Forthcoming Herpes Story
(to be published in in November)
I was diagnosed with herpes at 20 years old.
I don’t know when I got it: Herpes can lie dormant for years — sometimes, forever. Yes: You can be asymptomatic your entire life, blissfully unaware that you’re carrying, and possibly transmitting, herpes.
She’s a sneaky STI (to the tune of “she’s a very freaky girl”): Unlike chlamydia and gonorrhea, herpes isn’t included in routine STI screenings, and is only detectable via requested blood tests and/or if you’re having an outbreak. But since nearly 90% of people with herpes don’t show symptoms, you have to go looking for it, assuming you have something your body hasn’t disclosed. So rude, playing hard to get.
I got lucky though: I had an outbreak. Lucky in the sense that I know, unlucky because I endured the agony of a thousand angry UTIs. The first outbreak is customarily the worst, mine an aggregate of the worst flu I’d ever had and the perpetual sensation of being vaginally penetrated by shards of cursed broken glass that emerged from a volcano.
I sought treatment at campus health services, where they concluded that what I now know were herpes sores were mosquito bites, saying less about my symptoms than the state of sex ed in Upstate New York.
They did eventually realize their mosquito-misunderstanding and called that weekend to let me know. It was Saint Patrick’s Day: I’d just dyed the tips of my hair green for the “holiday,” and was drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade atop the toilet, trying to pee. Upon hearing my diagnosis, I wasn’t sad, or even surprised, it was more like: I’m a pretty big slut, of course I got herpes. That’s statistics!
Numb to the reality of the situation (unlike my genitals), I texted the two men with whom I’d recently been sexually active: Ben, from school, and Sam, my long-distance ex: “We have to talk.” But the second I hit “send” I panicked, convinced they would kill me for ruining their lives (funny, worried about theirs, I never stopped to think about mine).
I talked to Ben first. We met outside the library. When I told him the news, he moaned, “Not again!” (He’d recently gone through this with somebody else.)
Feeling guilty, he drove me to pick up my Valtrex, promising to get tested. We then went to his Saint Patrick’s Day party where he held up me for my first — and only — keg stand. I wore questionably small shorts with an outbreak that he was very fully aware of, yet his face was buried contently in my crotch as he supported me in more ways than one so I, Herpes Queen, could chug cheap beer upside down. Now that’s a real feminist ally.
Later that week, he called to say he didn’t have it. I don’t know how the results came back so fast, nor do I have a way to verify this. Regardless, he kept seeing me, unperturbed by the virus.
Ben died this year, hence my inability to fact-check. STI Silver lining though: He may physically be gone, but I’ll always have a part of him with me, since, like grief, herpes is incurable. So from now on, each time I feel that itch in my crotch, I’ll know its him having come to say hello.
Next up was Sam. I dreaded the conversation, having spent the past year trying to forget him while he’d immediately moved on, already dating someone new. And now, to make matters worse, I had to give him a very robust reminder of all the bullets he’d dodged by dumping me.
Our call was swift. I told him the truth, that he should get tested. He thanked me for letting him know, and hung up.
That’s when it hit me.
I was the girl who had herpes. I was the butt — well, genital — of the joke. I was why people don’t share drinks. I was the one to stay away from.
Guess I’ll die alone, I thought, prepared to get to a nunnery.
I fell into a deep depression, self-medicating with alcohol, contemplating suicide. The diagnosis took me right back to my sexual assault, which left me with PTSD and a paralyzing phobia of contracting STIs — a paranoia so severe I’ve been hospitalized as a result. Now, my fear had become reality.
And, I had the shallow concern that no one would ever date me again.
Friends suggested I join herpes dating sites, only making me feel worse: I couldn’t legally drink alcohol, yet there I was, already signing onto sites for the socially outcast and stigmatized. I refused, resenting their suggestions and STI-free statuses.
I felt completely alone, and thought I was the only person I knew with the virus. Statistically however, there’s no way that was true: Two thirds of the world population has herpes.
Defeated, I called my dad. Through uncontrollable sobs I declared his daughter a disgrace: “I have herpes,” I wailed. “And I am so, so sorry.”
Unfazed by the news, Dad affirmed life wasn’t over, going so far as to list the dozens of people we knew who had it, too. While this was slightly reassuring, I didn’t feel better. Those were full-grown adults — I was only 20. “It’s only hard because you’re the first,” he said, and I realized he was right. I was the herpes pioneer, and it’s lonely at the top.
And so, strangely, with the help of my father, I came to terms with having herpes.
As for dating: Two years later, I met the love of my life. I’d accepted living with herpes, freely discussing it with friends. But falling in love all over again — and this time, in real head-over-heels-I-think-I’ll-marry-this-guy-love, presented a problem: I had to tell him what I had. And if this guy couldn’t take it, my heart would never recover.
I hid the secret for as long as I could — something I’m not proud of. I still feel guilty. I know it was wrong. But I also knew the chances of losing the man I loved — how high they were if I told the truth, and how low the risk of transmission was because I took Valtrex anyway.
The guilt caught up with me though. Two months into dating, on vacation, sitting in my grandmother’s backyard of all places, I turned to him and through tears, blurted: “I have to tell you something. You’re going to hate me.”
It took twenty minutes: Every time I tried, I choked. “I’m so sorry. It’s really bad,” I bawled, convinced this was the end. “I have herpes.”
“That’s it?” He laughed. “Please don’t scare me like that again.”
I won’t bore you with the rest of our story, but, we’re married now, and no — he still hasn’t contracted herpes.
I’m under no illusion that everyone reacts to herpes like my husband did. I got lucky: He was educated on the subject, but very few people are — and it’s going to stay that way until STIs stop being so wrongly stigmatized. Somehow, society still perpetuates the notion that STIs mean there’s something wrong with you, when really all it means is that you caught something that can be treated, like a cold. Or in herpes’ case, an uninvited yet recurring character who lives in your crotch rent-free: Kramer the STI.
Sure, it’s itchy, and technically “incurable,” but it’s manageable (assuming you have access to an affordable Valtrex prescription which is a whole other conversation). Easier than allergies: I sneezed six times in a row last week, and it pretty much ruined my morning. Herpes, however, hasn’t bothered me at all, never having marred my mascara before work. (But really, I don’t know the last time I had an outbreak.)
I may be fine now, but it took eight years to get here. Eight years of excruciating outbreaks and awkward conversations to accept that yes, I have herpes, but it doesn’t define me: It’s just a part of who I am. And everyone has something: For some it’s, road rage. Others don’t like dogs. I just get occasional sores in my vagina. Everyone has a “thing.” Herpes just gets an unfairly bad rep.
(To clarify, I’m not condoning going out of your way to get it. I’m just saying, if you do, it’s not the end of the world.)
And if someone doesn’t date you because of your STI status, know they’re not the one for you. Because the person you belong with should accept all of you — herpes, road rage, whatever-your-thing-is and all.
It took me too long to figure that out, and that’s why I’m sharing my story: So someone else scared and confused who thinks they’re alone like I did, will know: Herpes is nothing to be ashamed of or hide from, and you will find peace — and humor — in being honest with yourself and others.
And for the record, I’d rather have herpes than dislike dogs.