I Have Herpes And My Life Isn't Over
I have herpes and my life isn't over. It's taken me a long time to be able to say that and mean it. For a while there, I was pretty certain that having an incurable STI meant the end of my life as a normal human being. At the very least, it meant the end of my sex life. Who would want to get busy with someone whose junk routinely erupts into itchy painful sores? Moreover, who would want to expose themselves to the risk that they, too, might catch it? I was 20 years old when I contracted genital herpes. I was already a sea of turbulent emotions and self-loathing. I was pretty fricking sure that no one would ever consider me "worth the risk."
I realize now that in the days, months, and years A.H. (after herpes) I started relating to myself as damaged goods, and I assumed that the rest of the world was doing the same thing. That assumption made me silent, and small. It made me afraid to meet people, and go on dates. It made me and my body bitter enemies. I lost a sense of freedom and joy inside my own skin that I'm still trying to reclaim. I may always be trying to reclaim it.
Talking to the Sickboy crew was a pretty surreal experience. Sure, I'm mostly able to be open and honest and unashamed about my health now, seven years later, after lots and lots of therapy, when I'm talking to a select group of trusted individuals. But to appear on a podcast that thousands of people are going to listen to and spend an hour talking about the fact that I have a chronic sexually transmitted infection...allow me to quote the immortal words of Kenny Loggins: "DANGER ZONE!"
I don't think I realized how terrified I would be until I sat down in front of that microphone. I didn't know how much internalized shame and guilt I'm still carrying. I also didn't know how challenging it was going to be to try and answer questions to help separate fact from fiction without feeling gross about myself. I like to think I'm pretty resilient. I know there's a ton of misinformation about herpes out there and I present myself as someone who's open to questions and won't take things personally. Still, I have to say, I felt incredibly vulnerable when called upon to speak in some detail about symptoms, transmission, risks, and other hard facts that don't necessarily have much to do with my lived experience. For the sake of those listening who also have herpes - I hope I did an okay job of speaking to what I understand to be true.
What I really wanted to communicate is that I've lived in fear of rejection, humiliation, and disgust since contracting genital herpes. It's been incredibly isolating. Society, popular culture, and even some medical professionals have told me again and again that I'm somehow to blame for having an STI. I've been the butt of jokes like, "What's the difference between love and herpes? Herpes lasts forever!" I've been told, bluntly, that I'm not "worth it." I've been terrified of starting relationships, and also of ending relationships - of having to put myself back out there and disclose a hard truth to a whole new dating pool. The additional barrier that herpes throws up between me and my intimate partner(s) has led to a lot of time spent celibate, lonely, and feeling cut off from myself as a sexual being.
It's clear to me now that the only reason that the shame other people put on me had such a profound impact is that I was so ashamed of myself already. All of that rejection, humiliation, and disgust I received from other people was a mirror image of the way I was rejecting, humiliating, and being disgusted by myself. Society's commonly held perceptions about herpes may have been telling me that my life was over, but I'm the one who bought that crap.
I don't know if I got to say everything I wanted in my interview with Jeremie, Taylor, and Brian. I know I probably cussed more than I meant to. I said some pretty brazen stuff about my labia. I may have been a little off base in my articulation of certain facts, which I'm sure the medical professionals in the audience can shine a light on.
I also know that even if what I said wasn't exactly eloquent or comfortable, the most important thing is to keep talking. Keep talking about herpes. Keep humanizing it. Keep listening with compassion and curiosity when people with herpes share their lived experiences. Keep educating yourself so you can put the facts in perspective. Keep educating yourself so that when someone with herpes opens up to you, you're not only hearing the misinformation and judgement we've been conditioned by.
I'm writing this blog post while cuddled up on my partner's couch. It's a grey Vancouver day. He's on a conference call. I can hear the occasional rumble of his voice from the other end of the apartment. We've been together since the beginning of July. I disclosed my sexual health status to him on our first date. He didn't miss a beat. He made me feel safe and seen and still sexy as fuck. His support and acceptance gives me space to be honest and vulnerable when I have a flare-up. The trust we've built has gone a long way towards healing my relationship with myself, and with intimacy.
I have herpes and my life isn't over.
I'm going to keep saying it until the rest of the world believes that it's true.