Living with HIV: Seven Habits for “Positive Living”
By Vishwa Schoolwallah
Seven things every HIV+ person should do to live a long and healthy life.
As per the World Health Organization, AIDS has claimed 1.2 million lives in the US alone. 39 million people have died of HIV since the epidemic started 35 years back, says GAP report from UNAIDS, 2014. An estimated 2.1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in India.
Humanity has no choice but to deal with HIV-AIDS. The fear of the virus is justified. For most people, the very thought of being HIV positive is nightmarish. Even though health practitioners all around the world are positive they shall find a cure to HIV in near future – their estimation of how long we have to wait for a cure is unclear. There has only been one reported case of a patient who was cured of HIV – and doctors are still trying to figure out how this feat was accomplished. Sadly, there is no treatment, vaccine or medication to cure HIV-AIDS till date.
But, what is one supposed to do after being tested positive for Human Immunodeficiency Virus? How does one pick up the pieces of a broken soul, and do what is needed to be done? Finding out one is HIV+ brings a whole disarray of overpowering emotions. It’s hard to know what to do at such a trying time.
This is where these seven habits will come to your rescue. Consider this a checklist of things you must do to ensure you don’t take too long to find your footing. At a time when your world is in a whirlwind, these seven steps will help you ensure you are able to do what must be done. Do these, and make these a habit. These are the first right steps you need to take, and continue to take, to enjoy a full, long, and healthy life.
1. Practice safe sex:
HIV is not the end of your sex life. You can enjoy sex as long as you keep it safe and clean. While HIV is the riskiest thing one may contract through unprotected sex, it also makes other sexually transmitted diseases worse to cope with. HIV compromises your immunity – which means, you are susceptible to other sexually transmitted diseases and infections. And healing from these will take longer because of your compromised immunity.
The biggest risk unsafe sex brings is of herpes – appearing as chronic ulcers – painful, discomforting and in severe cases – might warrant multiple surgeries. Herpes can be treated, but not cured. Which means, an outbreak anytime in the future is plausible once you get it. The messy business of sex, fun as it is, also exposes you to germs from mouth (saliva), rectum (stool) and skin (fungal, body lice, crabs, etc). So, safe sex precludes responsible sex. Ensure sanitary conditions for sex, to the best of you and your partners’ ability.
2. Know your CD4 count
CD4 count is the number of white blood cells, called T-cells, in your body. A high CD4 count means you are faring well in your health department. A healthy body has a CD4 count above 500 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. If it is below 200, the chances of HIV turning into AIDS, through opportunistic infections or latent diseases within your body, increases significantly. CD4 count is crucial for your HIV treatment. If your CD4 count does not improve after you start your medicine, it means the treatment is not working. Your doctor will put you on another medication and again check for improvement in CD4 count.
3. Schedule ART
ART (Antiretroviral therapy) is the name given to HIV treatment. For an HIV+ person, ART is the elixir of life. But it comes with certain conditions and issues. The condition is that you absolutely must take your medicine at the same time every single day for the rest of your life. No doctor treating HIV patients will ever tell you otherwise. You absolutely must take your medicines at the same time, every single day – come what may. If you don’t, you give the virus time to multiply and evolve. Which means, the same medicines might gradually stop working for you.
The other issue is the side effects of ART medicines – nausea, depression, drowsiness, sweating, weakness, body ache, mood swings are the most common ones. While doctors tell you that the side effects of the medicines will subside within a fortnight, it varies from person to person. For some, the side effects last for a month to a couple of months. Some HIV patients experience these effects come back – especially when your body is already battling another infection (such as viral fever, common cold), or on days you are stressed or overworked.
4. Slow down
A hectic life is not advisable to someone who is HIV positive, or is starting on ART. The side effects of ART can be harsh. Having HIV comes with its own fears and apprehensions. Speaking from experience, I strongly advise you to give priority to yourself. You need breathing space, and time with yourself. Keep aside your dreams and ambitions, visit family or friends for a few days, or simply spend more time at home. But allow time for yourself. Read, meditate, learn pottery, volunteer for an orphanage or old age home – but do things that remind you that life is for living.
5. Tell someone who cares about you
You do not have to disclose your HIV status to your family or friends as soon as you find out. But do tell one person from your circle of people – someone you trust will stand by you at this crucial time. You need to be okay with your HIV status before you make others privy to this sensitive information. However, this one person should be someone who would hold your hand through your time of self acceptance. This friend or family will help you cope with this reality. If you have no one close to you who you think will accept or understand, reach out to someone outside of your friend and family circles through NGOs, helplines, etc.
6. Manage your emotions
Being HIV positive and starting on ART medication is taxing on the body and mind. This is the time one begins to question one’s actions and decisions, and it is very easy to get in the victim or self-pity blame game. How you manage your emotions, especially at this point of your life, will greatly influence how soon you come out of this low phaze. Go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist if need be. Please do not ignore the significance of this life event. Even a couple of sessions with a trained and experienced practitioner could help you go a long way. They might be able to help you overcome some of your fears and anxieties. If need be, take anti-depressants to help you feel better. Diary writing is also a great way to deal with your anxiety. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, sit down in a quiet corner and pen down your thoughts. Let the ink flow, and let your tears flow with them if need be. It is okay to cry. It is okay to feel alone and directionless. But it is also equally important for you to gather yourself together and find value in who you are.
A doctor would advise you a 15-20 minutes moderate intensity exercise or yoga everyday for better health. Take this advice very seriously. I am going to tell you to do much more than just 15-20 minutes of exercise. Exercise has many more benefits for someone with HIV. Muscle wasting is a common feature of HIV. You will lose some weight, you will feel weak, your muscles and joints might ache, you might sleep a lot. While medication will slow these complications, it will still be a reality you need to deal with. Why not deal with it head on? Gain some muscles, increase your core strength, give your body a sound workout. Increase your core strength. Exercising is essential if you want a long and healthy life. It has a positive impact on body’s immunity, it helps fight back depression. Exercising will also help you feel better about yourself. And so, hit the nearby gym or sign up for intensive Zumba classes or start preparing for a marathon by running everyday. Push your physical comfort everyday. And when I say everyday, I mean, every single day. Go sweat it out.
Being HIV positive, just as any other serious medical complication, needs you to make changes in your lifestyle – to accommodate everything you need to do to stay healthy. So take time out of your busy schedule, commitments and work. Prioritize yourself for a few months. You owe it to yourself and to your beloved. Nothing is more important than you, your life and your peace of mind.
Vishwa Schoolwallah has been HIV positive for a year. This article is based on his own experience of battling, and then befriending his HIV status. You may reach out to him via his twitter handle @schoolwallah.