I was diagnosed with herpes at 20 years old, and I wasn’t sad or even surprised. I felt more like, damn, of course, I got herpes. The strangest part was not knowing when exactly I contracted 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.
It’s a sneaky STI: 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 percent of people with herpes don’t show symptoms, you have to go looking for it, assuming you have something your body hasn’t disclosed. Basically, if you went out for drinks with herpes, it would play 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. Numb to the reality of the situation (unlike my genitals), I immediately texted the men with whom I’d recently been sexually active. And 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 ostracize myself 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. It was such a severe paranoia that I ended up being hospitalized. Now, my worst fear had become reality.
And somewhere underneath, I had the more 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 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.”
“So?” my dad replied.
Unfazed by the news, my father affirmed that 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.
But over time, with the help of my father, I came to terms with having herpes. It was an elusive acceptance that didn’t really click until one day, it finally did.
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 was taking Valtrex.
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 cease 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 another conversation entirely). 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 aren’t fans of dogs. I just get occasional sores in my vagina. Everyone has a “thing.” Herpes just gets an unfairly bad rep. You know, like a Gemini.
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. Or be a Gemini.