IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Herpes Diagnosis Led to the First — and Last — Incident of Physical Abuse in My Relationship

Ultimately, herpes was actually the best thing that happened to my love life.
Publish date:
August 12, 2016
breakups, Dating, abuse, herpes, STD

"It burns," I cried, tears streaming down my face, sobbing hysterically. I stared hopelessly up at our bedroom walls, painted my favorite shade of mint-green by my loving fiancé.

"That sucks," he said. "Well, see you later."

He picked up his laptop bag and headed out. I lay in bed and writhed in pain for hours until finally texting my mother, who I very rarely spoke to: Emergency. Something is wrong. Please help.

My mom and her boyfriend drove from her home in Connecticut all the way to my shabby south Brooklyn apartment and stroked my hair as she took me to the emergency room. I remember shaking and sobbing the entire way, as I put on the hospital gown, as the doctor sat me up and spread my legs.

"Please, miss," the doctor said, "your screams are disturbing the other patients."

I was hysterical. I was inconsolable. I didn't know what I had at that point, but I knew my vagina, my gentle and loving vagina, was ruined.

I have heard since that the first outbreak is indeed significantly more painful than all the others. It's accompanied by an extreme immune reaction. Having an autoimmune disorder, I was especially affected, and the burning was like nothing I had ever experienced. That and the shock. Is this real? Is my sex life over?

When the nurse bandaged me up, she said, "HSV2. It's no big deal. Everyone has herpes. Literally."

When I asked the nurse, "Does this mean my fiancé cheated on me?" she said, "That's irrelevant."

He swore he didn't. I later found out he would occasionally get "random itchy bumps" on his penis that he didn't feel the need to get checked out or even mention once to me in our years of dating; if he just left them alone they usually went away in a few days. He had never had an official diagnosis.

He said, "That's how real men handle an outbreak."

His attitude toward me changed after that night. He was annoyed with me. I wonder if it was because he saw me as weak, crying, hysterical. After getting treatment, which consists of taking a twice-daily anti-retroviral and a numbing cream, I called over one of my best friends for moral support. She held me and told me she also got cold sores — but of course, it isn't quite the same.

Even though oral and genital herpes are the same virus, and often may even be identical strains, they are treated very differently in our society. There is an unavoidable shame that comes with genital herpes, as if it's a punishment. As if it's something given to promiscuous people and lowlifes. I remember in high school, a group of kids banding against a mildly awkward girl with greasy hair (that was her crime: having greasy hair) and started calling her "Herps." Privately, and to her face. Taunting her in the hallways. She didn't even have herpes.

I was nauseated with memories like that, terrified of being discovered myself. It seemed like everywhere I turned, I saw declarations that herpes is a badge for gross people, reserved for the dredges of society. Not me. Ivy League valedictorians studying medicine? No, we don't have herpes.

There's no one particular place I find where this idea comes from, but it permeates the Western world. Of course, the assumption that only dirty, worthless people get herpes is completely broken. I always knew that, logically. And, studying medicine, I knew the ridiculously high statistics of people diagnosed (25 percent at the time) or undiagnosed (estimated to be a full 50 percent). But my diagnosis eroded my self-esteem. I felt like an imposter. I knew I had to keep it a secret, because if anyone found out I had it, they would lose all respect for me.

And I was quickly losing respect for myself.

After the diagnosis, I never fully trusted my fiancé again. I don't blame him entirely for what occurred two weeks later, but I don't find myself fully responsible either. After seeing my breakdown, he never fully respected anything I said or did from then on. We had been fighting a lot. Every little thing, from the meals we ate, to the laundry, to the shows we watched. We were literally fighting about what to watch on Netflix when it happened.

Frustrated, I tossed the remote onto the table and got up from the couch. I started to walk away from him. He got up as well, grabbed my ponytail, and yanked me back so hard I lost my balance. As I fell, my head smashed into the coffee table. Everything went black.

I was probably only out for a few seconds when I woke up on the rug. I looked up, and he was sitting on the couch, the remote in his hand, flipping through Netflix channels. An episode of Archer was playing loudly on the TV. He avoided eye contact with me, and I instantly burst into tears, ran to the bedroom to pack an overnight bag, and ran out the door. He didn't try to stop me, but he did shout at me, "If you're gonna go, leave your keys. I don't want you coming back."

I ran to the local playground and sat on a swing, openly crying in public (like every New Yorker has done at least once for their True New Yorker badge). When I called my mom, she asked, "Are you sure you aren't being dramatic?" I told her I wanted to come home. "I mean, he didn't really hit you. Can't you just calm down, go back, and work it out?"

I placed my hand to the back of my head where I could feel the large, swollen bump.

"You should really just go home and work it out," she said. "You may never find anyone else that will love you with your condition."

They were awful words to hear, but they echoed what I was thinking. I might not find anyone else that'll be able to accept me. Maybe it was just an accident. Maybe I was wrong for fighting with him in the first place. Maybe I shouldn't have thrown the remote.

It's insane, the things you'll tell yourself. When I returned, I lay awake in bed the whole night, too nervous and scared to sleep as he snored away next to me. I argued in my head about whether I'd be able to convince anyone else to love me. But I had to come to terms with the potential that I may spend the rest of my life on my own before I texted a friend the next morning; she came and picked me up, and two weeks later, we came back for the rest of my stuff.

My ex-fiancé had given a lot away and refused to give back a lot of things I bought, like the rug and the laundry bin, my paintings, the Xbox, and the pillows — but I didn't have the strength to argue over them. I let him keep it all.

I remember lying in my friend's guest bed that night, counting the reasons I will probably be alone for the rest of my life. I would never convince a man to put up with me. Between being chubby and emotionally unstable, I wasn't cool or rich or skinny or pretty. I didn't have an abundance of qualities that would make a man say, "It's all right that you have herpes. I'll love you anyway." I knew the reality was that I was never going to be the starring role in a romantic comedy; I was the funny, fat best friend, if anything. So many times that night, I mentally composed the apology speech I could give my ex-fiancé in order to convince him to forgive me. In order to prevent myself from spending the rest of my life alone.

The other possibility was that I would start dating again. I tried to consider that. I even made an OkCupid account. When would I bring up my...condition? Not on the first date — that's too early. Hey, do you like Thai food? I have herpes. But did that mean I'd let someone kiss me, maybe make out with me, with that lie standing between us? Technically, if they didn't ask, did I have to tell them?

I imagined trying to pull what my fiancé had done: pretending I didn't know about having it. That wasn't a solution; it would guarantee my partner would never trust or touch me again. Also, it was a crime. And also, unlike my "loving and caring" fiancé, if I gave a new partner herpes because I was too humiliated about the idea of telling them and getting rejected, I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I couldn't forgive my fiancé for having done the same to me.

Despite my raging insecurities, my self-respect wasn't low enough to live with someone who could physically abuse me. I was entirely convinced that leaving him meant I would spend the rest of my life alone. I also knew, in order to survive and wake up every morning, in order to continue my ambitious academically over-achieving life with the same rigor that I had, I would need to be OK with that. That I needed to believe I would be all right and accept the possibility, or what felt like at the time the absolute reality, of being alone.

Some people unfortunately face this idea much earlier than I do. Some people live their lives never having to. But in my mind, not telling a new partner and risking their infection was not an option. Telling them and being possibly rejected and/or humiliated wasn't an option. So the only other option: Be alone.

I was forced to start taking care of myself and truly believing that my love and sex life was dead. Don't get me wrong; I never thought a partner would solve all of my problems. But I had operated under the impression that finding a life partner was my primary objective in life. Readjusting my life to function without that assumption meant really learning to love and appreciate myself, and accepting that no one else would. I focused on academia, and I reunited with old friends. I became closer and better at keeping in contact with my family. My priorities in life evolved. I became OK with being alone. It eventually forced to me grow significantly more secure and more confident. And, damn, I needed that. I needed those years of focusing on myself.

Those two years of introspection allowed me to admit how dramatic and immature I had been. I began to face the idea of having the discussion with my partners. And, yes, it is difficult. And, yes, some people will leave you. In graduate school, a guy and I had been growing close for weeks, kissing and cuddling and "studying" in bed together every night until we finally began to take our clothes off. I told him that I had herpes, and he left the room and didn't return. Just like that. That was humiliating. I lay topless in his bed for an hour before I worked up the courage to leave.

Some people don't care at all, but some people do look at you differently. I admit, for a second, that feels like utter shit. Their nose wrinkles and their lips tighten and you know what they're thinking, even if they don't say it. I got defensive. I flung facts at them. If you live in this world where all the statistics about herpes are both readily available and easily accessible, and you still willingly engage in stereotyping, then you are the lowlife. You are just another version of ignorant and uneducated, and you are weak for allowing society to shame you into treating another human like shit.

The first person I became romantically involved with was my best friend in graduate school. He'd had a crush on me since we met. We spent every day together, hiking on weekends and studying and eating together during the week. He is an amazing man — open-minded, brilliant, kind. A genuinely nice guy, and an excellent lover. And he appreciated me. Other men I had dated acted like, after I told them about my diagnosis, they were doing me a favor by allowing me to inhabit the same room. When we broke up for perfectly normal reasons (we moved to opposite sides of the country), I clung to him out of residual fear of being alone. But we parted ways, and guess what — I didn't immediately self-implode into shame and self-hatred dust.

For anyone undergoing a recent diagnosis, let me tell you this: Yes, it is hard to admit. It is embarrassing because society is the worst. One-nighters will probably be more difficult to navigate, but they're still possible. Just don't ever lie to anyone about it (seriously, it's illegal). Herpes happens to the best of us, maybe to half of us in our lifetime, and it isn't your fault. But lying is a choice that reflects your character. You're better than that. And it'll dilute your dating pool down to the people that truly deserve your love.

Maybe you didn't need that; maybe, unlike me, you were already good at choosing good-quality humans. In that case, they seriously won't care. The outbreaks get easier, sometimes as infrequent as once a year, and manageable and as painful as a mosquito bite.

I'm married now, and my husband and I barely ever think about it.