Advice? Who Me?
Navigating Life as a Poz Individual
by John Francis Leonard

Me? Give advice? I admit I was hesitant when my editor suggested I dispense some in this column, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized something. No, I’m not perfect, but life is a journey and each day that you’re lucky enough to be alive is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to get a little better at taking care of ourselves. Change doesn’t happen overnight and the race doesn’t always go to the swift, but often to the sure. Things aren’t perfect in my life, but I enjoy the challenge of self improvement and that was even more important sixteen years ago when I was newly-diagnosed. Before I list my five important tips for dealing with HIV, I’ll say this——above all, be gentle with yourself. Now make of my tips what you will, but these pieces of advice are ones that took me years to learn for myself. In fact, I’m still learning.

No one deserves an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. We all make mistakes and there will be enough people in the background reminding you of them. Love and forgive yourself a little more than those voices. You owe no one an apology for your status, least of all a love interest or sexual partner. Modern, successful treatment renders you unable to pass the virus on. Yes, you will get tired of explaining this, but look at this chance to educate others as an opportunity. Don’t invest a minute more than you have to in someone who tries to shame or demean you. I knew this to be true, but still I got involved with someone recently whose belief was that anyone with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis was culpable. As Maya Angelou so brilliantly put it——when someone shows you who they truly are, believe them the first time.

It’s up to you as far as when or whom to share your diagnosis with. It can take time with family and friends. As far as places like work, be very cautious. I shared my diagnosis with a young friend at work and found out later that he had gossiped about it with everyone. I’m not ashamed of being poz, but it’s a very personal thing and, in a smaller city like the one I inhabit now, you can never know what kind of reaction people will have. Privacy is very important to me. I don’t enjoy everyone knowing of my affairs. It’s up to you to set these boundaries for yourself. As far as sexual partners, I like to disclose my status as soon as conversation turns to sex. It can seem abrupt, but I’d rather be rejected sooner than later. I’ve even been surprised when the other person turns out to be poz themselves, or is quite comfortable with my being so. Attitudes are changing as more and more people are educated on the subject and it’s always a relief when someone is. I like to look at it as a chance for people to surprise me with their knowledge and acceptance. Some won’t be and will reject you outright, but I’ve had it happen less and less over the years.

Having a medical professional that you’re comfortable talking to is essential to everyone. If you’re a gay man, as I am, a gay male practitioner might be ideal for you. For a woman dealing with an HIV diagnosis, another woman can be. If you’re trans, comfort level on both your and the doctor’s part must be paramount. The first step is finding an infectious disease specialist who can also be your general practitioner. Another important resource can be a local clinic specializing in HIV/AIDS. If you have a local AIDS services organization at your disposal, they can be an invaluable place to go to for referrals. If your current doctor doesn’t feel like a good match, don’t be afraid to switch. Any good physician will be happy to refer you to someone else. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Like I said earlier, it’s a journey. Make what changes you can with some, like quitting smoking, immediately. The very first question my doctor always asks me, without fail, every time he sees me is If I’m taking my meds regularly. Taking your meds every day is vital to maintaining an undetectable viral load and living a long life. Start making better choices with food, small changes are better than none. Forget about having the perfect gym body and just work some exercise into you routine, even if it’s walking——do something. And never underestimate the importance of enough sleep. Fatigue is a common symptom of HIV. All of these changes can be made one step at a time as gradually as you’re comfortable with.

I’ve discovered a powerful tool for happiness over my long career of working with the public. It’s not 100% effective with everyone——there will always be exceptions——but you will often get back from people what you put out there. If you’re kind and patient with others, you’ll get that back in return—specifically in that encounter as well as in general. It costs nothing to be kind and you’ll find that it can shape your day for the better. This applies to my customers, my co-workers, and my friends and family. There’s plenty of research showing that a good attitude is important for optimal health and wellness. Yes, there will always be people who are unpleasant, but I choose to think of the fact that they might just be having a bad day. You never know what’s going on in someone’s personal life to make them that unhappy and your own kindness can turn the most negative encounter into a positive one.

So those are five of my tips that have helped me deal with being poz over the past seventeen years. My column has limited space, so I made certain that I picked five that have proven invaluable. Everyone is different, and you can tailor these to your own needs expanding on them as it suits you to do so. Above all, remember to go easy on yourself and to have as much love for yourself as you do for others. Notably absent is any advice on navigating a long-term relationship when you’re poz. I’m still tackling that one!

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.