Stressed Out and Stigmatized at Work: What Can I Do?
Nine years of HIV and stress
Question: My wife and I tested positive for HIV in 2003. We don't know how or when we got it. We believe "till death do us part" and hold to that vow in our marriage. We are 'in this' together. I have a pretty amazing wife to have that idea.
When we were first diagnosed, my CD4 counts were in the 100's and my viral load was in the 100K's. I guess that is considered 'full blown AIDS'; and I had it. My wife's counts were pretty low too but not as low/high as mine. [Over these years I have experienced depression, lymphoma, and pneumonia. Happily we have been able to have two children who are healthy.] I've returned to school and will graduate in 2013.
Maybe it sounds like everything is going well, and it is for the most part, but I have this feeling of large amounts of stress on me. My job is unreal and I loathe it. I have to have the job because it's the way I can get a virtually free education, but there is SO MUCH STRESS!!! We were in a meeting the other day and one of our 'top producers' was stating how we would be shocked to find that types of students we have walking the halls of the school. He went on to say, "We have a student walking these halls with HIV!" Everyone gasped. And then he went on to say, "But I sure as hell ain't gonna touch him." People chuckled...My heart sank when he said that. I felt very low. I have the stresses of normal, everyday life (maybe more so at times) compiled with living daily with HIV. I feel extremely overwhelmed at times, short-tempered and am eating to relieve stress.
I've read that stress can be an issue for a person with HIV. Again, I work in an environment that is probably the most stressful I've ever worked in my entire 22 year professional life. Sometimes I wonder if I would have the option of going out on a temporary disability for mental-health.
Response from Dr. Fawcett
Thanks for writing. You and your wife are certainly survivors and deserve lots of credit for the hard work you've put into staying healthy.
The stress you describe at your workplace, so intertwined with stigma, is a major concern for any person living with HIV (or for that matter, any other stigmatized group). With their guard down, people will speak their truth and it creates both pain and anger if we identify with whomever is being described. I know you need the job for your education but I really caution you to evaluate other ways (student loans?) to achieve that goal. The type of intense, chronic stress you describe is really harmful to your health.
Stress causes the body to fall into "flight or fight" mode, creating a cascade of hormones that prepare us for an intense experience. When that experience continues over time, these hormones begin to have a negative impact on our bodies. There are direct correlations between stress, declining CD 4 counts and numerous other illnesses and conditions.
There are some things you can do. Speak with your physician about your stress and disability. In the meantime, have a strong support group with whom you can ventilate your experiences and get feedback. Utilize breathing, mindfulness and other relaxation techniques to bring your body back to a state of calm. Finally, you might want to consider seeing a therapist who could help you learn skills to deal with the specific stressors in your life.
“How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.” John Burroughs
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