My herpes diagnosis
The pain was excruciating. It hurt to walk. I dragged myself to the pharmacy. Thankfully, it was a Saturday and my little boy was visiting his grandparents for the weekend. I had called into work a few days ago when I was coming down with the flu. At least I thought it was the flu.
That’s what it felt like : fever, chills, sore throat, pounding headache. But I knew something was very wrong because the lymph glands in my groin were swollen, it hurt to pee, and my genitals were covered in blisters. Maybe this was just another UTI (urinary tract infection), but a more severe one? I had convinced myself it had to be anything other than what my doctor told me.
I pulled up to the drive-thru. It was pouring rain. Please don’t let the cute pharmacist be here today, please don’t let the cute —
The cute pharmacist came to the window with my prescription. This time, his usual grin was replaced with a forced smile. He noted that this was a new medicine for me and asked if I had any questions. I just looked down, shaking my head in shame. I shoved some cash through the drawer and sped away.
When I arrived back home, I ripped open the pharmacy bag and pulled out a tall bottle filled with big blue pills labeled Valtrex, which is an antiviral. The doctor had written, “take three times daily for herpes outbreak.” Really? She had to write that?
So, I officially have herpes now? I thought to myself. Welcome to the club! The butt of late-night comedy jokes and watercooler fodder. How could I let this happen?
Learning to date and have sex again after my herpes diagnosis took time.
That first outbreak was in the early ‘90s. A long time ago. It hit me like a freight train — as is often the case with initial exposure — and took nearly six weeks for the sores to completely heal. Being a Gen X, there were no smartphones or Google for looking up misinformation when I was first diagnosed.
Because of the misinformation and stigma around herpes, I sunk into a deep depression. I thought I’d never love or have sex again. I was devastated. Based on everything I’d ever heard from friends, seen in movies or television shows, I thought, Will I ever love again? Who would want me now? I’m damaged goods. I feel so ashamed.
But after educating myself, I learned that antiviral medications, such as Valtrex, can be taken daily to help reduce viral shedding and outbreaks. Although nothing can guarantee 100 percent protection, things like medications, eating a balanced diet and stress reduction can go a long way to living with and managing herpes.
I realized that contracting an STI didn’t make me a bad person. Having herpes didn’t mean I was unworthy of love or finding a partner who valued me beyond my diagnosis. I soon adopted an attitude similar to when I began dating as a single mother — hey, it’s part of the package. Take it or leave it!
So, eventually, I did love again AND have sex again. In fact, I’ve had lots of sex since then. Of course, in the process of dating, I’ve been rejected and accepted by partners after telling them my STI status.
I vowed to disclose my STI status to partners, always.
When I confronted the partner who transmitted the STI to me, he shrugged it off. His defense? “You should have asked me.” Really? So cold. I was stunned. I later realized he was right, I should have asked him if he had any STIs — though who knows if he would have told me the truth. Ultimately, it was up to me to make sure I protected myself. I also vowed to always disclose my STI status to potential partners.
Sure, it can suck to have the conversation. As a person now living with herpes, have I been rejected because of my status? Yes. Sometimes, rejection was hard not to take personally. But I understood that ultimately, men were not rejecting me. They were choosing not to pursue a relationship with someone with an STI. And that was their choice. I had promised myself to give every partner the choice that I was not given. I could live with that.
Deciding when to disclose my STI status depends on the person and situation.
When and how to disclose in general has changed for me over the years, and has also been redefined depending on the nature of the relationship I want.
If it’s casual and mutually understood from the beginning (I’ve learned to become crystal clear in my expectations), then I disclose early and move on with no hurt feelings if I am rejected.
On the other hand, if I’m getting to know someone and we are considering becoming more serious and aren’t having sex yet, I wait a little longer. If he is “meet the parents” material — as in, I’ve invited him to Thanksgiving dinner — then I definitely feel more nervous. Something I realized over time is that if I’m afraid of sharing my status, then it will be received as scary and alarming. The truth is, though, I can’t control someone’s reaction. But I can always feel good knowing I gave them full disclosure and as much information as they need to feel comfortable and make an informed choice about their sexual health.
I also had to figure out how to disclose my STI status.
When disclosing, I tell my partners that I take Valtrex daily and it helps suppress the virus. I explain that I usually know when an outbreak is coming on because of various symptoms and that we should abstain from sex to prevent transmission. I explain what prodrome is and that, even if we use condoms, there is no guarantee against exposure and subsequent infection since herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact. And, no, you cannot catch herpes from a toilet seat.
The first sexual partner I had after being diagnosed took the news a little hard at first, but still wanted to go down on me. He fashioned a makeshift dental dam out of saran wrap. I didn’t know what to expect, or how effective a dental dam might be in protecting against herpes, but I went with it. It was awkward and I couldn’t feel anything. He was frustrated, and I was just embarrassed.
At one point, we were rolling around on the floor laughing and tangled up in plastic, when he decided — screw it. It was worth the risk for him — I was worth the risk — to perform oral sex on me sans plastic. We were together for several years after that. In that moment, I was able to enjoy sex again. It was a celebration. I was back! Herpes did not — and does not — define me anymore.
Dating with herpes can sometimes be easier using HSV+ dating sites.
One way I weed out people who might reject me based on my STI status is by using HSV2-only dating sites . (HSV-2 is the kind of genital herpes I have.) Though, I quickly learned that just because you have that in common with someone does not mean you’ll be compatible in other areas. I’m glad these types of sites exist, though. It definitely takes the sting out of having to disclose. If you’re looking for a casual hook-up, these types of sites can be especially useful.
While I was relieved at the time to discover the STI+ dating sites, they didn't result in any long-term success for me. I met one guy from the site and we spent a few awkward dinner dates straining to find things in common. We mutually agreed to having nothing in common beyond our diagnosis and moved on with no hard feelings.
I did find many shared interests with another guy I met from the same site. We started seeing each other regularly. It was nice to not have the added strain of having to disclose followed by waiting and wondering. However, we had absolutely zero sexual chemistry together and our relationship quickly fizzled.
Many years later I met my husband and his reaction to my disclosure was one of the best. He said, “If I get herpes, so what. It will be a souvenir from you.” His attitude and unconditional love and acceptance was something I never thought I would experience when I first received my diagnosis.
I hope destigmatizing herpes will make it easier for people like me to date and love again.
What I wish people understood about herpes is that the virus is part of the same family of viruses that cause shingles, chickenpox, Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) and mono.
So, why does a herpes stigma still? Probably because it’s genital. Guess what? Have you ever had a cold sore (fever blister) on your mouth? You have herpes (HSV-1). These are both herpes viruses, the only difference being the location which the cold sores appear, oral or genital.
Over the years, there have been advances in medical treatments. A herpes vaccine on the horizon, antiviral medications are better understood and utilized. Unfortunately, because people still fear things they don’t understand, there is still a certain amount of herpes stigma.
I made peace with my diagnosis.
You can empower yourself by learning to be your own health advocate. Being proactive and learning as much as you can about your diagnosis.
For example, one of my comfort foods, chocolate, is high in arginine and is a favorite fuel for the herpes virus. So, if I let myself get run down, stressed and am eating too many sweets, along comes an outbreak. This happened over the holidays. It can happen in the summer, too, if I’m out in the sun too long. You can recognize your individual triggers and how to manage and minimize outbreaks. This is part of making peace with your diagnosis.
Remembering that knowledge is power and learning as much as I could about my diagnosis helped so much. My present experience with having an STI is nothing like that first exposure.
In fact, what once felt so devastating to me is now just a minor skin irritation. With the passage of time came acceptance, forgiveness and an understanding that my STI would be with me forever and I had to find ways for us to live peacefully together. When I put my herpes diagnosis in context to everything that has happened to me since then — raising my son, grieving the death of my husband and experiencing love and life to the fullest. In the end, it really is just a minor skin irritation.