Connected

The importance of connections

Being socially connected is vital to a good quality of life.

Some people have magnetic personalities and make finding and keeping friends look easy. But staying connected requires effort. We need to find ways to spend time with a diverse range of people.

This can be difficult if you’re feeling upset, tired or unwell; if you’re worried about people finding out you have HIV or if the people who do know aren’t supportive.

Think about your current connections and what might help improve them. What social things do you like doing? What kind of connections will help keep you feeling emotionally strong and happy?

Remember that not all connections will go well. That’s why it’s important to have others to fall back on.

Adjusting to life with HIV

Things change after diagnosis, but life goes on. Treatment now means that people with HIV can live as long as those without it. But it takes time to sort out what living with HIV is all about.

People usually look for support from those they are close to. Some people are surrounded by family and friends while others are not. Some people feel the need to talk about their diagnosis while others prefer to keep it to themselves.

HIV organisations offer some helpful workshops (such as Genesis, Phoenix and Aware) to help you through this period. These are really good opportunities to meet other HIV positive people.

TIM (The Institute of Many) is a peer-run group for HIV positive people. TIM brings people together to share their experience of living with HIV in an informal, confidential online environment, and also in person through local social activities.

Telling people

Deciding who to tell and when to tell them is an intensely personal decision. With a few exceptions it is up to you to decide when and how much you want to tell. Do not feel guilty about keeping your information private. Most people have parts of their private lives they do not share.

It’s usually helpful to share your story with at least one other person. But choose carefully. You want to rely on their support and confidentiality.

It’s hard to know how different people will react. Often close friends and family are supportive but this isn’t always the case. If you are worried that someone may react badly, wait until you’re feeling stronger or don’t tell them at all.

It is important that you consider your mental and physical safety before disclosing. Try to have an alternate social support network in place to help you if things go badly.

If you are struggling with this issue then get in contact with your local HIV organisation.

Some people will surprise you with their thoughtfulness, understanding or simply their low key response. And disclosing can be an amazingly empowering experience.

Family bonds

Spending time with family is a good way to connect with your roots. Your place within a family network can give comfort and a sense of stability.

But families can be major sources of strain as well as support. Whether or not you disclose to family members is up to you. Every one is different. You may decide to tell just one family member but consider whether they are likely to confide in others. Only disclose if you think it will bring you closer.

If you are in a relationship, you will need to think through how to tell your partner. Set aside some time to work through any issues that come up. Not all partners are supportive and some may be distressed or angry at first. But many couples work through the shock, and some relationships become even stronger as a result.

Friendships

Staying connected to friends is a strong buffer against loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Which friends you tell about having HIV will depend on the relationship. Remember you can still be good friends with people even if they don’t know you’re positive. And if some you tell drift away, remember there are other people out there you can connect with. People come and go in our lives for lots of different reasons not just because of HIV.

Make an effort to keep in touch with people you really get along with. Making friends can get harder as we get older. True friends are often those we made when we were young and we don’t see much anymore. Try to reconnect with old friends whenever you can. Remember that great moments can be shared doing simple things like going for a walk or having a meal together.

You better work

Research tells us that employment is associated with better quality of life for people with HIV. As well as providing an income and involving you outside the home, work can keep you socially connected.

If you’re not working at the moment, consider how a job might improve your quality of life. Work doesn’t need to be high-powered to satisfy. Try matching the job to the things you naturally enjoy and are good at. Also consider part-time options or volunteering.

You may want to stop working to do something more meaningful with your time. Before you quit, talk to someone at your local HIV organisation to help you sort through your options and ensure you have safeguards in place.

Connecting the dots

What will help get you more connected? How can you spend more time with like-minded people?

HIV positive or not, it takes effort to make new social connections. And it can hurt when things don’t go as planned. But don’t take it to heart. Everybody is caught up in their own world.

Remember, this is not about finding a new best friend or life partner. It’s about enjoying time with people who enjoy time with you.

  • Peer support

HIV positive peers give you the kind of support you won’t find anywhere else. Most HIV organisations provide peer support one-on-one as well as in groups (such as Genesis, Phoenix and Aware).

TIM (The Institute of Many) provides peer support through a closed group Facebook page where you will also find out about social gatherings around Australia.

HIV organisations also offer a range of practical services for people with HIV. Connect with them for workshops, social events or to volunteer in a supportive environment.

  • Volunteering

There are so many issues to support and people who need help these days. Many organisations rely on volunteers to survive.

If you are thinking about volunteering, don’t sell yourself short. Find somewhere you feel productive and comfortable, where you like the people and your help is appreciated.

  • Studying

Courses are available on just about any subject you could name. Some are hard work and lead to formal qualifications. Others you can pursue at your own pace. You may decide to train in something purely for love of it. Whatever you choose, chances are you will have some things in common with your fellow students.

  • Hobbies

Hobbies keep your mind active and improve your mental capacity long term. Losing yourself in an activity is also a great way to practice mindfulness (See Happy).

From cosplay to crochet, doing things you enjoy is also a great way to connect with others. Look for activity groups in your local area.

  • Sports

Exercise is vital for a healthy body and mind, so why not do it with others? Choose from team sports like football or rowing to classes in yoga or Pilates. Find a gym buddy or a running mate. (See Healthy.)

Is my computer helping?

It’s common for people to go straight to their computer or smart phone when they want to find out something or connect with people. But spending a lot of time online can actually decrease your social interaction.

Hours spent in front of a screen may be a good distraction but not so great in the long run. The issue really is moderation. Think about how you can make the internet work for you and what place it has in your connection with other people.

Online dating and hook-up apps are a great way to meet new people. But manage your expectations. Don’t expect more than dinner from a dating app or sex from a hook-up.

Used well, the internet provides great opportunities to find and stay in touch with friends and like-minded people. There are many social media platforms (you know them) that help you search or stay in touch in whatever language you like. If you are spending a lot of leisure time online, aim to strike a balance by spending time with non-virtual people as well.

TIM (The Institute of Many) strikes this balance by bringing people together to share their experience of living with HIV in an informal, confidential online environment, and also in person through local social activities.