An unconventional holiday, disclosure talks, and break up pasta.
Every year on October 19th, a little anniversary reminder goes off on my phone. I often forget about this unusual personal holiday for most of the year, but getting that yearly reminder never fails to make me chuckle. Outside of birthdays, engagements, or other widely recognized holidays, everyone has their own personal holidays that are unique to their own life. How we celebrate these days may vary depending on the reason, but regardless of the approach, we have to get creative. Our holidays don’t have a line of hallmark cards waiting patiently under the blinding fluorescent lights of your neighborhood Walgreens readily available.
I’ve had HSV for over three years now and it’s been an emotional journey, to say the absolute least. I remember the exact moment I found out, I was sitting at my dining room table as my boyfriend at the time confessed that what he assumed to be chaffing was actually herpes and that it’s likely that I’ll get it too. Every single insult/joke I’ve ever heard about herpes and vegas, herpes and disgust, herpes and deviancy, etc. rushed around my head. At that moment, I didn’t have any symptoms so I tried to find comfort in the possibility that I lucked out, that somehow I managed to avoid catching the virus that I’ve personally used as the punchline to cheap, bad jokes. This fragile sense of security was short-lived because I started showing symptoms the following day.
The first couple of months were rough. Gil constantly made jokes about how “lucky we were to be together because no one will want people like us.” After getting diagnosed, I struggled to find information that would sooth the uncertainty about my future. The doctor who diagnosed me was unhelpful and insisted that I should’ve done my research beforehand. My partner constantly reminded me that I’ve made the irreversible transition into the realm of undesirables. My friends were super supportive, but even they didn’t really know how to address a situation like this. So, there I was, in the middle of another New England winter, which is already characterized by solitude, overwhelmed with the idea that the coldness of this winter will never end.
Even after the heartbreak eased, I continued the trend of reminding myself that “no one will want people like us.” It was an extremely destructive narrative that eventually manifested into an unspoken morning mantra. On the mornings where I’d try to give myself pep talks in the mirror, you know.. like every balanced & totally not depressed human does, I’d feel his words creep in as they tightened around my body in the same way he used to. My reassurances felt powerless in their timid attempts to speak over his words reminding me how I belonged to a sub-class of humans destined for mediocrity and a lifetime of accepting the bare minimum from partners who saw intimacy with me as being brave or charitable. I slept with someone that I wasn’t even remotely attracted to shortly after getting diagnosed because I felt that I should be lucky if anyone still wanted me because like Gil said, no one wants people like us.
Clearly, the first couple of months were rough. I wish I could go back in time to wrap my arms around my 25-year old self. So, I suppose my intentions for writing this blog post is for it to become the hug I needed back then, and still occasionally need today.
Just to be clear, this was how I felt three years ago and does not reflect how I navigate intimacy and relationships nowadays. Someone recently ended things with me because of HSV and this was the text I sent to a friend right after…
“I’m bummed that it ended the way it did BUT I’m an absolute snack and I’ll be just fine out there.” – me, a couple weeks ago.
Living with HSV is a wild experience. Not because of the physical manifestation of it, which to be 100% honest, is minimal, especially in comparison to my original expectation of what I thought my future would look like. For awhile, I blamed my promiscuous tendencies, even though I got it while being in a monogamous relationship. People often ask about how I got it. I don’t want to perpetuate the stigma by emphasizing the monogamous detail, so I usually preface that with a quick joke about how “I took a break from my slut phase to try out monogamy when suddenly…” Over half of the world’s population (HSV-1 = 67% and HSV-2= 13%) lives with some form of HSV, and that’s only counting those who have been tested for it. For many people, HSV eventually gets all cozy and hibernates in the spinal cord. It can remain dormant for years before becoming active so this means that some folks will start showing symptoms years after being exposed to it. It’s ability to go dormant and its lack of significant health concerns is also why HSV is not included in the standard STI panel. Aside from the psychological toll it takes, it is also impossible to determine when you caught it if you’ve never had an outbreak.
Also, if someone just disclosed their STI status to you and you don’t know how to feel right away, that’s totally fine. You could always start by asking them a question. By opening up this dialogue, you can learn more about the person you’re trying to get intimate with without relying on doomscrolling through the dry statistics and fear-based resources that often show up as top results on google. I’ve collected a whole mini-library of sex positive, non-heteronormative health resources over the past couple of years and I’m more than happy to pass them along to anyone that is interested.
Most people get herpes from being kissed by family members during childhood because folks often fail to recognize that cold sores are herpes. Also, theres been a rise in genital herpes because of this failure to recognize that they are the same exact thing. If almost 1/3 of the adult population has oral herpes and you’ve hooked up with at least 3 people, you’ve probably been exposed to someone carrying HSV, even if your partner insisted that “they were clean.” However, I’ve had friends grapple with the confusion of accidentally giving genital HSV to their partners after going down on them. So, if you’ve ever had a cold sore, you should be disclosing that information to every person you’re trying to make out with.
My favorite segue into conversations about sexual health is immediately after someone makes a joke about having herpes when offering a sip from their beverage. It’s amazing how fast the mood changes when their ostensibly lighthearted joke suddenly shifts into an unexpected conversation about my vulva in a crowded bar. I love when people ask me about the “Safe Slut” sticker on my nalgene because it opens the door to a conversation about my favorite sexual health advocate. I also love when someone kindly asks if its safe to borrow my chapstick because I can jokingly ask about how they think chapstick is applied. I’ve become the sexual health fairy in all my social circles because I am extremely vocal when calling people out on their bullshit. The person you’re about to sleep with refers to their STI status as “being clean?” Dump his ass. The person you’re about to hook-up whines about how they “can’t finish with a condom on :’(” Dump their ass. About to sleep with a biological male who says they got tested for HPV? Dump his ass (penis-wielding folks cannot get tested for HPV, which can be incredibly destructive to the uterus, especially since the Gardasil vaccine does not protect against some of the most high-risk strains). Someone says “trust me, I’d know if I had an STI” before proceeding to admit they haven’t been tested in 4 years? Fucking run.
STIs are so incredibly common and most of them are totally curable. Unfortunately, we were all subjected to the same inaccurate sex-ed classes in high school. Luckily we all learned how to put condoms on bananas while we patiently until marriage to have heteronormative sex, right?
In the beginning, talking about it so openly started out as my way of trying to force myself into being okay with it, but somewhere along the way, I settled into this aspect of my identity. I will have it, just like the majority of the world’s population, for the rest of my life and I’m actually okay with that. Although mine has been dormant for ~2 years, the first year of managing it taught me skills that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. It taught me how to listen to my body and be more conscious of my own comfort levels. I‘ve learned how to manage my stress better by giving myself space to heal from moments of emotional intensity. It also pushed me into navigating intimacy with transparency, even as the fear of vulnerability continues to rattle my core. I’ve committed myself to deconstructing the stigma behind STI’s, one partner/late night hook-up at a time.
Disclosure conversations can go in countless different directions. I’ve heard everything from…
- This conversation just made you so much hotter.
- Okay, and so does the rest of the world population, let’s do this.
- Heard, so how do we proceed?
- Oh! I don’t really know what that means, can I ask some questions first?
- I’ll need time, this is a risk and I’m not sure it aligns with my values.
- You are amazing in every way, I enjoy being around you, and I really want to date you but you have herpes.
The past three years have been an emotional rollercoaster. During the first year, my self-worth felt like it was inextricably tied to the approval of others. I removed myself from the dating scene for a a few months because the possibility of rejection was too overwhelming. I’ve had body image issues my entire life and I’ve also struggled to navigate a seemingly unshakeable fear of being toxic. Getting HSV was like battling the final boss. For some people, having the conversation is informative and even if things don’t work out between us, they still walk away with information that could make someone else’s disclosure talk significantly less stressful. For others, hearing HSV is interpreted as being the result of promiscuity and bad choices – as if those with the conditions should be forced to wear a giant scarlet H around their neck. This response will always simultaneously break my heart and invoke a sense of rage I never knew I had. When you treat HSV, or any form of STI, as a degradation of one’s character, you are reducing an individual containing a multitude of unique experiences, passions, and quirks to a condition that is outside of their control.
With that being said, I also understand and respect that being intimate with someone who tests positive for HSV is not a risk that everyone is willing to take. I had someone abruptly end things a few weeks ago for this exact reason. This situation was different because we weren’t approaching the budding relationship as something casual. This was the first time I heard “everything about you is great and I would love to date you but…” The incompatibility was difficult to accept, but it was necessary milestone for me because I didn’t interpret it as a rejection, or use it as “evidence” for how gross I am. Over the past three years, I’ve surprised myself with how much I’ve progressed in navigating disclosure. However, my confidence in discussing it does not mean I don’t also approach intimacy without fear and anxiety. The stigma behind HSV, and all other STI’s, is pervasive, and it doesn’t matter how many sexual health advocacy pages you follow, or how many times you’ve listened to that Ella Dawson’s TedTalk, there will always be the little voice in my head making me feel as if I need to prove myself to others that I’m worthy of being a loving partner.
I remember when that guy from last year told me that disclosing made him even more attracted to me and it was honestly the most reassuring moment throughout this entire 3-year journey. I’m not saying that I needed the approval of that one dental student with an affinity for fire hydrants and Minus the Bear, but hearing that affirmation painted over that Gil-inspired daily mantra of “people like us.” He was one of the many people I’ve opened up to over the years that helped me get to where I am today. I am able to hold conversations about sex without feeling awkward or ashamed. I spent a majority of my life looking at my body as if it was a battlefield, like taking a single step towards me would result in destruction. The stigma behind HSV felt like the physical manifestation of a lifetime worth of insecurities and shame, but the diagnosis itself also gave me something tangible to navigate.
Anyway, I chose this song because it came up on my Spotify a few days before my ex broke up with me. We used to exchange songs back and forth, and this was one that I really thought he would like. I played it on repeat for days, and with every listen I’d become more excited about how happy it would make him. Instead of showing him the song, he sat on my bed and told me he no longer wanted to see me. Whatever was left of my self confidence shattered as I watched him explain all the reasons he thought I wasn’t good enough for him. I went to a friends house afterwards to cry and make break-up pasta, which if anyone is freshly heartbroken, I’d highly recommend getting a pasta maker because break-up pasta is scientifically proven to alleviate the heaviness of a broken heart. This song continued to be my favorite and I’m so thankful that he dumped me before I had a chance to show it to him. This song also doubles as a little hug for all the versions of myself that have existed throughout this whole journey into a world of stigma and self-discovery. This song is not only a little hug, but its a declaration of love for myself and all of the other HSV+ baddies out there.
TLDR: its scientifically proven that disclosure is sexy. Rejection will happen for a multitude of reasons, but never forget that you are an absolute snack.
You’ll be just fine out there.