My eyebrows were overplucked, my nose had not quite grown into my face, and my braces seemed eternal. Middle school was no easy feat of survival, but never once did I ask myself, “Who will ever love me?” with the gravity that I did when I was diagnosed with genital herpes in July 2015 as a 22-year-old.
Darkness After STI Diagnosis
There are several distinctive moments from my first six months with a positive herpes diagnosis that stick out amongst the rest; questioning my future romantic relationships was at the top of the list. Before my diagnosis, I had spent the past five years of my life rebuilding my self-esteem after recovering from an eating disorder. That confidence and strength was quickly demolished as soon as the words “This looks herpetic” left the doctor’s tongue.
I started to doubt myself, my future, and my possibility of finding love and acceptance within a future partner. I remember asking myself, “Who will love me now that I have this?” Stigma and shame were rooted in my self-perception before I even left the urgent care clinic, and it only continued to grow as time passed.
After graduating from college with honors, it felt that my life had ended as quickly as my post-graduate life began. What was even more perplexing is that I received my undergraduate degree in gender and sexuality studies — I felt like I should have more knowledge about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than I did. Any knowledge that I was equipped with was quickly overshadowed by stigmas and stereotypes perpetuated in the media of what people with STIs were supposed to be: dirty, diseased, and slutty. I did not identify with any of these labels but began to see myself through that stereotypical lens, especially when I stared into my reflection.
There was no definitive moment that reigns supreme among others — looking into the mirror was difficult no matter if it was five seconds or 20 minutes. There was no longer strength and courage in my eyes, but despair and doubt. I did not recognize who I was. The determined 22-year-old woman that I had grown into became overshadowed by a world of uncertainty. I stopped going to my internship that I was once so excited about and appreciative for. I fell out of my early morning gym routine and replaced determination with drinking.
Several days before Christmas, my then-partner broke things off between us through a Snapchat text. I remember receiving it while standing at my mechanic’s garage. I opened it and was too stunned to do anything. I went cold. I could not believe that an almost 30-year-old male could not face me in person. After a week of black lipstick and deep reflection, the Snapchat breakup posited an important question to me: Can you even face yourself?
Finding Purpose After Herpes Diagnosis
I had tossed around the idea of a blog before the breakup, and even wrote one post in which I described its genesis as a direct relation to that summer’s dark circumstances. It was not until after Christmas that I decided to go public with my diagnosis on Facebook, and subsequently, my blog. The most difficult part of my disclosure was not revealing that I had herpes, but acknowledging and apologizing for how I handled my diagnosis:
“Friends and family members have seen me struggle navigating life post-graduation and post-diagnosis, and it has been a complete disaster — I have been a complete disaster. There are times when I have been an irresponsible, immature, and sh--ty person over the last six months. I cannot change my actions, or how I handled my herpes diagnosis, but I believe that in sharing my story, I have the potential to change others in similar situations as myself. For a brief moment of time, I let herpes define me, but now, I’m choosing to define myself.”
I created an open dialogue with family, friends, and strangers to educate and increase awareness about the realities of STIs. What I once viewed as a near-death sentence to my love life and identity transformed into a sense of purpose that still guides me today.
Deep experiences tend to have a profound impact on how we live our lives. In my case, my herpes diagnosis created a niche research interest and deeper purpose that still fit within my initial theme of self-love and added desire to create a safer space for discussion surrounding STIs.