few years later when he did share how he contracted HIV with me, I was sure to keep it a closely guarded secret, because it was not information that I had any right to share without his permission. To this day, his HIV status is not something I discuss with anyone else. He gets to decide who he wants to tell, because HIV does not define who you are, and he can decide who should know about it, the same way I get to determine who knows whether or not I wear underpants.
Since then I’ve learned that there is a vast difference between HIV and Aids and that he does not "suffer" from HIV nor is he a "victim" of it. He is a strong, healthy guy who is living with HIV. I've learned that CD4 count and viral load are not the same things. I know to be supportive and ask how he’s doing when he goes for his CD4 tests every six months and that his results are an indication of how strong his immune system is, whereas a viral load test would measure the number of viral particles in his blood directly. I know that the terms "contaminated", "carrier", "full-blown Aids" and "plague" are disrespectful, and gently correct anyone who uses them.
Nowadays, I occasionally ask him how he's feeling, as I do with my other friends, and occasionally and discreetly enquire about how his treatment is going. I don’t bring it up a lot, but I have told him that he is welcome to chat to me about it whenever he needs to. He has taken me up on this offer a few times, and I know how lucky I am to have a friend that trusts and confides in me, and when he isn’t making petrol attendants smile and blasting Gaga from his car radio, he returns the favour.
Bruce J. Little is Content Creator for the Health4Men Initiative, a project of Anova Health Institute. All views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the funders.
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