What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
“It’s really common, you know. One in five women are infected.” The doctor said this casually, as if she were recommending a book or discussing the latest celebrity divorce.
And the casual manner wasn’t forced. I could tell she really didn’t think this was a big deal. But she wasn’t the one being diagnosed with herpes.
I was confused, I was angry, I was scared. And, boy, did I itch.
You see, I had gone to visit my GYN for something else, entirely. A follow-up on some tests I had taken a week before. I expected to be in and out. But that didn’t happen.
Near the end of the visit, I asked if she would renew the prescription for my shingles medication, as I had run out and currently had a rash. She took one look at this thing that I’d had off and on, maybe once every three months or so, for years, and declared it The Big H.
Now, truthfully, I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by the diagnosis. After all, I’d suspected something awful a long time ago, when I got what I now know was my first outbreak.
Plus, I was a bit of a loose girl who had sex to prove her worth and wasn’t crazy about condoms. At the time, I went straight to the doctor (responsibly!) and had the itchy, burning rash (which had developed on that part of my ladybusiness where the mons folds in half, just above the clit) scraped (as pleasant as it sounds, I can assure you), then went home to wait on tenterhooks for the results.
A few days later, a call from the nurse revealed that the test had come back “inconclusive, due to mishandling of the specimen.”
She asked me to come back in and have another sample taken, but the rash was already gone. I know I shouldn’t have, but I went about my sexual business in the usual way.
Somehow, in my head, it was justified. Like, “Look, I don’t know for sure that I have an STD so why freak out about it?”
About a year later, another rash appeared, this time, further up on my mons, in the furry bit. I went back to that same doctor (I was having a good run of consistent health insurance coverage) and had another scrape.
A week later, another call with the same “inconclusive” results. Apparently, the sample has to be refrigerated or frozen or something, as soon as it’s taken. Even sitting on the counter in the exam room for the amount of time it takes the doctor to ask if you have any questions will destroy it.
I was frustrated, but I still didn’t change my sexual behavior, even one bit.
The next outbreak I got looked and felt the same, but was on my lower back. By that time, I had moved across the country and went to see a doctor I didn’t know. He declared my rash to be shingles and gave me an Rx. He said it was probably too late for the medicine to help but that if I got it again, I should take two pills as soon as I felt it.
And I did feel it. Always in the same spot on my back. Every few months. For years. Up until this past Summer when my current doctor sprung the herpes diagnosis on me.
“But, it’s on my back!” I protested (you can get herpes outbreaks anywhere on the body).
“But, the shingles medication controlled it!” I tried again (both conditions use the same medication).
“Don’t you even want to take a scrape?” I said as a last-ditch attempt at getting a different diagnosis.
She didn’t need to, she said. She knew. So, I had my prescription renewed. The same one I’d been taking for years.
Then doctor gave me the “one in five women” scoop (after which I said “Nobody I know has it” and she replied “Yes. Yes, they do.”) and a short talk on how to avoid infecting others.
I cried because I knew it was possibly too late for that (one in nine men 14-49 are infected, versus the one in five women statistic because, according to the CDC website “Transmission from an infected male to his female partner is more likely than from an infected female to her male partner.”) and I feel absolutely terrible about having been so reckless with my body and perhaps exposing others to this thing, when I knew it was a possibility.
So, yeah, one in five, ladies. And I have to wonder why we aren’t we talking about it. Like, all the time.
Honest discourse is the only way to remove the stigma (you have no idea how many tasteless herpes jokes are made in the media (especially social) until you are sitting on a dirty little secret. literally!) and I’m willing to Grand Marshal that parade, so that fewer of us have to feel shame about something that a full 20 percent of us are dealing with.
Shame kept me from being realistic about my condition and I don’t want anyone else to go through the same things I did (and still do).
I haven’t had sex since my diagnosis, partially due to lack of partner, partially because the medication I’m on kills my girlboner, and partially because I’m nervous. I’m worried that sex has changed for me. It will involve conversation and negotiation instead of falling into bed with the first man with a beard who finds me doable.
Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get to it when I’m ready (for now, (masturbation) table for one!). Until then, I’m going to start talking about this thing. Feel free to join me.