Breaking the stigma of genital herpes
By ROSE BUD
“I’m 98 percent positive it’s herpes. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. I know of a 70 year old woman who’d been widowed for 10 years and never had an outbreak until one day…”
That’s when I stopped listening to my gynecologist trying to make me feel better as I’m legs-spread-baring-it-all on the examination table, bawling my eyes out. I was so far into denial about my first outbreak that I blamed my newly bought, unwashed pair of underwear I’d been wearing as the culprit. I must’ve had an allergic reaction, right? I mean, my boyfriend was clean. All my other boyfriends were clean. There’s no way I could have herpes, being the invincible 20-something year old woman that I am. But unfortunately, both my culture and blood test came back positive for HSV-1 — Herpes simplex virus 1.
Every sexual encounter I ever had suddenly flashed before my eyes. How could I have been so irresponsible as to not put my wellbeing and safety before anything else? Isn’t that what my mom had been drilling into my head ever since I first found out what sex was?
It all started a few months ago. Stress had been controlling me for quite some time due to constant fighting with my former boyfriend, getting back into the swing of being a working college student, and having to deal with my dysfunctional family. I started to notice rash-like symptoms that I immediately wrote off as either a rash or a yeast infection. It was totally manageable, no reason to get worried.
A few days later I began to notice red bumps. That’s when I started doing Google searches and filling out symptom checkers online. The red bumps quickly turned into pimples. I tried retracing my steps — I bought new jeans and never washed them, and also bought new underwear too. That had to be it. But the more searches I did, the more I started to notice how eerily similar my symptoms were to those of herpes.I started freaking myself out with the images of herpes I found too.
The pimples became so unbearable and painful that I almost called in sick to work. Finally, I broke down and called the gynecologist. I remembered telling my boyfriend about my symptoms and just praying it wasn’t an STD.
Fast-forward to after my appointment… I was driving to my boyfriend’s apartment and having the worst mental breakdown I’d ever had and that he’d ever seen. I felt dirty, ugly and disgusting. My once normal-looking vulva had morphed into an unrecognizable monster that caused me pain and discomfort. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without wincing or crying. I thought more about taking my own life that day more than any other day of my life. That sounds overly dramatic now, but that was my reality at the time.
How could my boyfriend love me anymore, and what if I gave it to him (or vice versa)? After going to the bathroom, I’d run the hot water until it steamed and would wash my hands at least twice. Even after that, I’d immediately use hand sanitizer, just in case. To this day, my hands haven’t healed from that and are incredibly dry.
My boyfriend had no symptoms, so I knew it wasn’t him. I jokingly blamed him when the red bumps started, but I didn’t believe it. I told him that if his blood test came back negative, he should just dump me and find someone who wouldn’t be such a hassle to have sex with. He reassured me that he loved me and still found me attractive no matter what. That eased my suffering.
When I felt ugly, he reassured me that I was beautiful. But all of that changed when his blood tests came back negative, and the paranoia set in. How could someone go a whole year having sex with someone and just now have an outbreak unless, of course, they’d cheated? It seemed pretty logical, except for the fact that I’ve never cheated on anyone in my entire life. Especially not on the man I so desperately wanted to be with for the rest of my life. So, I knew I was one of those cases where you have it and it just lies dormant until one day it decides to make itself known. Honestly, I don’t blame him for thinking that way and there are no hard feelings. I would have thought the exact same thing.
Once my outbreak finally cleared up, thanks to the viral suppressants my doctor prescribed, it was surprisingly easy to go back to being intimate with my boyfriend. If you’re wondering about whether I cried or not, the answer is “yes.” I finally started to feel human again.
So, now I’m left to think about who actually gave me herpes. My morals are being challenged by not telling these people, but at the same time, I don’t really see it as my responsibility (I can already hear the negative comments for that one). It was their responsibility to get checked in the first place and it’s also their responsibility to get checked now. Especially, since I hear rumors about one of these guys is starting a family. I’m not friends with, or seeing, or even speaking to any of these guys anymore. I think I know who it was, but I have no proof, so I can’t point the finger.
So, here I am now, HSV positive and single, and feeling stronger and wiser than ever. I have no support system other than my mother, with whom I’m very close, and am so relieved that I can tell her about my diagnosis, and also my therapist. Yes, I have my doctor, but she’s mostly there to give me the cold, hard facts. I wish so badly for a friend I could tell. Don’t get me wrong — I do have friends, but the way my closest friend jokes about STDs, I don’t see myself ever telling them; also, they’re gossips, and I’m sure everyone would know about it before I was ready.
Why is it okay to joke about sexually transmitted diseases but not about other diseases? Is it because people associate STDs with being a slut? I think so.
When I first found out I was positive, I went to lunch with a friend. We were splitting an appetizer and she said to me, “I hope you don’t mind that I’m a double-dipper. It’s not like I have herpes or anything.” I wish I knew what my face looked like when she said that to me, because I’m sure it was a combination of a forced smile and complete and utter embarrassment. I thought to myself, “How ignorant and uneducated are you?”
I can’t talk too much though, because I’m sure I’ve made a handful of STD jokes when someone who actually has one was in earshot or even worse, said it right to their face. Whether or not people mean the jokes about herpes, I take it to heart 100 percent.
Through many long nights on the internet, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not alone. I just finished reading a graphic novel by Ken Dalh called “Monsters,” and I encourage anyone who has an STD, or even someone who doesn’t, to read this book. It will open your eyes and make you feel so much better.
Dahl talks a lot about dating — something I fear but also invite. I’m scared that someone will judge me, and if he does decide to stay with me, can he handle it? I’m not really sure how I would’ve reacted to someone telling me they had an STD, so I really couldn’t blame anyone for being hesitant.
STDs are not something people talk about openly, and I really wish that would change. I don’t want the negative connotation associated with STDs anymore. I’ve become wiser and stronger since finding out my diagnosis, and I think we should all come together and share our stories, struggles and success. I want to start a chain reaction from reading people’s stories, sharing mine, and reading someone else’s. We could all learn a thing or two from each other. Let’s start to break the stigma together.
(Editor’s note: “Rose Amore” is not the writer’s real name. She requested anonymity as a means to writing about a very sensitive and personal topic in the most genuine, honest way she could.)