A Survivor’s Guide to Handling Your HIV Status and Nosy Relatives

Holidays can be joyous events, but they can also be stressful. A big family Thanksgiving often means sitting down at the dinner table with relatives or family friends that you don’t often talk to, and conversation can sometimes turn towards topics you’d rather not delve into. When you’ve HIV-positive, this becomes even more complex. Should you disclose your status? What do you do if your cousin starts asking questions you’re not prepared to answer?

To help you make a plan of action for this holiday, here are a few survival tips:

  • Decide whether you want to disclose your HIV status at all. The only people who need to know about your HIV status are your current and past sexual partners, and your doctor. Everyone else in your life is optional. If you have minimal contact with someone — even if that person is related to you — you may not feel that it’s any of their business, and you have the right to decide who gets to know these details about your life.
  • Be sure your other family members know and respect your wishes. If your parents or siblings know your HIV status, be sure they know your wishes about disclosing (or not) to the rest of the family. Let them know who in the family does or does not know your status, and remind them that it’s your business to disclose that information, not theirs.
  • Be prepared with stock responses. Even if you didn’t intend to disclose your status, you may encounter relatives who know thanks to the family grapevine. Don’t let their comments catch you off-guard; prepare some scripts in advance for handling questions.

It is not your responsibility to educate people about your disease at the dinner table, but it can be a good opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and perhaps encourage some of your more closed-minded relatives to reconsider their assumptions. Here are a few talking points you might find useful:

  • HIV isn’t a death sentence; it’s a chronic illness that can be managed with medication and lifestyle.
  • HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact or sharing a meal.
  • HIV doesn’t just affect drug users, sex workers or any other “low” population; the disease does not discriminate.

Also remember that you do not need to explain to anyone how you contracted the disease, how long you have had it, your symptoms or any other personal details. If conversations begin to steer into an uncomfortable direction, offer this response: “I appreciate your concern, but this is something that’s between me and my doctor.” Then follow up by changing the subject.

Handling awkward conversations is never easy, but with a bit of planning, you can avoid some of the toughest talks. If you need more help in preparing for the holidays, speak with a counselor or therapist — they can help you tailor responses to your unique situation.