By Molly Myers
I laid on my back as Dr. Sara swabbed the bump on my labia. It hurt and I groaned.
“Yep, that groan sounds like herpes.”
I sat up in a panic.
“You think I have herpes?”
“I don’t know what it is. I could barely see it. We will have to see what the swab says.”
I left the doctor’s office in a daze. Visions of fucked-up vaginas filled my mind. I made it to my car but I could not see the world around me. My imagination ran wild with what herpes would do to my body, and sex life. I closed my eyes and put my head in my hands.
Suddenly I was transported back to Highland High School health class. I could see my health teacher, Mrs. Ellis, clicking through PowerPoint slides that detailed STDs. She got to the herpes slide. Her head of long black hair turned to us, and with eyebrows raised she said, “This one is permanent.”
Sitting in the doctor’s office parking lot, I was paralyzed. Why move? The future had only hell in store for me. Soon my vagina would swell to the size of a coconut. Puss filled sores would eventually cover my entire pelvic area, and then my vagina would burst into flames. Eventually, my vagina would turn to dust, and disintegrate off of my body.
I was always told to get tested. I always did get tested. Still I was never prepared to actually get something.
When it comes to STDs there are a select few you really don’t want. Nearly all of my friends had contracted chlamydia, sweet glorious chlamydia. Why God? Why could I not have gotten classic, curable chlamydia? Gonorrhea, pubic lice, these words suddenly became the most angelic diseases I had ever heard. I longed for these diseases. Instead I had hardcore-God-forsaken-genital herpes. My first STD would be with me for life. Or maybe not. Panicked, I went to Google.
I scoured journals like Medical News Today, looking for a cure. The shred of hope I clung to was soon annihilated. I learned that herpes is a virus, ew. It’s a virus with a mechanism for hiding in the body so well it goes undetected by the immune system. Doctors are yet to figure out how it hides, and are therefore unable to cure it.
Planned Parenthood’s website states, “People with herpes have relationships and live totally normal lives.” I didn’t believe this for a second, and knew I was destined to be a spinster.
Two months earlier I had broken up with my on-and-off boyfriend of three years. He had cheated on me with our hot, younger coworker, Emma, in my parent’s house, while I was asleep. He was the kind of guy that watched prank videos on YouTube and thought they were real. After he met my friend Nalinna he went on and on about how hot she was. He called me pretty every now and then, when I had makeup on. He also hit me that one time. Still, ending the relationship was hard. I cried and cried as if he had been some kind of once in a lifetime person. The way I acted you would have thought he was witty, or loving, or funny, charming perhaps, huge cock, fun to be around, any of these traits. But he was none of them. He was cute though, and I felt attractive when I was with him. That was all. I finally ended things.
Now, two months later, I was starting to regret that decision entirely. Had I only stayed with him, I would have never contracted herpes. I would take anything over herpes, even my abusive, cheating, average-cocked ex.
The first month after we broke up, I kept to myself, watching TED Talks on relationships that all said similar things. Apparently we are just looking for people to hurt us in familiar ways, like our parents hurt us when we were children. I put in more hours at my on-call custodial job. I scrubbed toilets at middle schools, and lifted shiny black bags of trash into large green dumpsters. The classrooms I cleaned had colorful posters. One poster read, “If it doesn’t challenge me, it won’t change me!” I liked that one. During this time, spring semester ended. I passed the classes I was taking, and graduated from community college.
I tried my best to stay busy, to stay single, but I’ve never been too good at it. I love “love.” Or at least I love to be loved. Even if my relationships weren’t that great the fact that I was in one gave me a sense of security. Summer had just started. It was hoe season, and John reached out to me.
John and I had known each other since elementary school. In high school we had the same friend group. I saw him almost every weekend at the house shows where his band played. We would flirt, even if I was always in a relationship. After high school we worked together at a barbeque restaurant. We would drink 99 Brand vodka in the parking lot before our shifts and on our lunch breaks. The watermelon one was my favorite. It wasn’t the best job. John left and started working as a custodian for the school district. They paid $19 an hour, and John encouraged me to apply. He gave me a recommendation to his boss and I got the job. Later we went to community college together and I helped him write his speeches in our communications class. Once we kissed in the bathroom at a party after I asked him if I could watch him pee. We would spend all night on the phone talking about our friends, religion and love. When my grandma died, he brought my family a bouquet of white lilies.
A month after my breakup I started seeing John. As much as I liked him I wanted to take it slow. What I mean by taking it slow, is not having sex. We spent nearly every day together and I slept at his house on the weekends. I was wary of starting something new. Heartbreak had taken its toll on me and I was terrified to go through it again, but not too terrified. We were always together. I loved spending the night with him. We wouldn’t have sex. Instead, we would just kiss and cuddle. John was so sweet about it. He would say that he didn’t even want sex, and what we were doing was fine.
John was different from the boys I had been with previously. I know you aren’t supposed to compare your current partner with your previous ones, but we all do. John went out of his way to do things for me. This made little sense as we weren’t committed to each other, and we weren’t having sex. On my lunch breaks he would bring me sliced melon and a can of Red Bull. When we went out to eat he would pick me up, and pay for our meal. I was used to driving myself and splitting the check. Today women aren’t supposed to want this but it meant something to me. Instead of telling me that I could have a nice ass if I just worked out, he told me how much he loved my body. John was very strange. I was quickly falling in love with him. One month in and I was ready to consummate the relationship, just oral though, nothing crazy. We took tender turns giving head on top of his Mexican blankets, then fell asleep side by side.
The very next day while showering I noticed a bump on my labia. I get ingrown hairs where I shave every now and then, but this was on my labia where hair doesn’t grow. I went to the doctor the following morning. I was nervous, but I was just being careful. Besides, it wasn’t vaginal sex. I told myself I was having some type of skin condition, which in the end wasn’t wrong.
Alas, a week after Dr. Sara swabbed my labia I got the call. Before the official diagnosis I had already come to the conclusion that it was herpes from the extensive panic-induced Googling, and of course Dr. Sara’s (semi-affirmative initial) comment. However, I did learn quite a bit in that Google sesh. Usually Googling your symptoms leads you to thinking you have cancer, and amounts to a great deal of unnecessary anxiety. But in my case, I was just happy to understand what I was dealing with. It turns out that herpes isn’t spread through blood or fluids, but skin to skin contact. You can get it from kissing, rubbing, oral or vaginal sex, anything skin to skin.
I verified it, now I had to tell John. I let him know I was tested and he was waiting anxiously for the answer. I texted him asking if he wanted to get breakfast. He called me instantly. “Please tell me that doesn’t mean what I think it means,” he said.
He picked me up and we drove to Tom’s Diner. The energy was tense as we drove past the tract homes and dry desert lots. At Tom’s we ordered a single pancake breakfast. The anxiety curbed most of our hunger. We sat down and the waiter put two cloudy-white glasses of water at our table. She began to explain that the water needed to settle. John assured her that he came here all the time, and after countless Sunday afternoons with his family, he was well aware of their color-changing water.
John was worried. Usually he had the sweetest smile on his face, his brown eyes bright and full of life, framed by his curly black hair. Now he sat across from me with furrowed brows and eyes full of fear. Almost in unison we started laughing.
“We’re not going to die,” I said.
“But it’s an incurable disease,” he replied and lamented on the fact that a virus was living inside his body, something insidious and unwelcome. John was going back and forth between being okay with the diagnosis, and deciding that his life was over. I didn’t blame him.
Getting tested for STDs, I told myself that as long as it isn’t herpes or HIV, I would be ok. I feared herpes ever since becoming sexually active. Now that I had it, I realized I knew little about what I was so fearful of. After my Google research and talking to my doctor, I was even more confused. In health class I had been taught that herpes was an ever constant state of horrendous sores. I learned that if I ever contracted this heinous disease, I would become a sexual leper, never to be touched again. After first hearing that I probably had herpes, I gave myself a prognosis of till-the-end-of-the-day-before-my-vagina-fell-off.
I went back to the doctors where they gave me Valtrex, a daily medication that suppresses outbreaks and lowers the rate of transmission. Sometimes I think that Dr. Sara was too callous with my diagnosis, but really I just wanted to shoot the messenger. Still, I avoided her. Instead of Dr. Sara I had a new doctor who told me I may never have another outbreak, and if I did they would most likely be few and far between. She told me the stigma is the worst part of the disease. The stigma was also the reason I had never heard anyone talk about having genital herpes, even if according to the World Health Organization, the numbers were one in six.
Now sitting across from John, eating most of the pancakes, I tried to explain all of my new knowledge to him. At this point I was feeling pretty good about the whole herpes thing. “It’s so common… It won’t affect your overall health at all… two thirds of the world has either oral or genital herpes… It’s the same thing as cold sores, just a different place on your body… people with cold sores don’t feel this way.”
I went on and on. Yet no amount of statistics or CDC facts about living a normal life with herpes could console him. To be honest I was still also trying to console myself.
According to the CDC, most people with herpes don’t know they have it. The symptoms are usually pretty mild and go unnoticed. The CDC does not recommend testing for herpes if you do not have symptoms, and herpes tests aren’t a part of regular STD screenings. The CDC’s reasoning is that, “More often, the stigma and shame from a genital herpes infection can be more troubling to someone who is infected than the disease itself.” I found this to be true. One month after my initial outbreak, the bump on my labia completely went away. The months that followed I kept a close eye on my genitals. Despite my morbid fantasies my vagina remained…normal.
At first John was torn up thinking he gave me herpes. He felt bad thinking he was the one who transmitted it. After taking an STD blood test shortly after me he was also diagnosed with herpes, even if he didn’t have (or simply didn’t notice) any symptoms. The virus can remain dormant for years and come out whenever it pleases. Because of this he started to think I might have given it to him. I didn’t want to be the perpetrator, but it was entirely possible I had it before sleeping with him. We had quite a bit of back and forth. Eventually it got to the point where John just decided to live in complete denial, so much so that I had to change his name for this piece.
John and I continued to date, but we didn’t end up together. Not because of the herpes thing, although we did decide early on that we shouldn’t talk about it. I moved away for college, and the relationship ran its course.
After my relationship with John ended, I reflected on my thought process from when I first found out I might have herpes. I was still glad I ended my previous relationship, and I didn’t regret having sex with John.
Despite knowing how common and unthreatening herpes is, I still feel bad about having it. Ella Dawson, sex and culture critic, details her experience with herpes in numerous articles. She writes that, “Telling someone that you have an STI should not be brave or shocking. It should be normal, and kind of boring.” As much as I agree with her, I still feel, every now and then, dirty and embarrassed. There’s a strong stigma surrounding herpes. I never told my parents, but I did tell most of my friends. People contract viruses all the time. Once you add sex to the equation, a virus becomes immoral and shameful. Lisa, my therapist, told me that if someone rejects having sex with me because I have herpes, they are rejecting the virus and not me. But the virus is a part of me. Sometimes I think I would rather just never have sex again than go through that rejection. Going forward I have to tell anyone I have sex with that I have herpes. That definitely does not feel normal or boring, but I hope one day it will be.
Molly Myers is a writer, student, eyeliner enthusiast and news editor for The Orion. Makeup tips and trauma dumps can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.