HIV and Sobriety


Written by Mike Rizzo, LMFT

When I was asked to write this article on HIV and sobriety I initially said yes and as I began to research the article it gave me a chance to reflect on my own HIV diagnosis and revisit my journey through my diagnosis and recovery.  I have been HIV positive since 1989 and have been sober for 23 years. I can remember when I was first diagnosed and how I felt the floor had fallen out of my life. It was not very hopeful back then and I remember praying for 5 years. My diagnosis led to my crystal meth addiction and a dismantling of my world as I knew it. I had reached a place of zero and I was either going to get sober or continue down this path of self-destruction. Through a happenstance of divine intervention, I chose to get sober and to create a new beginning.

HIV and substance abuse have something in common, they can both perceived as a medical issue and a moral issue, meaning the person did something to cause their addiction or their HIV infection. There is nothing further from the truth. HIV is something you have not something you manifested for yourself.

HIV Stigma / Discrimination  

The stigma of HIV and discrimination can be described as negative attitudes and beliefs about people with HIV. It is the prejudice that comes with labeling an individual as part of a group that is believed to be socially unacceptable. Furthermore, it can be a belief that only certain people can get HIV and a feeling that people deserve to get HIV because of their choices. It can make moral judgements about people who take steps to prevent HIV transmission. It’s hard to believe that HIV stigma and discrimination still exist today but it is still prominent in our society today. 

HIV Stigma is rooted in the fear and ignorance of HIV. Many of people’s ideas of HIV come from HIV images that first appeared in the 80’s. Even today there are still misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted and what it means to live with HIV.  Many people believe that HIV is a disease that only certain groups get, and lack of information and awareness combined with outdated belief lead people to fear getting HIV. This lack of knowledge leads to a negative value judgment about people who are living with HIV.

HIV discrimination is the act of treating people living with HIV differently than those without HIV, such as:

  • A health care professional refusing to provide care or services to a person living with HIV
  • Refusing casual contact with someone living with HIV
  • Socially isolating a member of a community because they are HIV positive
  • Referring to people as “HIVers” or “Positives”

Internalized stigma or “self-stigma” happens when a person takes in the negative ideas and stereotypes about people living with HIV and start to apply them to themselves. This can lead to feelings of shame, fear of disclosure, isolation, and despair. These feelings can keep people from getting tested and treated for HIV.

How do we prevent stigma? Talking openly about HIV can help normalize the subject. It can also provide opportunities to correct misconceptions and help others learn more about HIV. Lead others with pour supportive behaviors. We can all help end HIV stigma through our words and actions in our every day lives.  

HIV Disclosure

It is important to remember that HIV is something you have, not who you are. Negative stigma about the disease can lead to shame and feelings of low self-esteem.  Whether you chose to disclose your status to others is your decision, but it is essential to remember to engage in safer sex practices.  It is important to disclose your status to individuals you are about to have sex with or share needled. Disclose early and remember, if you get rejected because of your HIV status they are rejecting the disease not you. Communicating your HIV to your partner is the first step in keeping you both healthy. There have been some studies that show that people who disclose their HIV status respond better to treatment.

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Negotiating Safer Sex


The Do’s & Don’ts

Negotiating Sober Sex

Chem sex can be described as “like fireworks going off in the brain”. Sober sex is very different than sex when high and quite frankly is often an obstacle for individuals trying to stay sober. Often people wonder if they will ever enjoy sex again sober. The truth is the brain needs time to reset and heal. You may need a period of abstinence from sex before you become sexually active again. How long? It’s hard to say some people suggest 6 months to a year. If the thought of sex leads you to become triggered or crave your drug of choice you may need to back off for a longer a period. Be patient! Your sexual appetite will return and become more intimate, passionate, and satisfying with the right partner. Isn’t that what we are looking for?

Creating A Tribe

A “tribe” are individuals who have walked before you and understand what you are facing and going through. An HIV Tribe can help those living with HIV cope with the challenges of living with the disease. Tribe support is essential in recovery and creating a community of your peers is instrumental to your support and wellbeing.

My tribe has grown and changed over the years through my work in recovery, The Los Angeles LGBT Center and most recently CAST Centers. I have learned how true the above points are for my life.  If you are looking for YOUR tribe, we are here to help. We care and understand where you are, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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