Like the majority of the Australian population at some stage this year, and particularly for us poor folk in Melbourne who are going through a second lockdown, I have felt anxious and uncertain about what COVID-19 could bring into my daily life. For which I mean, how to protect myself against catching it rather than having to actually live with it, something that for someone with a damaged immune system from thirty-five years living with HIV, would likely be a major challenge.

Since the virus reared its ugly head earlier this year, public health restrictions to try to contain it have turned many people’s lives upside down or for those lucky enough to be in employment, has placed them in front of computers doing endless Zoom meetings. Even retirees like me find giving up meeting friends at cafes or the movies a real loss to our quality of life, even if it is nothing compared to those who have lost their job or are unable to connect with loved ones due to travel restrictions.

The missing ingredient in our lives has become human interaction. Just spending time with a couple of close friends can be the greatest mental health stimulus in your daily life — that you don’t really miss until it’s gone.

A hug, a kiss and dare I say it, sexual relations are pretty much off the agenda, unless you are already coupled. It’s no surprise than that our mental health agencies are reporting a great increase in requests for help — living in relative solitude gives us more time to contemplate our navels, big and small issues in our lives and where we’ve gone wrong with that person, job, or direction in life. Forgetting about all the good things we’ve achieved or could achieve.

I say this because a number of my friends with HIV have talked about how the last few months and the spectre of another potentially fatal virus in their lives have brought up flashbacks about their HIV diagnosis, whether they have had it for a short time or for decades.

There are few people who can say that finding out they were HIV-positive didn’t involve a level of trauma, self-reflection and sometimes, depression and self-doubt. Those of us diagnosed in the eighties lived with the knowledge that there was no cure and medical predictions of a high rate of mortality for those who had it. In my case, I didn’t even know that HIV existed when I contracted it. Regardless of your circumstances though, an HIV diagnosis is difficult for many people today, even with effective treatments and U=U. Because you think, rightly or wrongly, that it may have implications for your ability to find a partner or effect the way others think about you. To impact on your interaction with others.

Contemplating how I might survive the six weeks of lockdown in Melbourne, I thought about the counselling session I had earlier this year via Zoom — the counsellor was unhappy about a face-to-face consultation and while she was good at her job, the lack of warmth that comes with the barrier of a screen didn’t quite work for me. I know there are some counsellors who do face-to-face consultations if I want to persevere.

I went through the Netflix possibilities and wrote a list of potential murder mysteries and gay-themed comedies. I accepted a couple of invitations for friends’ weekly Zoom catch-ups, sometimes with friends whom I’m lucky to see every few months and now see once a week. I have participated in peer support group sessions online with my local PLHIV organisation and NAPWHA’s fun Chin wag sessions with the spectacular Vanessa Wagner which have been very reassuring. These digital connections have been a real positive from the time of restrictions, I thought.

Then I remembered something that I have often done in times of stress and uncertainty. I opened Word on my computer and started to write. To put my thoughts down. Not necessarily for anyone else to read but I’ve found that the act of writing can help to crystallise my thoughts, to give some of my thoughts a bit of clear air and sometimes resolve a few issues just from the effort.

When I was a child my mother (well, Santa) gave me a diary for Christmas and I developed a habit of filling one in conscientiously every night for many years, with often very banal and boring detail that wouldn’t interest many others. But it brought a lot back to me when I read those memories later in my life. People I’d forgotten and raw emotions: like the time my parents separated and our family felt torn apart. It’s such a gem to be able to read those entries many years later, whether good or bad memories.

I find writing therapeutic. I know some people think it’s difficult, even impossible as they say they experience “writer’s block”. I get this, particularly for people unaccustomed to putting thoughts on paper. But the way around this, I think, is to just tell yourself you are writing for yourself, for your own pleasure, if you like. Start to enjoy the act of writing without putting any external judgments from others into the mental picture in your head.

When you experience the joy of putting something down that really encompasses how you feel about a subject, a person or an issue you will know the “high” that can come from communicating something important to you – whether to an audience or not.

I think it can also be useful to help you deal with stress, boredom or any kind of uncertainty where you need to get your thoughts together — or plan for the future.

We all hope that COVID-19 won’t be a defining feature of our lives over the next few years and that somehow it will be able to be controlled with public health measures.

I recommend though that people with HIV work through any issues that it has brought up again through the vehicle of writing and if you’re happy, to share it with others (particularly peers), for hopefully constructive feedback. Maybe with a counsellor if you have or can find one.

Long-term HIV survivors will be reminded of the grief and loss of the early days and putting that down on paper, maybe in your own “autobiography of my life”, can be a rewarding thing to do. More recently diagnosed people will have a myriad of issues to “decompress” onto paper, too. Think of your experiences of HIV stigma, partner rejection and acceptance, and conquering mental health issues over the years.

I wish you the best of luck with your writing if you decide to take it on.

We are always interested in quality writing here at Positive Living. We can’t promise to use them all but if you’re interested in submitting your work email your contributions to: charlie@napwha.org.au (Please limit submissions to 1000 words.)

A few basics about treatment side effects

There is a basic set of knowledge about HIV drugs and side effects that is useful to have. That does not mean you need to know the name of every drug and their common side effects, but it is useful to know the types of side effects and how to get more information.

COVID-19, vaccines, treatments and people with HIV

Just as we did with HIV, Australia has had a very good response to the challenge of COVID-19, with one of the lowest levels of infections in the world. But the response has only just begun.

U=U and dating in 2020

Even though the scientific evidence is clear, has U=U made a difference for people living with HIV to freely enjoy all the sexual pleasures that go with dating whether it is finding love or a fleeting dalliance? Heather Ellis investigates the impact of U=U on Dating in 2020.