I was at work when I learned that I’d contracted herpes. “I’m afraid that your blood work came back positive,” the doctor told me over the phone. I’d waited two weeks for the news (normally it takes one week to process blood work, but my doctor was on vacation). “Is it HSV-1, or 2?” I asked. I knew the differences now — I’d spent weeks trolling online message boards for answers (aka, reassurances that what was happening to me was anything but herpes). “It’s two,” he said, which disappointed me because I’d learned it was possible that I’d contracted HSV-1 — that’s the oral kind — on my genitals. That would’ve been preferable because it would’ve meant that maybe my boyfriend unknowingly went down on me with a cold sore, and HSV-1 typically doesn’t like to live anywhere but on the mouth. While I’d still have herpes forever, the outbreak that prompted me to go to the doctor in the first place would have been less likely to reoccur — if it’d been HSV-1. But it was HSV-2.
Interestingly enough, I was in a monogamous relationship for about six months when I got the news, and I don’t know what that means in terms of how I contracted it (I have my suspicions but ultimately, once you have it, it doesn’t matter much how it was acquired). I’d had my first blood test for herpes about six months before this relationship began and it’d come back negative. You know about that, right? You have to get a blood test to find out if you have the virus — herpes is not included in the standard “testing package” that you get when you’re tested for STDs, and it’s not visible unless you’re having an outbreak (some people never do, and some outbreaks are not visible). You MUST ask for the blood test or you will NOT get it and then you will NOT find out that you are positive until you have an outbreak. And if you don’t have an outbreak ever, then you just have it, and there is a chance you could pass it to other people.
[The “accepted” reason that herpes is not part of a standard screening is that unless you have an outbreak, herpes is generally harmless and it doesn’t affect your quality of life. It’s the same as having any kind of uncomfortable skin disorder, truly a minor inconvenience that you sometimes have to deal with. But if you’ve never suffered from an outbreak before, and you find out that you have herpes, well… it can get emotional. It might cause some serious psychological trauma, for a time. I mean, it’s scary — not because of what will physically happen to you, but because you will be seriously judged by un/undereducated people. The cure for this is educating yourself and then educating the people you meet and trust as you go along — people who still judge you after that are not worth your time. Anyway, doctors avoid psychologically traumatizing you by forgoing this test — but when it comes to your health, you have every right to have all the information. Don’t let a doctor talk you out of getting this blood test.]
A routine STD screening is not proof that you’re good to go. Please know that the next time you get tested. Other misconceptions about herpes: despite those chain letters you received in your 1999 AOL inbox, an outbreak does not look like a forest fire of flesh. In the two years I’ve lived with it, I’ve had about three outbreaks and all of them have been virtually invisible. I can’t speak for everyone, but believing is not seeing… or something. Also, about 25% of the adult population has genital herpes, and only 20% of those people know about it. Like, 80-90% of people don’t know they have it. This is interesting because what it means is that, if someone is interested in sleeping with you and they disclose that they have herpes (and know how to have responsible sex with you), you’re less likely to contract it from them than you are from someone who is ostensibly “clean.” (By the way, what about contracting something sexually makes one “dirty”? Mono and even cold sores — that other form of herpes that 90% of us will have by the time we turn 50 — are passed through the mouth, and the stigma there is virtually nonexistent. Just something to question about the puritan attitudes we have toward sex.)
I mean, I’m not here to say that contracting herpes is totally awesome and progressive. It caused me a lot of emotional pain for what now seems to be no reason. I felt insecure and embarrassed. Telling people who you want to sleep with can be freaking horrifying. Once, just to get practice, I told someone I’d just met (this, immediately after I asked him the question, “What would prevent you from sleeping with someone?” and he related the tale of a girl he’d been courting online who — on their first date — told him rather sheepishly that she had herpes. “Oh, the horror!” was his sentiment. And I was like, oh, you mean she was honest and upfront about her sexual health before feelings got involved? What an asshole! By the way, I have herpes too.) He didn’t run away screaming, actually we had a pretty interesting and uninhibited conversation afterward, but suffice it to say I never heard from him again.
That will happen. And it’ll sting a little. But you will also meet people who surprise you. You’ll meet people who won’t even flinch when you tell them. You’ll meet people who have questions and are actually interested in hearing the answers. Probably best of all, you’ll meet people who actually like you for who you are, enough so that something that you can’t help or change will not deter them from being with you.
Herpes isn’t a carnival. But it’s not the end of the world, either. When you start to feel like it is, remember the following:
You can (and you will) have a sex life, and it will possibly be a less-depressing and mature one in which you and your partner(s) communicate clearly about health issues, risks, and fears.
There is nothing wrong with you. You have a skin condition in an unfortunate place. Now that you’re aware of it, you can take steps to control it. No one escapes life unscathed. You’re fine. You’re going to be fine.
If your doctor is unhelpful or dismissive, find a new doctor. There are plenty of them who know how to keep it professional. And if you’re uninsured, get thee to Planned Parenthood and ask for a prescription for antivirals. Then enroll in a pharmacy savings program (Walgreens has a great one) that will help you afford the medication you need.
You can very easily protect the people you have sex with. Suppressive therapy (daily dosages of Valtrex or Acyclovir) drastically decreases the chance that you’ll have an outbreak and the chance that you’ll pass the virus to someone through asymptomatic shedding — a process that occurs when there is no outbreak but there is risk of being contagious. Suppressive therapy is about as convenient and effective as birth control. It’s also totally worth protecting your partner and maintaining an awesome sex life.
If you’re not crazy about the idea of medication, Lysine is an amino acid you can take in vitamin form that helps prevent outbreaks. Dairy is also chock full of it, good news for ice cream and cheese lovers the world over.
You are not going to be exactly who you were before — and that’s probably a good thing. I was making some really tasteless herpes jokes just weeks before my first outbreak; when I was much younger I slept with people I barely knew or respected; I walked around calling myself “open-minded” when I was anything but. You will not be the same person you were before, but you’ll probably be a better one (or at least, hopefully, a more educated one).
You are not alone. Just because your friends and family members aren’t marching down the streets waving “I HAVE HERPES” flags doesn’t mean they don’t. I knew of three people who had it before my being diagnosed, I know countless people now.
It’s okay to feel upset or scared occasionally. You’re dealing with a situation that constantly needs to be explained, or “justified,” or kept secret and it’s stressful. Stigma is not fun, and you don’t have to be excited about it 24-7. Just remember that it’ll be harder for people to accept you if you can’t accept yourself.
Do not sleep with people without disclosing. It’s not fair to take the choice away from them. Let them make their own decisions. Some people will need educating and time to think, some will not bat a lash, and some people will already have herpes. Also? Some people will say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” That’s okay. And so are you.