So here I am. Twenty-six years old with herpes. The other boxes I'd check are: single, college-educated, white, middle-class, professional and female.
At least, that's what I'd report to the Census Bureau. On a personal level, other things like intelligent, funny, hardworking, outgoing, loyal and sincere, would be checked. But, the thing is that although the other categories help define who I am, the one box I still struggle with is herpes. It's not who I am -- it's an inconvenience I now have to live with.
If I had a heart condition or allergy or anything else for that matter, it surely wouldn't be as embarrassing, difficult or depressing to deal with, right? I will never wish for additional illnesses, but the one major difference between herpes and another condition is that it is transmitted through sexual activity. That, unfortunately, still bears an unnecessary social stigma of being "bad" or "dirty." After all, if I had just been a "good girl" I never would have gotten this. At least, that's the evil, self-destructive kind of thought that still creeps through my mind occasionally.
The truth is that I don't think I did anything to deserve this, nor do I believe I did anything vastly different from a lot of people to get this. True, I'm not a virgin, but I do think for the most part I've been pretty careful and have had discussions of sexual history with my previous boyfriends. Human beings are just that, and therefore have instincts, desires and motivations. The only difference I've been able to come up with is that everyone else is lucky and I am not. It could happen to anyone. Statistics say it happens to 1 in 4 anyones.
I've known I've had this virus for a little more than two years, and although time has graciously allowed me some perspective, all of these issues still bubble below the surface. I do not know who gave me herpes because I never experienced the horrid pain or other symptoms that many go through when they first contract the virus. To my knowledge, none of my boyfriends ever had any problems either -- to their knowledge. I even went with a few to the HIV testing clinic. But nobody told me to test for herpes.
I was in a monogamous relationship when I found out -- one I had been in for a year and a half. My first sign of anything amiss was on one of my regular gynecological visits when I remarked casually, "Oh, and there's a small area that's a little sore down there". "Yes, that's herpes," my doctor said, even more casually. And I thought he was getting ready to check-off "yeast infection."
After getting some facts from my doctor (as I stared, blankly, in shock), I drove straight to my boyfriend's office so I could deliver the news. He came out to meet me in my car and as soon as I saw him I became hysterical and completely lost it. It had been a long time since I had cried so hard or felt so helpless. The latter was the most disturbing, and certainly the most foreign feeling. He tried to calm me down and assure me that it wasn't the end of the world. That relationship didn't end up working out in the end, but it had nothing to do with herpes. I do feel lucky to have had that immediate support and comfort, something I still worry I may not be able to find in a partner again.
After almost a year, I went to a few HELP of Washington meetings, my first two with a friend who was kind enough to accompany me for support even though she doesn't have herpes. I found out I wasn't the only person to struggle with such internal conflicts. People of all ages, races and backgrounds now share something very personal in common with me.
My experience with this has actually been fairly mild and I only take Valtrex episodically, which I have done several times a year and managed to avoid an outbreak altogether. To be honest, I sometimes forget that I have it. My seasonal allergies are more of a pain in comparison, but I still get nervous about the prospect of having to tell a potential partner. I also feel a sharp twinge of pain when I hear people making jokes about herpes, particularly when those people are my friends who don't know I have it. I don't feel like sharing the news with everyone right now, or possibly ever. At the very least, having herpes has made me have a deeper appreciation and need for establishing a solid relationship with someone before being intimate. A forcible slowing down, I guess.
So, as I continue my journey of self-discovery, reflection and maturity, I think to myself, "what qualities make me who I am?"
Am I still attractive?
Can I live with this?
Do I still have insecurities sometimes?
Deep down, do I have hope that I will find a partner who will be open-minded enough to accept me for who I am?
All of the above. Check.