The release of the latest installment of “The Exorcist” film franchise, “Exorcist: The Beginning” is another variation of the now classic theme of exorcising an invasive supernatural demon who has taken possession of an innocent young person – in the original film, a young girl, in the latest installment, a young boy. What is it about this story that fascinates us so much that Hollywood re-tells it every few years? Perhaps it is the classic battle of good versus evil, or perhaps it resonates within us the age-old mythologic struggle for us to identify and drive out the most nefarious aspects of our own personality. For many, the struggle with their own personal “demon within” is that of anger.
Recently, a woman living with HIV described to me her own struggle to come to terms with the anger that she held toward the man who infected her, whom she trusted enough to engage in unsafe sex but later found that her trust was unfounded. The man was secretly bisexual, had contracted HIV from unsafe sex with a man, and kept this secret while having unsafe sex with her, resulting in HIV transmission. This scenario is all too common in stories of HIV transmission, particularly among women who are in relationships with men who are secretly bisexual. These men succumb to societal homophobia and intolerance such that their judgment is impaired regarding HIV risk.
The result was not only this woman’s struggle to come to terms with her HIV diagnosis on a medical level, but on a psychological, emotional, and spiritual level as well. She had a low viral load and high t-cells, and no urgent medical needs, but nevertheless her life was impacted by both the adjustment to living with HIV and the rage and resentment she held toward the man who infected her, in essence, with his dishonesty. How does a person come to terms with that?
I had a number of points to offer this woman in feedback. First, we must all cope with regrets in life. She regretted placing her trust in a man such that she abandoned safer sex practices. But, all of us, whether HIV-positive or negative, must learn to tolerate and accept that all lives will carry at least some regret about past decisions; it’s part of being human, having free will, and having to constantly make decisions to cope in life. Second, we must accept responsibility for things, even when we feel “victimized.” Sure, the man was dishonest and violated a gravely important trust, but she also put herself in harm’s way by not discussing and insisting on learning the man’s sexual practices and history and ultimately taking responsibility for safety in her sex life. Third, one component of good mental health is to focus on the future; we can’t “go back and fix” things that we wish we had done differently, except (as is done in 12-Step programs) where we can apologize or otherwise “make amends” by actively trying to correct past mistakes to the best of our ability, when it is wise to do so. By focusing on the future, we can forgive ourselves of our past regrets and make sound decisions that shape a healthy future, based on the information we have at the time.
In all cases of HIV, which is inter-personally transmitted, “someone” infected us. This is true for all cases of HIV in the world, whether by sexual intercourse, sharing needles, or use of contaminated blood products. This is the nature of all infectious diseases that are transmitted among humans through all history. In most cases, the transmission was certainly not intentional, even if it was careless or ignorant. We gain much by actively forgiving and “letting go” of the notion that we have been purposefully wronged, for our desire to prosecute and punish the source of our infection almost always goes unfulfilled, and wouldn’t change our own circumstances, anyway. We gain much more by focusing on our utilizing own life resources such as family, friends, work, love, play, health, and savoring what is still “right” with life, despite the loss of the security and luxury of being HIV-negative.
By actively forgiving and letting go, and making the choice instead to focus on building a better, more informed future, we serve as our own “exorcist” of our personal demons. And when we do this, we are free.