I'll never forget the moment when my gynecologist told me I have herpes. She'd barely glanced at the sore on my labia that had been causing me unending pain for a week and just said it. "I'll swab it to be sure, and we'll do a test, but that's definitely herpes."
I burst into tears. I couldn't believe it. Me, with herpes? An STI? How did this happen? I couldn't be one of those people with an STI.
"I think you've actually been walking around with this for years and recently started exhibiting symptoms. You really need to tell your partner and they should be tested, too."
So not only was I walking around with an incurable infection, but I had likely unknowingly infected the love of my life with it, too (and who knows who else). I couldn't stop shaking and the tears wouldn't stop flowing. I made the decision that I would only take antivirals during outbreaks and not twice a day forever. I would deal with it when I had to, which I was told would likely be infrequently.
I cried through the rest of my appointment, all through the doctors' offices, during my entire time in the pharmacy (even though some guy kept trying to distract me by talking about traffic), and especially while I IMed my partner to tell him the news.
I was so scared he would never forgive me. That he wouldn't even be able to talk to me or look at me, let alone touch me. I was almost positive it was the end of my relationship with the person I love more than anyone in the world. I thought he'd be packing his bags and moving out as soon as he could. We'd stood by each other in good times and bad, but this was totally different. It wasn't going to get better. It would be with us forever.
Thankfully, he sent me heart after heart and forgave me immediately, without hesitation. It didn't change how he felt about me at all, he said. He loved me so much and was so sorry for me. But I still cried the entire drive home. I cried talking to people about it later. I fell into a deep depression and didn't leave my house for a week, which worked out because it was too painful to even put on underwear or sit up because of the sore. I took antivirals three times a day for 10 days. My doctor emailed me to let me know the results of my STI test; I had contracted both HSV-1 and HSV-2 (oral and genital herpes, respectively). I obsessed over who I could have gotten it from.
Over the next three months, I had four horrible outbreaks. I had to wait to get my prescription filled and it always took up to two days after I'd noticed a sore. Why was I getting them so frequently? I told my doctor and she said I should be paying attention to the warning signs, so I looked them up.
Big warning signs for an impending genital herpes outbreak are flu-like symptoms, headaches, backaches, and itching or burning in the area where the sore will appear.
Unfortunately, I experience nearly all those symptoms every day anyway.
But the outbreaks were coming too often and I couldn't handle the constant disruptions to my life, so I opted to take the antivirals every day. They don't stop outbreaks, but they make them happen much less frequently, and I needed help. I constantly felt like less of a human, so dirty and disgusting and damaged.
That was about a year and a half ago. I've had a handful of genital outbreaks since I started taking the antivirals every day and freaked out at every ingrown pubic hair and genital sensation. I rarely have an oral herpes outbreak. To this day, I can't tell when I'm going to have any outbreak and err on the side of paranoia.
Only my closest friends and select members of my family know. Every time I work up the courage to tell someone, it's extremely nerve-racking. I'm always scared that I'll get a look of horror in return as they scoot away from me, like I'm contagious to even be around. I'm lucky that I've received nothing but love and support in return, but I have yet to find someone I know who has an STI. It's a very isolating feeling to be the only person you know who has one.
According to the CDC, 110 million Americans have an STI at any given time. One out of every six people aged 14 to 49 has genital herpes in the US. A whopping 90 percent of people have been exposed to oral herpes. If you've ever had a cold sore or fever blister, you have oral herpes, and you probably got it by kissing someone. Transmission is that easy. My doctor told me they don't typically test you for HSV-1 and HSV-2 when you get an STI test because they're so overwhelmingly common; it only matters when you start showing symptoms.
I could go on and on about risk and how common herpes is and how to protect yourself and how you could have it and not even know, but I'm not writing this to scare people off sex. I believe in a sexually active lifestyle. I believe its benefits are numerous. But as a culture, we talk about sex all the time and we rarely talk about people having STIs and their experiences. It should be part of the dialogue. It should not be stigmatized. We're people, too.
I still haven't come to terms with having herpes. Sometimes I forget that I have it, but then I go home and see the antivirals sitting on my bedside table and remember all over again. They're there when I wake up and when I go to sleep, and they always will be. I'm trying to focus on incorporating it into part of my identity, making it another factor of my reality, like the color of my eyes or my height. It's something I carry with me everywhere. And I'm working on getting used to it, but I'm not there yet.
I have to take it day to day because there is no cure. I try to be thankful that it's not an infection that can kill me. I try to eliminate my stressors, focus on positivity, and keep with a healthier lifestyle — all things that help battle herpes outbreaks.
Those measures, along with an unendingly supportive partner who showers me with love and affection (especially every time I start to feel disgusting about my STI), are helping. My last outbreak was months ago, the longest I've ever gone without one.
I hope one day I feel I can attach my name to this piece. I hope one day I can talk about having herpes openly and not feel like people are going to run away from me. I hope one day we can work on finding cures for all STIs and eradicating them so no one will ever have to experience the shock of finding out they have one (or more). And I hope to see it happen in my lifetime, but until then, HSV-1 and HSV-2 are a part of me. It's me and my herpes forever.