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TPAN starts group for serodiscordant couples
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Erica Demarest, Windy City Times

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Serodiscordant couples—those in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other is -negative—have a new resource in town as the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN) launches its newest therapy group, TheTwoOfUs.

Starting Oct. 29, the free six-week session will provide prevention education, therapy and support for up to five couples. Participants must be 18 or older; people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are welcome.

"There are increasingly more serodiscordant relationships…. [as] negative people become more open to dating positive people," said Michael Valdez, TPAN's psychosocial program manager. "But if one partner doesn't know how to support or understand the other, it puts stress on a relationship."

The innovative therapy program, funded by a grant from the Gibbs Family Foundation, will divide its time between education and group discussions—with the first three weeks focusing on medication, prevention and best practices.

"We have so many new tools," said Valdez, who will coordinate the sessions. "There's PrEP [short for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], where a negative person can take medication everyday… And there's now an updated female—or receptive partner—condom that's made of nitrile, which [offers] a lot more sensation than latex. … We just have so much more."

The final three weeks will turn toward inward. Participants can discuss sexuality, intimacy, fear and stigma in a safe, small-group setting.

Julie Supple, director of client services, said mental health and counseling programs for HIV-negative partners are practically nonexistent.

"[They] often feel very out of the loop," Supple said. "They don't get any services and feel very disconnected because their partner is going through all of this stuff, and … there's not a lot of programs [that welcome] the HIV-negative person."

Conversely, Supple said, many HIV-positive people feel responsible for their partner's health.

"HIV-positive people sometimes feel like there's an imbalance in the relationship because… they have to carry that burden of, 'Oh my gosh, I have to be responsible not only for my own health, but if my partner gets HIV, I'd feel like it's my fault,'" Supple said. "That's a lot of pressure."

Valdez hopes the group, which TPAN designed based on requests from its clients and case managers, can start to address those disparities.

TPAN will offer two additional six-week sessions in 2013, for a total of three per fiscal year. Supple hopes the group's success will lead to additional grant funding for serodiscordant services.

"This is a prevention angle that's been overlooked," Supple said. "There are a lot of individuals who are testing positive because of the relationship they're in… Sometimes talking about sexuality for couples is already difficult. People get scared, and when they're scared, they shut down. This is a place where people can talk about it."

Supple continued, "A lot of times, I've heard HIV-negative people say: If we have unsafe sex, and I become positive, then I'll just go on medicine and we'll adapt; I won't have to worry about it anymore. If that person had gotten education and support, they might think really differently."

TheTwoOfUs meets Mondays from 6-8:30 p.m. at TPAN's office, 5537 N. Broadway, starting Monday, Oct. 29. To register for the group, contact Michael Valdez at 773-989-9400 ext. 246 or .

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