Coming out to family as HIV-positive is as hard as finding out for yourself
September 10, 2012 | 11:00 am
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 12:48 pm)
There are two sides of an HIV diagnosis: Hearing the news, and then breaking it. Figuring out who to tell and how to tell them can be almost as scary as finding out in the first place. For many, the first group on the docket is family.
My family members live long distances from each other but still have close ties. My parents retired in Arizona, while my sisters lived a Southern Coast life in North Carolina. I stayed in Colorado for the world of hippie urbanism that I loved. We all talked on the phone at least once a week, if not daily. But after finding out that I was HIV-positive, I treated their phone calls like they were telemarketers.
Some people make the decision to never tell their families at all. I decided I didn’t have that option. I had to come out all over again.
I couldn’t tell them over the phone. A friend had advised me that when she found out her mother had cancer, all she wanted to do was give her a hug. She couldn’t because they were thousands of miles apart.
My sisters already had plans to visit my parents with the only grandchild. I decided to book a flight and join them. I didn’t want to ruin their vacation – the timing wouldn’t be ideal. It was a week after my birthday. But no time is a good time for HIV.
The moment I stepped off the plane and saw their smiling faces, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach – the kind you feel just as a roller coaster begins creeping up the slope. When would the right moment be? How would I start the discussion?
On the second evening, my sister had put her daughter down for a nap just as everyone began making dinner. With the little one down and everyone tending to mindless tasks,
I decided this was the moment. I took two Xanax to calm my nerves.
“So I have something to tell all of you. It is some tough news,” I began. None of us in my family really talk that way, so everyone knew something was up. “It is a health thing,” I continued, “but before I even tell you what it is, you need to know first that I am going to be totally okay. I am going to be fine and nothing is going to happen to me.”
“What is it?” My dad asked, concerned and impatient.
“It’s HIV.” I began to cry. Clearly, the Xanax hadn’t kicked in. I wanted to be bold and confident so they would trust I’d be okay. Instead, I fell apart.
My parent’s faces went stone cold, and both of my sisters started crying along with me. I offered a letter my therapist had written on my behalf for this occasion. It confirmed my diagnosis and said that I was actively working on the stages of dealing with disease, both mentally and medically.
Just like coming out as gay, the rollercoaster’s first plunge was the hardest. One sister tried convincing us that we all needed to live in the same city together again. The other one scolded me for not telling her sooner. I pleaded with them to understand that I wouldn’t die.
“I know you won’t die,” my father said. “I just don’t want people to treat you differently or be mean to you.”
His comment broke my heart in all the right places. Luckily, my parents had worked in the medical field and knew more about HIV than I could have given them credit for.
After dinner, my mom left the table and came back with a small happy-birthday banner. She tossed it on the table, as if now, the gesture couldn’t possibly lighten the mood.
“Well, happy fucking birthday,” she said.
All of us began laughing. Although she hadn’t meant to make a joke, Mom didn’t normally cuss. It was out of character, and therefore, perfectly broke up the solemn overtones in the air.
Even though this rollercoaster was coming to an end, I knew the ride would never really stop. Just like coming out as gay, it was awkward and uneasy. But HIV and other diseases don’t make someone a better or worse person. So when it comes to telling those relatives or friends who love you for who you are, they are not going to stop loving you for someone you aren’t.