No matter how many resources you’re presented with, you still can’t shake the feeling of nothingness from your shoulders. The doctor hands you a pamphlet entitled “Living with Genital Herpes,” with what appears to be a couple in the middle of a serious conversation. For you, this image ignites a deep depression. Your ideas of partnership, love, casual sex, and the like crumble as soon as the words “You have genital herpes” leave the doctor’s lips.
Despite the 11 million people aged 15-49 who contract genital herpes each year, you still feel like the only person in the world who has it. As each day passes, you find yourself asking, “Why? Why me? Why does it have to be me?” on a more frequent basis.
Your friends and family notice your inner light fading as you begin to withdraw from the things that make you, “you.” The smiles you used to share with loved ones turn into days clouded by closed doors, absent communication, and avoidance of any kind of touch. It just isn’t the same now that you live beneath the shadow of the herpes stigma.
Although you would much prefer to be shielded from the world, you still need a paycheck. You begrudgingly walk into your office, but significant change is evident. Your professional identity still exists, but you were unaware of the effect a herpes diagnosis would have on your working relationships. A business partner reaches across the table to shake your hand. Time stops as the hand approaches in slow motion, and somehow you muster the confidence to reach out and join in a lifeless shaking.
Lodged between your physical and emotional pain is a growing curiosity. You think to yourself, “If so many people have this virus, why are so few of them talking about it?”
The more you withdraw from your pre-herpes world, the more you find yourself buried in the depths of the internet searching for answers. Initially seeking more detailed information than the original pamphlet the doctor handed you, you are unexpectedly overwhelmed with hundreds of forums, articles, and fact sheets about herpes. A small piece of the stigma is lifted as you discover that these people are living your reality. These are your people, the ones every medical professional claims exist but you could never find before. While you know these forums may not offer the most reliable information about the herpes virus, they are a great source of connection and help lift the feeling of loneliness from your bones.
As you network and confide in your new virtual support group, you begin to find some semblance of your personal identity. After scrolling through stories of fear, depression, and uncertainty, you found what you did not know you needed: hope.
As you read through these experiences, you discover that it is still possible to find love and accepting partners even with the herpes virus. In fact, some of these individuals contracted the virus because their partner had a cold sore (a form of the virus, HSV-1) at the time they performed oral sex. There are even women diagnosed with herpes who became pregnant and delivered healthy children by making informed decisions with their doctors.
You may never be the “you” your family, friends, and you knew yourself to be before your herpes diagnosis, but that’s OK. You begin to cultivate a new identity. Sure, you may suffer from bouts of depression and hit a few low points along the way, but you begin to build an attitude of resilience. It might not be tomorrow, or even this year, but one day, you know you will be OK.
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Emily Depasse is a Philly-based writer, yogi, and aspiring sex therapist who intertwines her creative spark with holistic health, fitness, and sexual wellness. She received her BA in Gender and Sexuality Studies in 2015 and is currently working on her MSW and MEd Human Sexuality. Her research interests include sexually transmitted infections and the role that female body image plays in shaping sexual experiences. Follow Emily on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to her personal blog.