My story begins 17 years ago when I was getting ready to move off to graduate school to start my master’s program. A week before leaving, I’d gone to my local health clinic with symptoms that felt like the flu. It was the middle of summer and it seemed odd to be coming down with body aches and chills. What I soon learned is that I may have contracted herpes. I was 23, had just ended a relationship with the first person I’d ever slept with, and I was in a severe state of shock. (The nurse practitioner’s reaction didn’t help, either… with a look of disgust on her face, she said something about guys being “bad news” but in more degrading language. It didn’t make me feel any better.)
She sent me off with a round of prescriptions and promised to call me with the lab results. Meanwhile, I had to pack my stuff and get ready to move across the country to a new school where I knew no one. Several days later I learned that I had HSV-2. I couldn’t integrate this information into my identity: I’d always been conservative, cautious and responsible, and waited to have sex until I felt ready. I asked my partner about STDs and was told he didn’t have anything. I let myself have unprotected sex. After getting the news I spent the first several days crying, spent my nights sleepless in a trance-like denial state, and felt overwhelmingly dirty, guilty and ashamed. I felt so alone and decided to confide in my mom, whose reaction was one of disbelief and denial (“maybe it’s bug bites”). Between her and the nurse practitioner, I didn’t get much support in how to understand and cope with what had just happened.
Once I arrived at school I immediately sought out a mental health counselor and started taking antidepressants to manage the anxiety and hopelessness. I decided early on to commit to taking care of myself by learning everything I could about my health, nutrition, stress management and exercise. Over the last 17 years, I’ve built a great career and had two long-term, loving relationships with men who fully accepted me. I am so thankful that the two people I’ve told outside of my doctors (and mom, ha!) were open, non-judgmental, and compassionate about the news that I was so petrified to share. Over time I have become more accepting of myself as someone who simply has a common virus. On most days, I see it as “I just have a skin condition that flares up on occasion like a cold,” and I can usually prevent it with medication and stress management when I sense an ob coming on. Eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep also help me feel like I have some control of my body and mind.
Yes, so many people have this virus; for the majority it is not life threatening and it can even lie dormant for years on end. I went for two years once without an ob and almost forgot about it! Yet I’d be dishonest if I said I I don’t still struggle with feelings of shame. The stigmatization is what gets to me, especially jokes and snarky lines in movies that perpetuate immature views and misinformation about what this really is about. Some days I get overwhelmed with the thought that I’m keeping a secret… “If only people knew what was really going on with me…” I have never shared this part of my life with any close friends and I don’t know anyone else who has herpes. Most recently I decided to discontinue antidepressants, a strategy I started using to cope with this from day one, and face my mental attitude about having this virus.
That’s my reason for seeking out resources like this one. I am struck and saddened by the number of us who are feeling or have felt alone at some point with this condition. Early on, I thought that I’d just have to manage this on my own for the rest of my life, which felt very isolating and depressing. So thank you Dr. Kelly for setting up this forum, which shows us that we’re a part of a group of strong, bright and precious women who are all working through this at their own pace. I am encouraged by the women who’ve learned to see this as a manageable element of life that doesn’t have to take up so much real estate in our heads and hearts. I’m also so inspired by the women who have reached out here so early in their diagnoses – I wish I’d had such a place to go for a realistic perspective on what this is really all about and what’s possible.