I live and breathe HIV. That was an observation someone made of me recently when explaining to someone else why I am successful in my work. It made me stop and think. Do I really live and breathe HIV? Is that even healthy? Can one hyperventilate while doing so? And if that is indeed true, am I overdoing it? Or is that what it takes? And at what cost?
I'm guessing I'm not alone in this; in fact, I'm sure of it. There are countless people around this country, and around the world, for that matter, who are living and breathing HIV every day. There are those, both HIV-positive and negative, who get up every morning to work in the field of HIV. Whether they are researchers, social workers, clinicians, case managers, specialty pharmacists, receptionists, or volunteers or work on an HIV-related publication, from sunrise to sunset and every waking moment in between, it's all HIV, all the time.
I suppose it's not that much different from any other profession. In order to succeed and be the best at what you do, sometimes you have to take your work home with you and work weekends. Even as you sleep you're sometimes at work in your dreams. (I usually don't feel too rested when this happens and I have to get up and work the next day!).
I think for those who are both working in the field and HIV-positive, it can add another dimension or layer on top of it, because you can never, ever really turn it off. For some of us, we are reminded every time we take our pills, look in the mirror, have sex (or not), eat (if we have to take our meds with food), or go to the clinic or pharmacy.
Wouldn't it be nice if maybe, just once in a while, we could take an HIV holiday? I don't mean a drug holiday; we know that's not necessarily a good thing and can lead to drug resistance. I'm thinking more like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday -- you know, the story of the princess who wants to escape the duties of being a royal and experience freedom and meets the dashing American newspaper reporter played by Gregory Peck, who eventually sweeps her off her feet. Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Sweep me off my feet and away from HIV, please. Sorry, HIV, but I'm on holiday. Time to turn on my "Out of HIV" auto-notification.
One of the problems with living and breathing HIV is that you never feel like you've done quite enough, and there is this nagging little voice telling you that you could somehow be doing more. Maybe it's the email you flagged but haven't gotten around to responding to yet, or the meeting you blew off last week, or the article you haven't finished reading.
It's important that we find those little things that can help rest our body and mind and rejuvenate our soul so that we can do the work and remain effective, like splurging on a full spa treatment, or perhaps just a manicure or massage. Take an entire day (my partner calls mine a "Jeffy" day) and do whatever it is you want to do, like some shopping, catching a movie, or going to the beach (or all three!). Something as simple as not eating at your desk but going out to lunch with a friend or co-worker can sometimes make all the difference. And I realize it's not a little thing, but I've never taken a sabbatical or leave of absence, but after 20-plus years and seeing some of my peers doing it now (and feeling incredibly envious!), I'm thinking maybe it's time.
Whatever it is, discover your holiday from HIV and be sure to take it. As a wise man once said, the work will always be there. Create the order and structure you need to make it all work, and then every once in a while, break up the routine. It is the nature of the work we do that we are always "doing" for others, but it's important to "do" for ourselves once in a while, and to also let others "do" for us from time to time.
In a few weeks, I will be joining many of my friends and peers at the United States Conference on AIDS in New Orleans, where I will be encouraging everyone to take part in Positively Aware magazine's annual A Day With HIV anti-stigma photo campaign, which takes place on Saturday, Sept. 21. But I will also be asking what it is that they're doing to take care of themselves. We may be living and breathing HIV, but in the end, we should be, ultimately, surviving and thriving.