I hope this herpes story helps. It will get better. It will be fine.

I contracted genital herpes from oral sex with my very first partner ever. While the feelings you are going through are completely normal, I can tell you from living with herpes for 10+ years that they are almost certainly outsized. Herpes does not make you tainted or dirty. It’s unfortunate that we live in a culture that often uses herpes and other STIs as shorthand for high risk behavior, and even moreso that herpes is so widespread that many of the same people who perpetuate this shorthand have herpes themselves.

By *far* my worst outbreak ever was the first one. Like you I decided immediately that I would want to take daily suppressive therapy, and I did for a couple of years (at great personal expense; valacyclovir was still under patent back then), but I eventually stopped taking it and didn’t have another outbreak for years after that. In ten years I’ve had three outbreaks that I can remember, including the first one.

All of my relationships in my entire adult life have been “discordant” with regard to genital herpes as far as I know, which is a big qualifier — tons and tons of people are unaware of their herpes status. I have never had a partner report new genital symptoms after being with me. With some partners I have used condoms all the time; I have had a couple of serious relationships that lasted long enough for us to reach a mutual decision to undergo testing and forego condom use, despite my status.

My first outbreak was painful, and the subsequent outbreaks were annoying, but by far the worst consequence of herpes was the shame I felt for the first few years, which is ironic because ultimately it was self inflicted. I’m not saying you have to go about shouting it from the rooftops — lord knows I don’t — but cut yourself some slack here. If your best friend came to you and told you this had happened to her, what would you say? You know yourself to be a good responsible person. This is not a punishment or a rendering of judgment. It’s just biology.

You might find that medical professionals are unsympathetic or indelicate in their treatment of you. This hurt me a lot when I was younger. I still remember vividly letting my knees fall open and hearing the nurse exclaim, “Wow! You’ve got HERPES!”, and it affected me so much at the time that I lodged a formal complaint with her supervisor (during which I broke down crying).

Fast forward many years and I am now a medical professional myself. While I carry that memory with me and certainly try to have that experience inform how I treat patients in emotionally vulnerable situations, I understand now why it happened: simply put, herpes is super common. Doctors and nurses see it all the time, and as a result for many of them it has been stripped of the “dirty” status other people assign it. I know now that to that nurse, her reaction was no different than if I had uncovered my legs to reveal a case of allergic hives, and I feel happier and healthier when I view myself through a similar lens.

I hope this herpes story helps. It will get better. It will be fine.

Updated: August 23, 2016 — 7:32 am
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