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Illustration by Brittany England

Hearing the words “You have hepatitis C” is something you feel deep within your bones.

Trust me when I say that the diagnosis comes with many emotions. I found out I had hep C in 2019 after spending years with mild to severe symptoms that doctors mistakenly blamed on “stress.”

It wasn’t until I talked about it with a doctor friend of mine that we started putting the pieces together and I got the proper testing done. The results came back, and I experienced the relief of knowing what was going on.

But little did I know that waves of fear and shame would quickly wash that relief away. Questions and concerns swirled around my mind. And when I wasn’t hiding my hep C, I was trying to find the right words to explain it to others.

I knew I had to make peace with hep C. It took lots of inner work and exploration — but it was well worth it. Plus, it made the news of treatment clearing out the virus that much sweeter.

Here’s what I went through on my journey toward self-acceptance with hep C, and my advice for others living with a serious health condition.

My fears after finding out I had hep C were rooted in the unknown — the endless questions I didn’t have the answers to.

How exactly did I get hep C? Did I unknowingly transmit it to anyone else? Is my liver OK? What other health problems is this causing? Is there treatment for this, or will I live with it forever? Can I ever have children?

These concerns clouded my mind for weeks after the diagnosis.

I Googled my questions in hopes of finding the answers and putting my fears at bay. But like searching for a lot of health information online, it didn’t end well.

I caused myself so much unwarranted stress and worry when I should have simply asked my doctor. His answers were what made my fears start to dissolve.

I’d encourage anyone who’s recently found out they have hep C to skip the fear-inducing rabbit hole of a Google search and instead go straight to their doctor with questions.

The shame hit me differently than fear, and in much more subtle ways. Shame’s that feeling of “I’m inherently bad” or “Something’s wrong with me,” and it’s much harder to figure out its source.

Reflecting on this shame helped me figure out that, for me, it was a direct result of the social stigma around hep C. It seemed to suggest I was dirty, harmful, and marked as different from others.

While the shame was internal, external factors made it worse. People close to me made hurtful comments and passed judgments about my condition without researching the truth about hep C or simply asking me about their fears.

Knowing the way people feared my blood and held preconceived notions about hep C made the shame spiral, ultimately affecting how I showed up in the world.

I felt pressured to hide my diagnosis just to avoid the inquisitive or fearful look in people’s eyes. And if I did share or a person somehow found out I had hep C, I’d find myself explaining the entire story — with far more detail that I was comfortable with — to help them understand.

I so desperately wanted people to see me as “normal” that I’d do anything to help them understand the full story, to make them see me as more than a diagnosis. It felt as though I needed proof of my “goodness” so that others would feel safe around me.

I obsessed over my health and tried to look well, but on the inside, I was hurting. I often downplayed how bad my symptoms were to put others at ease about my well-being.

But trying to cover things up just increased my shame and inner turmoil.

During the time of my diagnosis and treatment, I was working part-time while running my Instagram and podcast on the side. It was in these outlets that I began to be more open about my health journey and everything that came with it.

I found that the more I shared my journey online, the better I felt about it. I talked about my diagnosis, the health struggles before it, the importance of advocating for my health, and even the shame I felt.

I felt like I was releasing the built-up shame by sharing it with my community and not holding everything inside myself anymore.

And despite the stigma around hep C, I didn’t receive a single negative comment. Instead, I felt an outpouring of support. My online community didn’t care about the what, how, or why behind my diagnosis — they just hoped I’d be OK.

That support allowed me to focus on the things that were within my control, rather than feeling like a victim of my diagnosis.

I realized that if my treatment didn’t work, I could try something else. If my liver was damaged, I could take steps to try to heal it. If I continued to experience symptoms, I could change my lifestyle to cope with them. And if I couldn’t have children, I could simply adopt.

Shifting my mindset away from the unknown and toward the positives helped calm my fears. And gradually owning the story of my diagnosis helped soothe the shame.

Sharing this part of myself online and connecting with a supportive community helped me find peace with my hep C. I finally released the fears, anxiety, and shame that held me down. I felt empowered on my healing journey.

If you’re living with hep C or any life changing condition, I feel for you. There are probably so many emotions and thoughts running through your mind, but I encourage you to take a moment to find a sense of peace.

Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Tune into what emotions or thoughts are coming up for you and be aware of them. That’s the first step in finding ways to accept what you’re going through.

No one deserves to live a life full of fear, anxiety, stress, or shame. Take it from me — even if you’re feeling a mix of emotions, there’s an opportunity to find peace. It might just take some inner work to heal from within, and finding a supportive community to prop you up throughout your journey.

Emily Feikls is a podcast host and content creator advocating for 360 wellness. Her podcast, Let’s Thrive, focuses on mental, emotional, and physical health to help others feel less alone on their journey. Connect with Emily on Instagram.