My world seemed like it was ending that day. I watched my future love life shatter, sense of self deplete, and my dreams unwoven. That day in mid-July of 2015, I left the urgent care clinic with more than a genital herpes diagnosis; I left with an identity crisis.
Late nights of research and communication over forums and blogs deepened my curiosity about the virus. The World Health Organization estimates that more than two-thirds of the world under the age of 50 are infected with HSV-1*, and more than half a billion people under 50 have either HSV-1 or HSV-2**, and yet the stigma remains. Although conversations about the normalcy of herpes are becoming more common, the stigma is what is most difficult to deconstruct.
For me, my herpes diagnosis rocked three major parts of my world.
Dating and love
Falling in love and being loved were of primary concern from the moment I found out I had contracted herpes. Sharing life adventures with a partner has been in the back of my mind since childhood. After my diagnosis, my romantic perspective shifted to fear. Who will want me when they find out that I have this? echoed in my mind for months. How will I even begin to tell someone I’m interested in that I have herpes?
When people reach out to me about living with herpes, their number one question is usually about dating. How and when is the “right” time to tell someone you have herpes? For me, this question is tricky to navigate and extremely personal. My disclosures tend to be outside the norm because I am so public about my herpes status through my social media. More often than not, I am the one being approached. For example, my current partner simply asked, “What do I need to do to protect myself?” There was no sense of shame or wrongdoing on my part, and he even agreed that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) should not be stigmatized. I do not believe there is one true “right” time to tell someone, but there is a way to prepare yourself when sharing your diagnosis.
When disclosing to anyone, whether it's a friend or romantic partner, be prepared for judgement and lack of education and acceptance. As an unfortunate reality as that is, that mentality and misunderstanding is the result of universal fear produced by the stigma. I was happy that conversation with my partner transpired so effortlessly, but I was also surprised by his warm acceptance. In these discussions, I find it important to come prepared with education, honesty, and, if you’re comfortable sharing, your own story. While statistics and academia stand as fact, I find that it is one’s personal story that sheds the most light on the realities of the disease and begin to deconstruct stigmas.
Sense of self
When I first looked at myself in the mirror after my diagnosis, the only word that came to mind was “slut.” It was in this moment that I first became aware of the inadequacies in my own sex education. Despite my knowledge and background as a gender and sexuality studies major, I still held stereotypical beliefs about STIs and the individuals who I thought were most likely to contract them. It took me months to break down these personal barriers and dissociate myself from knowledge that I once held true.
I was a recent graduate working my dream internship at a diversity office before my herpes-induced self-destruction derailed my professional aspirations. Aside from the overwhelming feeling of tiredness and sense of shame, I lost my sense of purpose, and thus, my drive. My desires to succeed quickly vanished. Four days a week at work quickly turned into three, two, and suddenly, none. My graduate school dreams were cast aside as I struggled with not only the question of what I wanted to accomplish professionally, but what I could accomplish professionally.
Where I am today
A little over two years have passed since the day that I was convinced my world was over, and I am not the woman I thought I’d be then — I’m better. I find myself in a positive dating relationship with a partner who is open to and accepting of my story. I followed my dream of moving to a city that could accommodate my zest and active lifestyle needs. I began my graduate education in social work and human sexuality that I originally sought in summer of 2015. Perhaps most important, though, are the goals that I did not have before my diagnosis. My original curiosity and desire to educate others about herpes led to the creation of my blog and other written work, speaking opportunities, and research interests.
Herpes does not have to be the “beginning of the end” or a death sentence to one’s love life, as it is so often portrayed. For me, my diagnosis was the beginning of a quest for knowledge and the fulfillment of a deeper life purpose. While I can’t be there to provide comforting words that assure everyone will accept your herpes diagnosis, I am here to tell you that there are people who will, and there is hope for your love life, professional life, and personal goals. I believe this goes beyond herpes, too.
I like to look at my diagnosis as part of my story. We all have stories — some are good, some are bad, and others fall somewhere in between. In healthy relationships and friendships, we reach a point where we have developed enough trust to feel comfortable sharing very intimate pieces of our stories. To me, herpes is simply a piece of my story, and an example of the power a shift in perspective can have on one’s outcome.
*HSV-1: Commonly known as oral herpes, but can present orally (cold sores) or genitally.
**HSV-2: Usually sexually transmitted; commonly referred to as genital herpes.