Whether you have only recently found out you have HIV or you have grown up knowing you have HIV, being a young person living with HIV brings its own challenges.
I can remember my teenage years as a time of great change – your body develops and changes during puberty as you become an adult, and these changes often go hand-in-hand with lots of emotions. You may also be finishing school, taking exams, and thinking about your future. This is also a time when many people have some of their first relationships. It can be an intense and exciting time, but it can also be difficult.
Take responsibility for your health
If you were born with HIV and were diagnosed at a young age, you may have been going to a doctor or clinic that specializes in child health for a long time. Even if you were diagnosed more recently, perhaps in your early teens, it’s likely that one of your parents, or a guardian, has gone with you to the clinic and helped you remember to take your treatment.
As you get older, you may want to take more responsibility for your own health care and treatment. There may be things you want to discuss with a healthcare professional without your parents being present. Eventually, your health care will be transferred to an adult clinic, and this can feel like a big change.
Your parents, and your clinic staff, will still want to know how you are doing, and whether you are taking your treatment, but more of the responsibility will be on you. Think about what you can do to remind yourself to take your treatment, and to manage your appointments. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many people find support from family and friends helpful, as well as practical things like setting an alarm, or keeping drugs in a pill-box with the days of the week on it.
Talking to your friends
Making decisions about whether to disclose to your friends about HIV is different for everyone. Some people are very open about having HIV – perhaps all your friends and family already know, and it doesn’t feel like a big issue.
For other people, fear or experience of rejection, bullying or gossip can make disclosing to people about HIV feel like a really difficult decision. Remember, it’s your choice, and you don’t have to tell people if you don’t want to.
Often, young people living with HIV find it helpful to get to know other people in the same situation. There are support groups and activities for young people living with HIV, and this can be a good opportunity to share your feelings and talk about how other people cope. You may decide that you don’t want to tell anyone else for now, and that’s fine.
If there is someone, or a group of friends, who you want to share your HIV-positive diagnosis with, then it’s a good idea to think about how you might tell them. Think about how they might react, and the kind of questions they might have, so you can be prepared with the information you want to give them. Think about when and where would be a good time to tell them, so you won’t be interrupted or rushed.
Having intimate relationships
Some people with HIV worry that they can never have a relationship, or have sex, or that they will never be loved because they have HIV. All of these things are furthest from the truth – people living with HIV fall in love, have sex, have relationships, marry, have children… all the things that people who don’t have HIV do too. It’s also completely possible to do all of these things without passing HIV on to someone else.
When you start a new relationship, it can be really exciting and fun, and it can be intense, as you find out about each other.
Having a relationship with someone who doesn’t have HIV (sometimes called a mixed-status relationship, a serodiscordant relationship, or a “magnetic relationship”) might raise some particular questions for you – when should you tell them that you have HIV? How will they react? How can you have sex without passing on HIV?
Deciding how and what to tell them will probably involve a lot of the same considerations as telling a friend. Think about how they might react and the questions they might have. It’s up to you to decide how much to tell them and when. You may feel like you want to avoid having a difficult conversation, but bear in mind that if you wait for a long time they may be upset that you didn’t tell them sooner.
Just a few words from someone who has been living with HIV for over 25 years: It’s not that bad and there are times when you forget you have HIV. Eventually, even when you remember you’re positive, it’s no longer an issue.
If you’re going to have sex, remember that using insertive and/or receptive condoms correctly is a really effective way of preventing HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unplanned pregnancy. Many clinics can provide you with free condoms and other contraception, as well as confidential information and advice.
If you are taking HIV treatment and it’s keeping the level of HIV in your body (viral load) very low, that also reduces the risk of HIV being passed on. In fact, new studies show that people who have an undetectable level of HIV in their bodies cannot transmit HIV sexually to others.
For women, there are also additional ways of preventing pregnancy, including the contraceptive pill, implant or injection. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re taking HIV treatment and contraception together, as some HIV drugs interact with them and make the contraception less effective.
Many couples in mixed-status relationships can benefit from a new method to prevent HIV from being passed on to the HIV-negative partner – PrEP. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is the use of a HIV medication (Truvada) taken daily by the HIV-negative partner to help prevent the transmission of HIV. The use of PrEP is over 90 percent effective in preventing HIV infection if taken consistently. You can visit www.prep4illinois.com to learn more about PrEP.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your partner about these things before you have sex, if you can, so that you can share the responsibility for having safer sex. If your partner knows about HIV, it can make it easier to talk about using condoms or PrEP.
Another tool in your HIV prevention toolkit is Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). PEP means taking medicines after being potentially exposed to HIV. PEP should be used only in emergency situations and must be started within 72 hours after a recent possible exposure to HIV. If you think you’ve recently been exposed to HIV during sex or through sharing needles and works to prepare drugs or if you’ve been sexually assaulted, talk to your health care provider or an emergency room doctor about PEP right away.
For more information on confidential services (free condoms, HIV testing and HIV clinical care, or PrEP) in your area, visit: www.hivcareconnect.com
Program Coordinator/ADAP Enrollment Specialist,
Illinois Public Health Association – HIV Care Connect
HIV Care Connect is a program of the Illinois Public Health Association and is funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health