“Well, at least it’s not on your face… that’s the more embarrassing one,” my gynaecologist - an aged white man - nonchalantly tells me. Says who??? I think to myself, so ashamed that I had thought this tiny speck of blood that kept appearing on tissue was simply a short-lived anomaly.
“We can test for it,” he continues, “but we may still not be certain you have HSV2 because we get false negatives all the time, but that’s definitely what it looks like. Do you wanna test to be sure?” I shake my head no. I shake my head hell no. This diagnosis from an insufferably rude doctor was enough “negative” for one day. When I walked into that office, I had no idea I would walk out suddenly and irrevocably “positive.”
I was positive for genital herpes. I left stunned, a zombie dragging my feet to my car, not remembering whether I had agreed to the test or not; whether I had heard those words that meant I was permanently scarred. I walked away wondering whether my life would ever be the same again. I couldn’t bear the thoughts circling my mind as though being sucked down a dark drain.
It’s easy to blame school for scant coverage of genitals, gender, menstruation, pregnancy, prevention, STD symptoms, sexuality, and whatever else my health teacher could cram into just two 50-minute classes. It’s easy to blame my parents for telling my sister and I to cover our eyes during every sexually explicit movie moment on TV, or for giving us one, single sit-down sex talk that precluded comfort with requesting a sequel. It’s easy to blame my adult mentors, the media, and many other factors for my ignorant nature in the realm of sex.
But in truth, it was the easiest to blame myself.
I felt like the stupidest smart girl in the whole fucking world. I took AP classes!! I graduated early with my Associate’s degree! I WROTE A GODDAMN THESIS!! How could I be this dumb? How could I have allowed this to happen? How could I not have “known better”?
As the questions replayed ad infinitum in my mind, the words added weight to my emotional body. My heart turned blue and purple with every accusation and abuse I threw at myself; it wasn’t the physical symptoms of herpes that knocked me so far down. Nothing and no one could hurt me as deeply as I hurt myself.
And like most people, instead of healing, I chose numbness.
My healthcare consisted of waking up, burying my head in the sand, and choking until I could fall asleep every night. It started out simply as a visit beyond the consciousness of my STI status. Drinking with friends more frequently than ever and blacking out half the time was like taking a dose of mind-numbing medication.
Staying out later and heading to work earlier and earlier - voluntarily - was my second dose. Smoking weed more than just socially and having sex with strangers was my third. My visits beyond consciousness turned into overnight stays.
After some time, I felt like a fraud. I felt like an omission of one major truth about myself constituted several months living in a lie; lying to my friends with fragile smiles and inauthentic laughs pushed me further into the depths of my denial. Eventually, I saw no one. White wine, cheese puffs and Trailer Park Boys were my only friends.
This pattern of avoidance continued for three years. I threw myself at an intensive language program across the country; I changed my permanent address to a Podunk town several states away from family (and the place where I was diagnosed). I turned to challenges that would ultimately serve as delightful distractions from the life-changing truth still buried inside.
My journey eventually took me back to my home state, to a job with 200 co-workers in the vibrant city of Miami. I was beyond grateful for what appeared to be the most massive diversion since my diagnosis, however it turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Or maybe a different kind of straw… one that dug down into the earth and found me, giving the tiniest impression of what it felt like to breathe again. Like a tiny breathing tube, it resurrected the part of me that craved freedom.
The non-profit I served with was a professional and personal development-oriented organization filled with young leaders thirsting for honesty and idealism. With blood, sweat, and tears, we operated outside of our comfort zones for ten months. As we grew to know each other, we were pushed to know ourselves.
Before this moment, I didn’t really know I was suffocating; I had no awareness of the thirst for living freely in the world, for loving myself with confidence. Every person I had the honour of serving with became a mirror for my areas of growth. They reflected back to me my flaws, my skeletons, and my deeply depressing denial.
It dawned on me that I didn’t have to live this lie anymore. This compelling and diverse collection of dreamers never doubted my ability to succeed and thrive in the world - so why should I? Three years of not honouring my body, my mind, and my spirit felt like enough. I decided the best way to start picking myself up again after feeling knocked down by herpes was to talk about it.
I had never even said the words aloud. Like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I feared direct contact with the name and its associations.
A member of my team within the organization was there for me the day I finally claimed those words, and without her friendship I don’t think I would even be friends again with myself. It was clear that her non-judgmental attitude toward the struggles of life held the perfect space for those words. The ones holding me under and preventing air from entering my lungs.
“I have herpes.”
When they escaped my body with shivering shudders and sobs of sadness, those words made space for the air - the freedom - I had forgotten about for so long. I felt lifted, lighter, and completely loved in that moment. Everything would be okay. From this moment on, I would no longer accept the darkness that buried me. I would no longer willingly tuck myself into it every time an opportunity to be authentic appeared. I would no longer drag the burden of my secret alongside me without help.
I was under the impression that unburdening myself was a burden to others. As it turns out, it’s like setting down an incredibly heavy suitcase and choosing to walk away from it. My friend who heard me in my moment of truth didn’t have to start carrying it for me, nor did she have to help me continue lugging it along. We both looked at it, acknowledged the blisters on my hands, and then she took my damaged hand in hers. We could walk away from it together.
Which meant that I could walk away. I was finally free.
My liberation took place from that moment on, in a series of escalating, meaningful ways. I told a sexual partner. I told two. I FaceTimed with my sister to tell her the news. I told a few more friends, women who were a part of my coaching group. I told my grandma and she confessed to having herpes, too. Then, I told my mom. She told my dad… and that was that.
Over the course of several months, I set down several heavy suitcases and never looked back. I felt lighter each time, like asking for permission to be myself again, and every answer was: “Of course!! We would want nothing less from you.” My lifelong cheerleaders finally knew the score, and they continued to root for me.
I could breathe again; with lungfuls of air, I began telling the world. It was almost addicting at this point to tell every new person I’d meet that I have herpes. It inspired in me a confidence that was unshakable. Everyone who mattered knew, so what does it matter if strangers learned?
And as those strangers became friends, it became even more clear to me that - although the first partner I told said he was “clean” and wanted to stay that way - I wasn’t at all dirty. I never had been. My friends and family helped me to feel loved in a way I never felt before. I was secure, washed clean of my denial and self-asphyxiation, and felt clearer than anyone I’d ever known.
I learned there’s life after herpes, and this life is remarkably better than the one I started with.
- KellyAnne Herman