Laureen talks about receiving her diagnosis and the journey she’s been on to melt the shame typically associated with being HSV2 positive.
Straight / Female / 28–32 / North America / Single
This post is about a personal story that is no longer personal.
A year-and-a-half ago, on a plane from NY to LA, I walked out of the halo of shame I had created for myself by publicly sharing I have genital herpes, and that it doesn’t say a single thing about who I am. Going public about my status was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself, hands down. But prior to that moment, I would have done anything to keep my herpes diagnosis confidential.
I would hide my herpes prescriptions and drugs away from potential visitors’ eyes.
I would joke about STIs with friends, pretending STIs didn’t affect me.
I would doubt new partners’ ability to embrace my STI or keep the information to themselves, and preferred not telling them about it before engaging sexually.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to that Thanksgiving day three years ago where I felt everything but thankful.
Thursday Nov 28th, 2013.
Every Thanksgiving, I make plans to volunteer at a senior home and then spend the evening celebrating with friends.
I wake up that Thursday morning immediately feeling like something is wrong. Not only do I have fever-like symptoms, but there is an abnormal pain in my groin that I can not explain. Peeing is painful, standing up is painful, sitting down is painful and I am so tired that simple movements require what feels like colossal efforts. I resign myself to cancel my volunteering plans, not really sure what to do next.
My GYN has taken the long weekend off and I have to wait until the following Monday to get an appointment with her. My main concern is the burning pain when urinating, and having no medical background I naively assume I am experiencing some sort of pronounced cystitis. I decide to self medicate with ice cubes and ibuprofen, which help to de-escalate the burning sensation. But the fever symptoms and general tiredness knock me out for most of those four days, leaving little headspace for major freakouts. I had no clue that what I was experiencing was my first herpes outbreak.
Monday, Dec 2nd, 2013
I am sitting on the table of the first GYN I was able to schedule an appointment with. I start describing what I’ve been experiencing but her eye catches the symptoms quicker than my words were able to describe them.
“Oh! It’s herpes” she said after a few uncaring glances.
“…What?! Are you sure?”
“Yes, there are lesions. This is herpes”.
[insert GYN’s accusatory looks here]
After taking a swab test of my sore, she writes my first prescription of Acyclovir and tells me to call back in a week for the swab results. No emotional support, no education about the virus, not even a silly pamphlet to teach me how to care for this new inhabitant my body had involuntarily adopted. I leave her office already scheduling an appointment with my actual GYN, still hoping there could have been an error somewhere.
When I finally get to her for a second opinion, my simple questions can’t seem to find simple answers:
Me: How did I contract this STI if my partner and I always used condoms?!
GYN: It’s a skin condition, so condoms are not 100% efficient in preventing transmission.
Me: But my partner got tested and he was negative.
GYN: Well… unless your partner is experiencing an outbreak himself the results are only 50–70% accurate. Anyways, this virus can lay dormant for months or years so you may have carried the virus prior being in this relationship.
Me: Is there a way to tell how long I’ve I had it then?
GYN: No, unfortunately…
Me: But why did I have an outbreak now? Why would the virus suddenly wake up in my body?
GYN: The medical industry has little understanding of what makes a virus go from dormant to active, unfortunately.
I quickly realize that trying to understand why and how this happened isn’t going to be an option. Besides, what’s done is done and my partner’s support is like anesthesia to my emotional pain. I don’t say a word to any friends or relatives. I learn how to heal my sores, and unconsciously decide that was going to be enough.
2014- early 2015
Dating after that relationship doesn’t help me move forward with how I relate to my diagnosis.
New partners, same old struggles. ‘Surely, they wouldn’t agree to even get a drink if they knew of my virus’, I think. Never mind that some of them have had more partners than I ever will in my entire lifetime and have statistically already been exposed to it, multiple times. Never mind that others didn’t make it a priority to consistently use condoms in the first place… I just couldn’t tell them. I prefer sharing intimate parts of my body over sharing intimate parts of my story. For the six foot tall, freckled, European lady they are physically attracted to, it’s a disgrace. I want them to discover the moral and worthy person that I am, yet here I am unable to do her justice. I can’t even think of disclosing before having sex, and while I know this is definitely not the right way, I don’t really believe there are any other ways.
June, 6th 2015
It’s now been a few months since I started intimately seeing this new guy, and I feel like things could potentially go somewhere. I have never disclosed I had herpes to anyone since telling my partner at the time of diagnosis, with whom sharing that information felt more like a discovery rather than an actual disclosure.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, our conversation drifts down the banks of sexuality. I bring up the importance of being open with each other both about what turns us on and about our sexual health. He nods, agreeing with what I say, without knowing what I really mean. My heart is pounding through my chest and after a deep breath I finally let it out… “I have herpes”. No prelude, no caveat, no sugarcoating. I. Have. Herpes.
After talking a little longer to mostly explain why I wouldn’t tell him before — I feel sorry, ashamed, and scared. I can’t say a word anymore. I am mad at myself. I am an unmasked culprit who’d always thought of herself as a victim. I feel responsible for his assumption that I was somehow perfectly healthy.
Damn. I thought I was better than this.
June 16th, 2015
The past ten days have been some of the most challenging and rewarding of my entire life.
After this upsetting disclosure, I figure there has to be a better way to do this. So two years after my diagnosis, I finally get myself to research the ins and outs of herpes and discovered that it is both much more common and much less harmful than our culture makes it out to be…
- One in six Americans has genital herpes
- 80% of genital herpes carriers don’t know they carry it, even though it’s still contagious
- You can catch genital herpes from oral sex (40–50% of new cases of genital herpes comes from oral sex)
- Herpes is not part of the regular STI check up and most doctors won’t test you unless you have symptoms that appear to be an outbreak
This information alone shows me how ubiquitous herpes is. The many articles I find on how the stigma (rather than the sores) is actually the worst part shows me I am not alone in my loneliness. I realize my botched disclosure was first and foremost a reflection of how wrong my perception of my status was — a dirty secret that had the power to define me better than I could.
Had I known it could have taken as little as ten days to get over my diagnosis, I wouldn’t have waited two years to face it. In light of this newly found revelation, I feel an unprecedented urge to share my discovery with everyone.
It’s now 8.30am, and I am sitting on a plane at JFK. We are five minutes away from take off. I take big sips of my coffee to wake me up, and reassure myself one last time that I am not making the biggest mistake of my entire life.
I hit “share” on my Instagram selfie, and invite my social networks to look at the vulnerable self I was no longer ashamed of. I planned to do it right before the flight so I wouldn’t agonize over slow likes or concerned messages from friends.
I turn my phone on airplane mode. Literally and metaphorically, I am taking off.
December, 8th 2016
A YouTube channel, several blog posts, and a whole lot of support later, here I am — introducing herpes positives and negatives to a refreshed version of a long-time misunderstood virus:
Meet herpes, a skin condition that affect 4 billion people under 50 y.o from its first two types alone.
Say hello to cold sores and genital herpes, the identical twins who carry different perceptions while causing identical occasional flare ups.
Say goodbye to the stigma — it never brought anything but pernicious illusions.
. . . . .
How’s that playing out for me, you wonder?
Well, it does sometimes feel like I’m putting myself on the line.
It’s not always simple to explain to people why I do what I do — especially to partners who need to not only accept that I have herpes, but mostly that everybody else is going to know and ask about it.
It’s also easy to completely miss the point and assume that because I don’t feel any shame in having HSV2, it automatically means I’m proud of having it or that I encourage people to be careless about herpes or other STIs.
I don’t. Duh.
What I do encourage is an open conversation about sexual health, because simply put, we have more to lose by staying silent. The less we genuinely talk about STIs, the less educated we are about it, hence the more at risk we are of catching them. And when we do catch them — which statistically happens to more than half of all Americans over their lifetime — we’re not prepared to fight the emotional tornado set to wrongfully ravage our impeccable self-confidence.
People can and will say what they want to say, but if you ask me:
I’m proud of having confronted something that terrified me.
I’m proud of being able to find strength in vulnerability.
I’m proud of walking the talk that if it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s therefore nothing to hide.
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