I have herpes. There, I said it.
At 17 years old, I let my boyfriend at the time go down on me when he had a cold sore. He told me it wasn’t herpes. I didn’t know any better. One excruciating outbreak later, my life was changed forever.
At first I was in denial. Once he broke up with me, I managed to “forget” I had it. For a few years, I made the deplorable choice to sleep with people and not tell them. I had no symptoms, early on it was easy for me to not think of it. Maybe it was a mistake? But the guilt always ate away at me and I confessed, after the fact. I received death threats, was called every disgusting name you can imagine. And I felt I deserved it. I lied. I put others at risk with no regard to their feelings or health. Some forgave me. Some accepted me. Most didn’t.
At some point, the flip switched. I became open about my condition. Rejection after rejection followed. Sometimes they were nice, sometimes they weren’t. They’d like my personality, but couldn’t look past my condition. I was tainted, disgusting, plagued by an invisible monster. I am asymptomatic. Besides one outbreak 11 years ago, it hasn’t physically impacted me. The mental impact, however, has been profound.
I lowered my bar when it came to dating. Anyone that didn’t turn me away was acceptable. I got myself into terrible situations, slept with people I had no interest in, just to feel desirable. When one finally stayed, i clung for dear life, never wanting to feel that rejection ever again. I stayed with him 4 years, even though neither one of us could give the other what they needed.
I’m back out there again, this time sober. And the pain is worse than ever. I’ve been open and honest. I got retested last year because I had that little bit of denial telling me it was a mistake. 10 years with no symptoms. Maybe I didn’t have it. But I do. I kept my bar low, settling for anyone that was reasonable and accepted me, even if I didn’t like them.
A change started in me when I got sober. It’s kept progressing. I’m learning to respect myself and learning what I deserve. But there is always this voice in my head telling me I’m disgusting and not worthy. That voice is fed by the stigma surrounding herpes. Half the time it’s the butt of a joke, the other time it’s viewed as some disgusting incurable disease. Yes. It’s incurable. I don’t need to be reminded. I take my medication. I do everything right. I don’t have symptoms.
The stigma surrounding this disease hurts more than the disease itself. I’m not downplaying the significance of the disease. For me personally, however, the stigma society places on me has done far more damage than my condition has. I can’t speak for others. What I can say is we all need to do a better job of not beating those who are already down. I am not disgusting. I was a naive teenager who trusted her boyfriend. And I’ll live with that for the rest of my life.
What can you do to support those around you with this hidden disease? Don’t make jokes about it. Stop stigmatizing it. Educate yourself on safe sex practices. Be honest and open to learning. Don’t throw it in people’s faces. Herpes doesn’t define a person. Please help end the stigma.