I’m Living with Herpes
Originally Published: May 2, 2008
Revised: September 5, 2012
“We just wanted to let you know that your test results came back positive.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. The nurse’s voice on the other end of the phone line was friendly, but distant, and I found myself barely able to choke out a weak “thank you” before hanging up.
I tested positive for herpes.
My boyfriend and I had used a condom. We had been careful. I hadn’t seen anything that looked like a sore or a rash. But when I couldn’t urinate without tears coming to my eyes from the intense pain, I knew something was very wrong.
I went to my mother in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep from the severe burning pain between my legs. The next morning, we rushed to the first available doctor’s appointment. Teary-eyed and embarrassed, I explained to the doctor that there was no way I could have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). If you use a condom, and you know your partner’s history, you can’t get an STD. Right?
When I spoke with my doctor about the results, she said I was tested for two strains of herpes—oral and genital. The kind I was infected with was the oral strain, so it was transmitted during oral sex. And even if my partner had no signs of a cold sore on his mouth, it was still possible for him to transmit oral herpes to my mouth or genitals.
My boyfriend has the oral strain of herpes—the kind that causes cold sores or blisters around the mouth, the kind that 80 to 90 percent of Americans have by the time they’re over 50. He, like most people, got herpes as a child, probably from kissing a family member or friend. The only way we could have reduced the risk of him passing herpes to me was to use a Sheer Glyde Dental Dam, which is a thin piece of latex placed over the vulva during oral sex on a woman.
I am not ashamed of myself, my partner or any person living with an STD.
There is medication to treat the occasional outbreak of sores that happen with herpes, but herpes cannot be cured. And when I first heard that I tested positive for it, I was devastated. But after a week of random outbursts of tears and feeling sorry for myself, I realized something: Herpes doesn’t change me.
I did a Web search and found many online support groups for those living with or dating someone who has herpes. But much to my shock and disappointment, I found forum topics with titles like “How to Deal with the Fact that Your Sex Life Is Over” and “My Boyfriend Just Found Out He Has Herpes: How Do I Dump Him Gently?” What?!
Herpes is not a life-ender. It’s a virus, just like the flu or chickenpox. It’s in my system, but it has nothing to do with who I am.
If you are living with an STD, I encourage you to let go of the shame you may be carrying. People with STDs are not bad or dirty people. And having an STD does not mean that we are promiscuous or don’t take care of ourselves. It also does not mean that our sex lives are over.
Those of us with STDs are perfectly capable of having normal, healthy sexual relationships. We just have to be very cautious and careful about protecting ourselves and our partners from any further infection.
I have learned that having herpes has, in no way, caused me lasting, permanent damage. I have accepted that I will have the virus for the rest of my life. But this simply means that I must take care of myself both during and in between outbreaks.
I eat a healthy diet and try to avoid triggers, like caffeine or high stress, which may lead to outbreaks. During an outbreak, which can last from a few days to two weeks, I take my prescribed medication and avoid sexual contact to protect my partner and myself. My doctor also recommended that, when I’m not having an outbreak, we always use protection, both during vaginal and oral sex. Even though my boyfriend and I both have herpes, he has oral herpes and I have genital herpes. And we don’t want to pass one of the infections to each other.
I am not ashamed of myself, my partner or any person living with an STD. I strongly encourage you to get tested, even if you have only had protected vaginal sex or oral sex. Many STDs don’t have any symptoms. While it was tough at first to hear that I did, in fact, have herpes, it was even tougher just waiting, not knowing what was wrong.
Know where you stand. Get tested and talk to your partner(s) about their sexual histories and using protection. Always use latex barriers, like condoms and Sheer Glyde Dams. And remember: Condoms can reduce your chances of getting herpes, but herpes sores can exist outside the area a condom covers, like the inner thigh. Choosing not to have sex is the only foolproof way to protect yourself from STDs like herpes. And if you do test positive for an STD, remember that you are not any less of a person. You’re still perfect—exactly as you are.
Chelsea, 19, is a Sex, Etc. Contributor from Pennsylvania.
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