Five months into my relationship with my then-boyfriend, I found a single blister-like sore above the entrance to my vagina. It hurt so badly and was unlike anything I had seen on my body before, so I made an appointment with my doctor for the following day.
“The swab came back positive for genital herpes, type 1,” my doctor told me. I couldn’t breathe. I started crying. My brain was unable to process what had just happened.
“How!?” I asked through sobs. I knew nothing about herpes—just that it was incurable.
I did everything right when it came to sex. I routinely got tested for STIs. I made my partners use condoms. I had open and—as far as I knew—honest conversations with them about sexual health.
Which made me even more confused about my diagnosis. But then my doctor told me that a standard STI panel doesn’t include a herpes test. Many doctors don’t like to test for it unless you have a visible sore they can swab. (Editor’s note:Testing is often not recommended due to potential false positives. Read more about herpes here.)
I knew you could contract herpes from unprotected sex, but I didn’t know you could contract it even if a condom is used. I also learned that there are two types. HSV-1 is typically referred to as oral herpes (or cold sores), whereas HSV-2 is called genital herpes because it occurs on the genitals. But there’s a catch: You can contract HSV-1 genitally by receiving oral sex from someone with oral herpes like I did or, more rarely, from unprotected vaginal sex.
My doctor wrote me a prescription for Valtrex. You’ve seen the commercials: a woman talking about how great her life is now that she’s taking an antiviral medication, couples frolicking while cheesy music plays. I didn’t feel like frolicking the first time I took Valtrex. It made me so tired I could barely keep my eyes open.
The diagnosis left me feeling dirty, ashamed, and undesirable. I felt like a terrible girlfriend. I was sure it was somehow my fault.
I told my boyfriend in the worst way possible. I went to the local grocery store where he worked. Red-faced and bleary-eyed, I approached him while he was putting out fresh produce. His smile quickly shifted. “I have a break in 10. Go to my place and I’ll meet you there,” he said.
Sitting in his apartment, I wondered: “Is this it? Is this how our relationship dies? Will he think I cheated on him?”
When he got home, I started crying again. I told him what had happened.
“I have herpes. And I don’t know how.”
“It’s okay. We’ll be okay.”
“Do you have herpes? Have you been with anyone who has?”
“No. I don’t have it, and I’ve never been with anyone who has—as far as I know.”
Finding out I had herpes heightened my insecurities as a partner and sexual being. I was so consumed with guilt and shame that I gave my boyfriend a sleepy blow job while I was still recovering from my first outbreak. I wanted to make sure he still desired me. Once we could have sex again, he used condoms a couple of times—but then went back to no condoms. I had an IUD, and he wasn’t worried about herpes. I thought this was a good sign. I thought everything was returning to normal.
A month after being diagnosed, he broke up with me. He said he no longer had the time to be in a relationship.
Two months after that, I found out he had been cheating on me and had given me herpes. I now had two reminders of my ex: a broken heart and an incurable virus. With each outbreak, I would imagine my ex saying, “You’ll never get rid of me.”
After reading everything I could on herpes and seeing how many people actually have it, I began to feel better about myself. At the most, it’s a skin irritation that occurs infrequently. It wasn’t going to define me.
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Arming myself with facts increased my confidence. I didn’t feel ashamed anymore. I didn’t feel dirty. Even my doctor said the worst thing about herpes is the stigma, not the virus.
Healing is nonlinear. You’ll have good days, and you’ll have bad days—but you’re still healing. You’re still surviving. I survived.
I started dating again. I realized I was still worthy of love. I was still worthy of good sex. And if someone didn’t want to hang out with me or have sex with me because of herpes, they were not someone I wanted.
I expected dates to flinch, gawk, or ask me to leave, but in the two years I’ve had herpes, that’s never happened. Instead I’m met with sympathy, curiosity, nonchalance, and, every so often, “Me too.” Just like flexing a muscle, speaking about herpes made me feel stronger the more I did it.
Contracting herpes—or any STI—is not the end of the world. You will date again. You will have sex again. The virus may change you, but you’ll become even more aware of your body and its inner workings. You’ll be more committed to discussing sexual health with friends and partners.
A diagnosis like this can make you question whether to love or hate yourself. I chose love. Because I’m all I’ve got.
Editor’s Note: The number of people infected with three major STDs is at an all-time high (yikes!). We’re tackling common misconceptions about STIs and STDs to help #ShattertheSTIgma. Because getting tested should be NBD.