“I have to introduce you to my cousin Logan*,” my childhood friend told me emphatically one weekend when I was home from college. “He’s really good looking—if he were taller he could be a model.”
“… OK,” I answered with trepidation. I was 19, and my freshman year of college at a small, cloistered university in the middle of the Bible Belt was not going well. My stomach turned to knots. I was trying so hard to fit in without fitting in that it was driving me crazy. For some reason it felt like if I got involved with a guy it would fix things. Logan was 24 and seemed nice enough.
The problem was, I was a virgin when we met, and at 19 I was among the last of my friends. Virtually inexperienced, I felt it was time to get it over with. In hindsight I should’ve listened to my gut.
Logan and I had been seeing each other for about three months when, one day, I noticed a difference in my—what’s the best way to put this?—constitution. It had started with a 103-degree fever, and then my vulva began to swell and itch. I naively thought it was an allergic reaction to latex; since we had used condoms every time we had sex, it was entirely possible that an irritation had developed. It wasn’t until the sores and the blackout-inducing pain arrived that I finally got a clue: something was awry, and it certainly wasn’t natural.
The student health clinic was about a quarter of a mile uphill from my dormitory, and since on-campus students were targeted and ticketed frequently if we parked outside of our designated zones, I felt I had no choice but to walk. I left promptly at 2:50 on a cool February afternoon, and although it should’ve taken no more than five minutes, I arrived at the health center sometime after 3:15 p.m., out of breath and in severe pain. The next hour and a half was a blur.
There are certain snapshots from that day I do recall rather vividly, though. I remember woozily drifting in and out of consciousness in the waiting room and again on the examination table, and I also remember whimpering and nearly fainting from the excruciating pain when the doctor attempted to perform an internal exam on me. I remember bursting into tears (that didn’t stop for months) when he coldly told me, “It’s most likely herpetic” and sauntered out the room like it wasn’t his problem to deal with. And I especially remember the nurse giving me a look of pity. Pity and, above all else, judgment.
I had a few scares in the shower when I tried to clean myself. I would have panic attacks where I would get tunnel vision and would have to talk myself down from another fainting episode. But within a couple of days of taking my antiviral, the infection cleared. The next time I visited home, I got a second opinion from my private female gynecologist, whose bedside manner was significantly easier to stomach. I requested she run some blood work, and she found that I was infected with HSV-1, which was more than likely contracted from oral sex and had less recurrent and less violent repercussions than HSV-2. This genital outbreak could very well be my last, she postulated.
As for Logan, I didn’t immediately break up with him. Since my mother had felt the need to discuss my condition at length with not only my sister but also my two brothers (I’m sure she would have told my dad, too, had he not died some years prior), I felt particularly isolated from—and betrayed by—my family.
I incessantly vacillated between a mixture of anger and indignation and a wave of loneliness and helplessness. I convinced myself that because this virus was crouching dormant in my body, no one would ever—or could ever—love me, despite all my other amazing qualities. I had become a liability, and I resolved, after some deeply twisted soul-searching, that I might as well try to stay with Logan in order to shield myself from further humiliation. Plus, my network of close-knit friends was sprawled all over the country, and Logan was the only one around to alleviate the disparate loneliness I felt. That is, until he wasn’t.
He eventually confessed that two other girls he had slept with had contracted HSV as well. He made no attempt to apologize, nor did he show signs of remorse. He didn’t “want anything serious,” and it was clear that he was looking for the exit sign the moment I got my diagnosis. He wanted a fanciful romp and I had spoiled the fun.
I wasn’t really all that sad when we ended things. For the most part, I felt broken. Like a lot of girls who grow up around evangelical zealots and right-wing conservatives, I was ashamed of my body and my sex drive—but ultimately I was ashamed of myself. I’m a smart girl, I oftentimes thought to myself on my way to class. How could I have let this happen? How could I have been so stupid?
It’s easy to blame the guy. My whole family did; I did. But I have to wonder if the situation would have been different had I thought to ask the proper, mature adult questions: “Have you ever contracted an STD?” “Has any one of your partners contracted an STD?”
Or was I victim-blaming? Was I beating myself up over something that was entirely out of my control? He could’ve lied just as easily as he chose not to tell me about his past.
And then there were the health care providers at the university clinic. I realized that to them I was nothing special, and why should I be? I was yet another sexually active college girl with an STD. We’re a dime a dozen. But unlike the ones who could take a week’s worth of streamlined antibiotics, I was stuck with my lapse in judgment—and my prescription—forever. I felt branded with an ugly scarlet letter.
This is the biggest role herpes simplex has played in my life; it’s not the Valtrex, it’s not the safe sex routine—hell, it’s not even the virus itself since I’ve only had my one outbreak. It’s the stigma.
For some of my acquaintances ignorant to my personal brush with the virus, it’s funny to joke about “the herp,” as they call it. It’s entertaining to poke fun at Valtrex commercials because the hope this particular drug gives to “people like that” is guffaw-inducing. Just the other night, a friend of mine joked, “Glitter is the herpes of art supplies. You’ll never get rid of it.” Not knowing how to respond, I chuckled nervously.
What’s most disturbing is that herpes is mostly an inconvenience and is by no means the most serious of STDs out there … and yet women living with it are looked down upon as filthy whores. It’s precisely the reason why I’m writing this essay behind the guise of a false name.
I’m not sure where the answer lies, or how we go about removing the years of stigma that’s ingrained in our cultural DNA; but what I do know is that this method of thinking is psychologically damaging to the women who shoulder the burden.
I reasoned that the more people I was in a relationship and had sex with, all the more of a whore I really am. I felt desperate, and the more I tried to cast a wide net, the lonelier and more pathetic I felt when no one would bite, or in an even worse scenario: when I would date a guy a few months and he would reject me. Amid my flailing, alcohol and a cocktail of SSRIs became my best friends.
A year and a half later, it took a night rife with a fifth of vodka, antidepressants, and an empty stomach for me to seek help. I was still drunk when I woke up the next morning in a cold sweat, slumped over a trashcan, and I remember thinking in my stupor that I was going to die if I continued to live this way.
I enrolled in counseling at my university, and for the cold treatment I had received at the health clinic, I was pleasantly surprised and deeply touched when I was enveloped in a community of acceptance, understanding, and warmth by the staff of Ph.D. candidates who helped me turn myself around. It was a lot like learning how to walk; loving myself was a concept I was completely unfamiliar with.
It’s been a long journey to self-acceptance, and HSV has exacerbated my insecurities and self-esteem issues. I rarely ever talk about my condition to friends and family. This essay is the first I’ve talked about it at length since I told my long-term boyfriend about it before we became intimate. To him, it doesn’t matter. He loves me anyway, and we’re moving in together this fall.
I’m sure some would say this all happened for a reason—that the callous-excuse-for-a-24-year-old “adult” forgot to tell me about his past so I could discover who I am. I don’t subscribe to that mentality. I was dealt an undesirable hand, and it took a long time to recover from it. But that’s OK because I’m a part of an adaptive species. And even better, I’m a part of a resilient gender. When I feel down, I have to keep reminding myself: I’m a woman, damn it, and we’ve conquered greater obstacles.
*Name has been changed