Last month I facilitated a dialogue for the Soul City Institute as part of the “Respect Me“ programme at the Wits University campus in Johannesburg.

After the dialogue, two young women approached me. One said that a good friend had recently disclosed her HIV positive status, and she wondered what to do, how to help.

This is what I told her, based on my experience as a young woman living with HIV.

Three things to do:

1. Listen. It sounds simple but sometimes one just needs to be heard. There is tremendous healing power in telling our stories of battling with chronic disease or the death of a loved one. It might be the most powerful medicine on earth for the story-teller.

2. Allow the teller to be vulnerable.The gateway to intimacy is being vulnerable about your imperfections. Watch a great Ted Talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability.

3. Offer support. You might be the only person that they can be open with. You can help by reminding them to take their pills on time or just offering to listen, anytime.

Three things to avoid:

1. Do not make a disappearing act, and don’t start treating them as if they have some special condition. We are the same person, with or without the virus.

2. Do not take on a counsellor’s role. Leave this to trained counsellors, who are able to deal with the pressures and emotional demands it involves. Taking on this responsibility might drain your energy and discourage you from helping others in the future.

3. Don’t go overboard. Do not offer to do things that may place a huge burden on you, such as taking your friend to the clinic regularly. This could make you resentful and spoil your friendship. If you make a commitment and it becomes too heavy, tell your friend. Be open and honest.

My experience of disclosing

My older cousin was among the first people I told about my HIV+. I was 23 years old, back in 2007, a new mother, diagnosed four months earlier, and she was in her mid-thirties.

I remember warmly how she made me feel I was the same person, with or without HIV. She made me understand that I did not have to act differently, that my status was an internal issue rather than external, and that I first had to deal with my emotional well-being.

If and when I accepted that I am HIV positive for the rest of my life, I would have won the battle against self stigma and self-discrimination.

This acceptance has been a continuous process in my life. And, yes, not everyone I disclosed to was as welcoming, non-judgemental or supportive as I would have wished. But my cousin set me on the right path with her wise words, and you can do the same for your friends.

And remember, kindness comes round. The more we give, the more we receive.

(Zandi “Princess Zar” Mqwathi is a confident, innovative young leader and a former radio personality with a zeal and drive to use her craft and experiences to educate and empower other young women).