OCT 1994


Therapists Talk 
Shrink Rap 


    Michael E. Holtby, LCSW, BCD


The HIV Positive Secret

Originally published in Colorado's AIDS Newsletter, Resolute! , October, 1994

Do not reproduce without permission of the author.

When Jack got the news he was on his way out the door for a weekend with his wife as youth group leaders for their church. He picked up the mail, saw a letter about his life insurance application, opened it, turned white and threw up in the bathroom. The letter said his blood had been tested and retested and he had tested HIV-positive.

Jack had worked at Denver General and figured he'd been infected by a needle stick before he knew that there was a need to be cautious. Now he lived in a small Colorado community where he knew everyone. He owned a car dealership and feared knowledge of his condition would destroy his business.

With only his wife to confide in, he kept his secret for two-and-a-half years. He couldn't even tell his doctor, whose staff had kids in his youth group. He took on a business partner, anticipating he'd need the help if he got sick. He and his wife gave up any hope of having more children. Even unknown to his wife, Jack had planned his suicide -- a one car crash to look like an accident. He was concerned with sparing his family the stigma and shame of AIDS.

When Jack began to get sick his wife insisted he find a doctor in Denver, and see him under an assumed name. He picked Dr. Bill Alford who was astute enough to realize something wasn't right with this picture. Jack's t-cells were too high. Dr. Alford retested Jack's blood and discovered he was HIV-negative! Jack had lived all this time believing he was going to die of AIDS in a matter of a few years and almost left his wife a widow. And it was all a mistake!

Jack isn't the only case like this. Although false positives are usually detected by using a different test, what happened in Jack's case is his blood sample was switched with that of someone else: human error. In a similar case, a man in Grand Junction lost his job, and his wife all because he believed he had the AIDS virus, when in fact, he did not. In another, a woman in Florida put her kids up for adoption, thinking she wouldn't be able to care for them -- only to later test negative.

In part due to Jack's case, the insurance company has changed the way in which life insurance applicants are informed of positive test results. Jack's mistake was not having sought medical advice sooner. His isolation also kept him from resources that would have provided him support, better information than in the general media and his purgatory might have been much more short-lived.

This story, however, is not really about false positives. It is about an approach to HIV, or even broader: an approach to life. If we live in shame and secrecy and fear our lives are compromised. For this reason Paul Monett describes the closet as a coffin, a killer of emotion, authenticity and self-esteem. It is only through risk, honesty, and being who we are that we can fully live. We so often and in so many ways hide our feelings, our sexuality, our inner selves that we fall short of what is possible.

Chad Kenney, MSW has a new concept he calls radical aliveness. It means we are alive because we are truly living, fully experiencing ourselves within the world without secrets, and without giving in to our fears. It is radical because so few of us, so little of the time, actually practice this. To quote Chad, "Living with HIV shouldn't just be about surviving, but about thriving." If Jack had been practicing radical aliveness how different his experience would have been, whether or not he turned out to be a false positive.



Last messed with November 15, 2001

Copyright(c) 2001 Michael E. Holtby, LCSW. All rights reserved.