The word herpes sounds funny. Say the phrase “genital herpes” to yourself three times and tell me it doesn’t make you want to laugh. Herpes herpes herpes. It almost doesn’t even sound like a medical condition – medical conditions aren’t supposed to sound funny. The word cancer doesn’t make you want to laugh. I suppose it helps that herpes doesn’t kill anyone.
When the doctor came back into the room and told me she was testing me for herpes, that was my train of thought. She handed me a pamphlet and asked if I had any questions. I said no, thanked her, climbed down from the crinkly paper seat and calmly left. I was in shock, and all I could think about was how funny the word herpes sounded. That and the severe shots of pain I experienced with every single step, which had prompted me to see a doctor in the first place.
I can handle pain, but when it came to my first herpes outbreak I couldn’t handle it. Urinating and defecating both felt like I was passing razor blades, so I didn’t eat or drink to try to avoid it. Walking would make the sores burst and bleed, which is absolutely excruciating. If anything touched them it made the already unmanageable pain a hundred times worse, so I shut myself in my bedroom so I wouldn’t have to wear underwear or pants. Sitting was impossible and standing made my vision go black at the edges. I fainted once. Painkillers didn’t help. All I could do was lie in bed, and even then I would let out involuntary gasps of pain every so often.
I eventually realized I was going through the stages of grief when I started bargaining with God – I’m agnostic at best – to take the pain away. I wouldn’t have sex again until I was married, I would go to church every Sunday, anything to make the pain stop, to make my results negative so I would never have to experience that again.
I received an official diagnoses for Type-1 Herpes a week later and couldn’t poop without feeling like I was going to black out for a week and a half, so at least I feel less guilty when my mom pressures me to attend church.
Maybe right now you’re thinking I was some sort of slut, questioning if I used condoms, wondering if I just wasn’t careful. I’m 21 years old and I’ve had sex with seven men, so take that as you will in the slut department. I’m normally pretty strict about condom use, but I wasn’t with the most recent guy. I was told it’s likely it wouldn’t have helped anyway, since herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and condoms aren’t very effective at preventing it. Also, apparently 20 percent of people have it and most don’t know it because they have no symptoms, so that’s something to think about next time you have sex with a stranger and think a condom is your save-all.
There were two guys I’d had sex with fairly recently, so I told both of them. Both were tested, and one came back negative and the other positive, which was a relief. Even though it doesn’t change anything about my personal condition, it’s nice to know that I only got it from someone and didn’t give it to someone else. The guy who was positive said he didn’t know he’d had it, and I choose to believe him. They were both ridiculously supportive and kind about it – they expressed more concern for me than for themselves.
But none of that – not the excruciating pain, not having to tell people I care about that they may have an incurable disease, not even the fact that the pain will likely return – is the worst part. The absolute worst is that this has and will affect me personally, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
That confidence all the women’s health magazines tell us we should have about ourselves? I actually have it. I love my body and my personality; I’m intelligent, driven and tough. I’ve been single for two years not for others’ lack of interest, but because I decided I wanted to devote my time in college to defining myself and having my time to be young. I never wondered about an upcoming time when finding a boyfriend might be difficult.
But being single isn’t the same anymore. I can’t have any sort of recreational sex because I’d have to tell partners about what they’re risking. Herpes isn’t always contagious – it’s usually just when you’re having an outbreak – but it can be transmitted at other times. I’d have a lot of trouble forgiving myself if I gave it to someone else, especially if he went through the pain I did.
When I do feel ready for a relationship, this is obviously something I’d have to tell my significant other. Likely, it will lead to rejection at least once. There are medications that can almost completely keep you from being contagious, but it’s always a risk. Some people won’t be willing to take that risk. Herpes is a disease you commonly receive ridicule for, not sympathy.
Most of all, I feel very alone. I’ve told friends about it and they’ve all been there for me. But they can’t understand, and the guy who gave it to me isn’t around for complicated reasons. People who don’t know treat me the same, men still hit on me at bars and some try to take me on dates. It helps to know that on the outside I look the same as I always did, but it hurts to know that if I told those men about my secret that they would go running for the hills. And I wouldn’t even blame them.
This is both my cautionary tale and a plea for understanding. Recreational sex with a condom is still a risk, so maybe be more careful than I was. And if you find out someone has herpes, try not to treat it like the punch line of a joke. It’s painful physically and emotionally. Society views people with the virus as unclean, but we all started out as victims.