As an HIV-negative, black, gay male, I can’t pretend to know the feelings and emotions that come with discovering that you are HIV-positive. However, what I do know is that I have chosen to use my skills in marketing and communications to inform, influence, advocate, and serve as an ally for individuals near and far from me who are living with, or affected by, HIV.
I was recently contacted by a longtime friend whose partner began experiencing some health issues. The partner, who had never taken an HIV test, was advised to get tested—and that test came back with positive. During the conversation, I could hear my friend sobbing through the phone and I, too, teared up. My friend is now faced with knowing his partner is HIV-positive and he is HIV-negative. I was at a loss for what to say and what words would be best.
Based on that difficult conversation with my friend, and other experiences in the past, I want to offer my tips for HIV-negative individuals who may be faced with having a conversation with someone who has been diagnosed with HIV and suggest ways you can demonstrate support.
- Listen. Often when we hear about a problem or issue that a friend is facing, we are quick to add our “two cents.” When it comes to someone’s health and life choices, my suggestion is not only to listen—but to listen actively. “Active listening” is about making a conscious effort to hear what other people are saying and clearly understanding the messages they are trying to relay. Listening actively tells them that you care about them and their current situation, and that you are genuinely concerned. Through your conversation and listening actively, you might hear from them how you can best support them.
- Don’t speculate or judge. From my experiences, when people are sharing their fears about their HIV diagnosis, the last thing they need is someone planting ideas into their heads. I recommend that it’s best not to speculate or judge where/how they contracted the virus. There are many factors that could have led to these circumstances, and the important thing is to focus on the future and steps to staying healthy.
- Learn more about HIV. It’s one thing to make presumptions and quite another to have an opinion based on facts. I encourage you to learn more about HIV and its history. Being knowledgeable allows you to dispel myths and share information about HIV treatment so that your friend can stay healthy and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
- Stay supportive. Be there for them. Be supportive at the time of diagnosis and stay with them as they navigate this difficult time and learn to cope for the rest of their life. At first, I suggest that you offer to join them to see a comedic movie or have a night on the town. Later, ask how you can help them stay healthy—maybe by going with them to doctor’s appointments or helping them find medication reminder apps.
- Keep the information they share with you confidential. I believe you should feel privileged that they have shared their story and chosen to confide in you. Information related to their sexual behavior, partners, and diagnosis should be kept in confidence. They entrusted you with this information, and you would want someone to do the same for you if you shared it with them.
- Get tested and do so regularly. Use your friend’s story as an opportunity to pay attention to your own health. Knowing your HIV status is an important part of being healthy. Some healthcare providers may recommend testing every 3–6 months if you have certain risk factors, including injection drug use and/or unprotected sex with others who engage in high-risk behaviors. But you should always consult your healthcare provider to see how often you should be tested.
From me learning more about HIV services in my city and state, to researching more about recent health discoveries about HIV/AIDS, I am continuously learning about the epidemic. I have also learned about important HIV prevention methods such as PrEP, a way for people who don’t have HIV to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day.
I have continued to call my friend to see how he and his partner are doing and, most importantly, what I can do for them. I constantly remind my friend that he is not alone, and that I am always here to give him a warm hug or a shoulder to lean/cry on. I stress that life is not over for him and his partner, just a little different from this point on. With proper HIV treatment and care, he and his partner can look forward to many long and healthy years together. I hope that my empathy for him and his loved one is well-received.
To learn more about where you or a friend can find a nearby HIV test or HIV care services, visit the AIDS.gov Locator.