Sunday, January 4, 2009

Disclosure is a commitment

When I was a teenager, a young woman befriended me at my church. She was fun, trustworthy, patient, wise, and supportive. She guided me through a difficult relationship with my parents by being both the "mother" and "father" I needed in those years. She offered advice, comfort, and friendship. She was my mentor, and I wanted to be just like her.

When I went away to college, she continued mentoring me through phone calls and letters, never too busy for me. She listened intently when I told her about college life....the professors and difficult classes, the boyfriends, and the woes of living with a roommate. She always listened and used these experiences to mentor me and teach me about life's lessons.

Eventually, she got married. They bought a house in the suburbs with a huge backyard, and had a baby. I was the baby's nanny over the summers and Holiday breaks from school. I spent those carefree days imagining my own future husband and family, desperately wanting the dream of happily ever after.

Once I graduated, my career took me thousands of miles away from my parents, but also, thousands of miles away from her.

Fast forward three years to the point where I decide to marry my husband. I knew he was HIV+ when I married him. I had done the research, I knew what I "was getting into." Telling my parents about his HIV status was difficult. (that's a whole other post!)

But telling her... was devastating. I can't remember her exact words, but I remember feeling hurt and betrayed by her reaction. And I remember understanding that if I married him, I would no longer be welcome in her home or near her children. She was certain that I would become infected, and she didn't want to risk me passing HIV to her children.

And with that, our friendship ended and my mentor was lost.

I learned the hard way that disclosure is a commitment. You have to be committed to giving people room to react to what you tell them. HIV is a scary thing for people to accept, and when they find it has "hit close to home," their fear and lack of education may cause them to push you away.

After processing her reaction, I realized her rejection had nothing to do with me. She gave in to her fear and ignorance about HIV and decided that her fear was worth more than our friendship. And today, I'm truly grateful to her, for out of her decision came my greatest life lesson.

We must always allow people room to experience their fears without taking it personally.

And it is a lesson she is still teaching me today.