By David Martin, PhD, ABPP (Senior Director, APA Office on AIDS)
Charlie Sheen revealed in an interview with Matt Lauer on the TODAY show on November 17, 2015 that he has HIV. Mr. Sheen is very well-known, and different from many, if not most, people with HIV in many ways—he’s rich, he’s famous, and he’s White, among others. But I can think of at least seven ways in which he is just like most people with HIV.
1. Charlie Sheen didn’t know he had HIV. He only found out when he was sick and in the hospital and after a number of medical tests.
Today, almost one in eight of the people living with HIV in the United States don’t know they have HIV because they haven’t been tested.
You don’t have to wait until you’re sick to be tested for HIV. The CDC recommends that all people seen in health care settings be tested for HIV routinely, and that people at high risk for HIV be tested at least every year: If you have sex with partners you don’t know and you don’t use condoms, or if you inject drugs, you should be tested every year. AIDS.gov has an HIV testing site locator you can use to find a place where you can get tested at no charge, in addition to other HIV-related services.
2. His emotional reaction to finding out he had HIV ranged from depression and anxiety to shame, anger, fear, and hopelessness: “It’s a hard three letters to absorb.”
Many, if not most, people who test positive for HIV have exactly these emotions, and they can last for months or even years.
3. He used drugs and alcohol to cope with his HIV infection, and they impaired his judgment.
Drug and alcohol use are common among people with HIV, frequently in response to the depression and anxiety that accompany an HIV positive status.Many people with HIV seek treatment for their depression, anxiety, and substance use. If you have HIV and you are depressed or anxious, seeking help is perfectly OK. Quitting or cutting down on alcohol or drug use is hard. You shouldn’t be ashamed to seek help if you want to stop or reduce your use of alcohol or drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator you can use to find local resources.
In fact, when he did tell people he thought he could trust, some demanded money to keep his secret—he faced betrayal when he needed compassion and acceptance. In many ways Mr. Sheen’s experience embodies the fear that prevents many people from telling others about their HIV status: They are ashamed of their HIV, and they may be afraid of rejection or that those they do tell will tell someone else. Hiding something you are ashamed of can be harmful.
As his doctor noted when asked, because he has been taking his medication faithfully, he can expect to live a long and productive life. People who have HIV, who are in treatment, and who consistently take their medication as prescribed can be expected to live lives almost as long as they would if they didn’t have HIV. They are also far less likely to give HIV to their sex partners.
Many people with HIV come to view their HIV disease as a “catalyst for growth,” a chance to rearrange priorities. For example some people leave jobs they see as meaningless to take jobs that give meaning to their lives, and many have devoted their lives to preventing HIV and to helping others with HIV. You can read the personal stories of people living with HIV here.
It would be easy to condemn Mr. Sheen for behaviors that may have led to his HIV status (after all, he’s an easy person not to like). This is not the time for that—in fact I’m not sure there is a right time for that. Most people with HIV are painfully aware of the behaviors that led to their HIV status. Reminding them doesn’t change their HIV, and if they’re trying to change it may actually get in the way. This is a time to recognize his humanity. I thank and commend Mr. Sheen for his courage in publicly disclosing his HIV status, and I wish him well in his continued recovery. I hope we can all learn from his experience.
You can visit the American Psychological Association’s Office on AIDS website for information on psychology and HIV. You can also read an interview with Perry Halkitis, a respected HIV/AIDS researcher at New York University on Surviving the AIDS Epidemic conducted at the American Psychological Association.