Taking your HIV meds daily is like hitting the “Block Button”. It makes your immune system effectively invisible to HIV, and HIV won’t attack if it can’t attach. Meds suppress the virus by preventing it from attaching to white blood cells and turning them into factories that produce more HIV. If HIV can’t attach, it can’t cause more harm. Eventually, it gets quiet, and is unable to spread itself to others during unprotected sex or sharing needles during IV drug use. Protect your immune system. If you’re not monogamous and have multiple sexual partners, use condoms during sex. If you shoot up, use clean needles, and don’t share needles.
Swiping left is another way of saying, “Not interested” to HIV. It’s another set of boundaries that keep me healthy. Here are some things I do to swipe left:
I say “not interested” to things that are unhealthy for my body and mind. These include not smoking cigarettes, or starting a program to quit smoking; saying “not my type” to people, places, and things that may lead to infection by another STD; saying, “no thanks” to people, activities, and choices that trigger anxiety or depression, and giving a hard pass to shame and stigma. List things that aren’t healthy and no longer serve you well, do your best to keep your boundaries and commitments, and forgive yourself when you fall short.
Swiping right means, “I’m attracted and want to know more!” These are healthy boundaries, goals, and commitments you create that lower inflammation levels in your body, reduce stress, dissolve shame and stigma, and help you regain balance. Here’s my short list:
1. Exercise, diet and sleep–Exercise gets me off the couch, and out of my head. I never enjoy going to the gym until I’m there, and at the end, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. Ask your doctor for a list of foods that lower inflammation and boost your immune system, and make a food budget. Get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
2. Counseling–I know of several sliding scale counselors (I am one of them, by the way!) who work with clients on a budget, or who have high insurance deductibles. Talk to one who understands HIV, stigma, shame, fear and loss, someone who will listen with compassion and not try to fix, rescue, give you advice or set you straight, but who will assist you in forming your own answers, and support your new path forward.
3. Gratitude*–Even if the most gratitude you can muster is, “I woke up, I’m breathing, and I’m possible”, that’s a fine place to start. Make a list, daily for a week of 10 things you’re grateful for. If 10 feels too difficult, cut the list in half and write down 5. *HIV thrives on negativity–kind of ironic, considering it makes us “positive”. Gratitude practice is a positive kick in the ass to the negativity bias that HIV loves to feed on.
4. Pray, meditate–become your own compass. Return to your breath and to the present moment. Why? Because now is all you’ve got. Anxiety only lives in the future, and depression only lives in the past. Meditation and contemplative prayer are proven to lower anxiety, stress, and inflammation levels in the body when practiced consistently over time. When I meditate, I focus on the breath going in my nostrils and coming out of my mouth. Many people find meditation difficult because they can’t “clear their minds”. Thoughts and feelings come–and that’s not a problem. We cannot stop thinking; if we aren’t thinking, well, we’re dead. The trick to meditation is to not mind the thoughts and feelings that are there. One practice I use is to label each thought that I “catch” as being either “nourishing” or “distracting”. I swipe left on the distracting thoughts, sending them away, and I swipe right and explore the nourishing ones, while being aware of my breath going in and out. 10 minutes a day is a good place to start.
5. Connect with others. No one is alone, truly. HIV’s toxic spell would convince us we’re rejected, devalued, and damaged. It’s a big, fat lie. Take a healthy risk and reach out. The biggest step I took in healing was to connect with a group of people who saw past my HIV and saw me. As we suppress HIV, we stop isolating ourselves from our friends and family, our communities, and the world, and we reawaken our authentic voices, our creativity and our worth. Talk to someone about your HIV journey. Find an HIV forum online, a community center, or a support group.
6. Connect with you. What’s something you love to do that HIV has hijacked? For me, it’s writing, cooking, travel, intimate conversations with the people who matter, singing, dancing, Improv Theater, and live music. Once I began to feel “safe”, I could take healthy risks, step into the world, and greet life with authentic, open-hearted curiosity.
Know this, brave spiritual warrior: When we choose courage over comfort and stop living in HIV’s isolating shadow, we choose to face it. We recognize HIV, and accept its presence inside us; we investigate it, learning about its agenda and its weaknesses. We nurture our whole selves by taking our medicine, staying in care, and suppressing the virus. We stop spreading the virus, we practice forgiveness, and we overcome shame and stigma. We become empowered, we heal, we reconnect to the world, and thrive in the face of an enemy that seeks to destroy us.
That’s how we end an epidemic.
Be sure to also read “Swiping Left: Thoughts on Viral Suppression” (Part 1).
Kevin Varner is a Licensed Professional Counselor working in Raleigh, NC. He is a member of North Carolina AIDS Action Network, the author of the CDC funded “Safe Spaces: A Group Intervention and Curriculum for HIV positive persons who are newly diagnosed or returning to care”, and a writer, speaker, and advocate for people living with HIV and mental illness. Kevin was chosen as one of POZ Magazine’s 2016 HIV Advocates of the year, and has been thriving in spite of HIV since 2007.