Friday, May 22, 2009

AIDS Groups

Before I worked in the AIDS unit,I ran an AIDS support group every week in general population. There are about 14 men in the core group and usually a medical staff person would co-lead the group so that medical issues could be addressed. The group was on-going. New members came and others were discharge to go home, to go upstate, or to go to the hospital. No one wanted to go to the AIDS unit because it was called the morgue. People only went there to die.

One of the topics which often came up in the group was the attitude of people who were not infected toward those who are infected. In general population, the men were very wary about letting others know that they had the virus. We called the group The Wellness Group. When the correction officers called for them, they announced "The Wellness Group Meeting". I don't know how many men were fooled but they felt better than having officers announce "The AIDS Group" meeting.

The group sometimes talked about hurt and the pain they feel by the rejection of their families, friends, neighbors, and other residents. Even some of the lawyers who represented them said stupid things. One attorney called me and asked about her client's T-Cell count. With his permission and because I thought that she would ask the judge to consider an alternative to incarceration program, I told her that his T-Cell count was in the single digits. She said that she was worried that he would infect people in the court. I told her that if she didn't plan to have unprotected sex with him or to share a needle with him in court that she was safe and so was the court.

The group members said that it makes them feel like lepers and generally lousy about themselves. One of the ways we used to combat the feeling was by asking group members if they gave the person that right to judge them. The court might judge their crime, a jury might judge them but did they give that person the same right? We discussed these outside opinions and when they became more important than our own judgment. The group members thought about all the people they each gave power to judge them. One man said that he gave smiles to his mother when she fed him, or bathed him, or played with him. He said that he began trying to please early on and gave a lot of power to judge him. He said that he gave power to teachers to tell him if he was smart or dumb. Another group member said that he gave power to the coach at school to tell him if he was a good enough player to make the team. Someone else talked about how important it was for him to be liked at school and that he let others judge him, to let him know if he was cool. He said that he let them judge him. The group discussed all the power they had given to let other people judge them. We all give power to people. We cared what they thought and we gave people power to judge us. We gave them power to make us feel lousy about ourselves.

I use poker chips to illustrate power. The blue chips represent a lot of power. We usually give blue chips to people who are really important to us, mothers, wives, significant others. The red chips are still enough power to hurt. We give them to friends, associates, and other people we care about. The white chips have less power and sometimes we give them out without thinking. We allow anyone to judge us.

I put a lot of power chips of all colors on the table and asked the men to take as many as they wanted. I asked them to think about how much power they gave and take chips to represent it. I asked them to name the people they gave the power to but not to say it out loud if they didn't want to reveal. I asked them to think about whether or not they were happy with the power they gave. I asked them to decide whether or not they wanted the person to keep the power. I asked they to remember they they gave the power and they could take it back anytime they wanted. I asked them to remember that no one can take it, they could only give it for as long as they wanted the person to have it.

I gave they each a blue chip to keep to remind them who had the power. There is nothing magical or mystical about the chip. It is just a reminder.