Todd Kulczyk is an American counselor who recently moved to Iceland and has joined the team of councilors at national queer organization Samtökin ’78 where one of his fields of speciality will be counseling HIV-positive people, their families and loved ones. He wants to reignite the awareness of HIV and not least the plight of those who got a death sentence in their twenties but are now facing retirement age.
I have never met Todd Kulczyk before, but entering a café in downtown Reykjavík on a rainy afternoon there can be no doubt about which one of the people sitting there is him. He radiates self-confidence and his face is one of the most expressive I have come across. An American in Reykjavík is not a rare sight, but this one stands out. A man with a purpose.
Todd worked in theatres before he became a counselor and it´s obvious that he’s quite a performer, which comes in handy in his recent job. Having lived in Seattle for the last thirteen years, he claims the weather in Iceland – endless rain – is quite familiar to him. Asked how he ended up in Iceland his face literally lights up. “Oh, it’s such a romantic story!” he exclaims. “I had a stopover in Iceland on my way back to Seattle from a trip to Europe and this beautiful man was seated next to me. We got talking and in these seven hours that the flight lasted we fell in love. It’s like destiny!”
Last year the two flight passengers got married and last December Todd moved to Reykjavík, where his husband lived. He had been working as a counselor in Seattle and not being one who hangs around he contacted The National Queer Organization and has now joined their team. He admits he does not know much about the situation of HIV-positive people in Iceland but he is eager to learn and besides the difficulties facing them are universal.
“Being diagnosed HIV-positive is always a huge shock,” he explains. “And people are facing so many tough questions; when to tell their partner and families, for example, and if you’re single do you have a duty to tell eventual sexual partners that you are positive, or is it the responsibility of them to ask? Do you tell your employer and workmates, or is it too personal information? How people choose to tackle these questions depends on the individual, of course, but it’s the role of the counselor to help them clarify all these issues, as best he/she/they can.”
According to a new report more people in Iceland were diagnosed with HIV last year than the years before and Todd says that it is worrying that the discussion in society seems to have dwindled. “It’s no longer a death sentence, of course, but it’s still worrying how little attention this rise in diagnosis is getting,” he says. “I don’t have all the information on how these things are handled here, but it’s my feeling that very few people are even thinking about the risk of getting HIV anymore. That’s worrying. Even if it can now be controlled with medication it’s still a very serious disease and has a huge impact on those that are diagnosed and all around them. We absolutely have to get the discussion going again.”
“… it’s worrying how little attention this rise in diagnosis is getting. … it’s my feeling that very few people are even thinking about the risk of getting HIV anymore. That’s worrying.”
Talking about a death sentence Todd takes a small detour and starts talking about the plight of those who were diagnosed 30-40 years ago when it still meant a certain death. “These people are facing big difficulties. If you got a death sentence in your twenties you did not make any plans for the future. You didn’t pursue a carrier, plan a family or save for your retirement. You didn’t expect to live that long. Now many of those people are facing retirement age, and they have no idea how they can manage that. Many of my clients in the States were in this position and I am assuming that the same goes for HIV positive people in Iceland. So that’s one of the issues I hope to help people with as a counselor at The National Queer Organization.”
So far Todd has not had any HIV-positive clients in his new job, but he is eager to let people know he is there and that everyone that is HIV-positive, or who loves someone who is, is welcome. But how should people who want to get in touch with him go about it?
“Oh, that’s easy. Just contact The National Queer Organization’s office and order an appointment,” he says and smiles from ear to ear. “
But is the counseling different for those who have just been diagnosed and their loved ones?
“Yes and no. The main purpose of a good counselor is to be a good listener and that applies to every client no matter what the stage of the disease he/she/they is in. But of course newly diagnosed people face other difficulties than those who have been positive for many years.
In Seattle I worked for a while at a clinic where people came to get tested and helped those who got diagnosed positive to deal with the initial shock. It’s important to realise that when you are diagnosed you go through the same grief progress as if you lose something that is dear to you. You go through the shock, the denial, the anger, etc. And it’s healthy and completely natural. How or when or if you decide to tell your nearest and dearest is completely up to you. There are no rules about how to deal with this kind of news. So I always urge people to take their time to decide how to go about it.
Some people worry that if they go to a counselor he/she/they will tell their loved ones about the diagnosis, but of course we have client counselor confidiality and never do that. The decisions about what to do, how and when always lie with the client. I have witnessed a newly diagnosed guy tell his partner that the results had been negative and there was absolutely nothing I could do to correct that. I had advised him to come clear, of course, but it was totally his decision and I had to respect that. So people who are worried about the counselor speaking out of terms can rest assured that could never happen.
“It’s important to realise that when you are diagnosed you go through the same grief progress as if you lose something that is dear to you. You go through the shock, the denial, the anger, etc. And it’s healthy and completely natural.”
You may rely on me to maintain confidentiality regarding work with clients. However, there are a few exceptions. If a client is going to do harm to themselves or another, ethically it is a counsellor’s duty to inform. The story above was a specific situation in the early 1990’s in a clinic that held client’s anonymity.”
But are you never pressed to step in if you see a client take a completely wrong approach in your opinion? “Of course a counselor is human and has his own opinions, but he/she/they has to leave them at the door. It is never acceptable to try to make people do something that they don’t want to do. A counselor like that is going against his own purpose. We are all biased, one way or another, but that may never be allowed to affect your work with the clients. Never!”
This is my cue to turn off the phone recording and thank Todd for his time. Those who want to see more of him can go to his Facebook Group Site Therapy Cooperative – Iceland and see him in action. And, as he pointed out, the counselors at national queer organization Samtökin ’78 are only a phone-call or an email away.