‘Losing face’ is a big thing within my culture and family community. This term ‘losing face’ means to ‘lose respect’ or ‘lose esteem’ in the eyes of another person. I’m not sure if there is a similar thing for Anglo-Australians, but this is something that’s very strong in Asian cultures and many other cultures. It affects almost everything we do, the way we approach life, and our interactions outside of the family.
When you ‘need a hand’ to deal with something, this cultural way of approaching this can set up huge barriers. I remember when I was first diagnosed, I really struggled with this. I didn’t want to bother anyone else with my business or let them know I was struggling with anything at home. So I kept to myself and tried to manage things on my own.
I felt like if other people knew what was going on for me, this might bring ‘shame’ on me or I might be thought of as ‘weak’. The last thing I wanted to do was to be seen as if I was seeking sympathy from others, let alone my family! So I started bottling things up. Keeping them to myself, playing my cards close to my chest. I let the tension build and build rather than talk to anyone else about how I was feeling. I thought I could keep a lid on everything.
Except I couldn’t. You can guess how impossible this became, and I cracked under the pressure. It was only in hindsight that I had realised how much I hurt the very people I was trying so hard to not hurt. I pushed away the people who would have been there for me in a flash. In my struggle to keep things to myself, I sabotaged my relationships with my family and my friends.
Of course, my partner got the brunt of it all. We stopped talking like we used to. I wasn’t the same. Our relationship suffered. I felt so moody with all the fear and anxiety I was going through. This affected my sleep and my health and things went downhill from there.
What I didn’t realise at the time, was asking for help is normal. Anyone of us does this as a kid easily. As a little child, when I needed help putting on my shoes, or with a math problem at school, or reaching for something I would ask for help. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t do this after my diagnosis, but I have a pretty good idea.
One of the biggest hurdles with HIV is a little thing called stigma. Something that doesn’t just come from other people. It can also come from inside. We call that ‘internalised stigma’. I now know what that feels like, and how dangerous it can be. It’s beating yourself up, over and over again, blaming yourself and holding yourself hostage to making things better. It was only when I started taking the smallest steps to talk about how I was feeling, that I realised I needed to stop and take a deep breath. Voicing myself, my questions, and my worries, started to turn things around in my head.
I found talking with someone else like me, a person also living with HIV, made a big difference. Other people who are walking in the same shoes or similar shoes are called ‘peers’. My peers are other gay men from an Asian culture who have also found out they live with HIV.
Sometimes you feel like you can’t talk with your friends because it’s so personal. I felt a huge amount of relief when I started talking to other peers like me. It was like I was talking to a mate who really ‘got’ how I felt. Someone who I knew wasn’t prejudiced. Who didn’t make any judgements about me or about my diagnosis.
Peers are people who ‘get’ what you’re going through, because they’ve gone through the same thing. They understand you just want someone to talk to, who’ll listen and stand with you side by side.
Fast forward a few years, and today I’m much more true and honest with myself. I’m back to my usual self with my family, my friends but best of all my partner. It’s awful to feel so alone. Looking back, it’s awful that I struggled for so long on my own.
If you’re in a similar place, maybe it’s time to reach out. Reaching out is gonna be a little nerve wracking at the start. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be glad you did. Whether you pick up the phone or send an email, getting support from others who’ve been where you are right now, will make all the difference.
To get the ball rolling, you can email email@example.com or call (02) 8357 8386 or 1800 245 677 (freecall outside metro). Let us know where you’re at, what you’re dealing with and we can start talking about what’s happening for you.
Published in Talkabout #195 February 2021