Laying on my back, spread eagle in front of a person I just met is never how I want my stories to start, but alas, that was the beginning of one of the most influential journeys in my adult life. With a swift but thorough examination, the doctor sat up and simply said, “Yep. That’s herpes.”
The story of how I contracted HSV-1 (the most common type of herpes), is pretty complicated. It happened in the autumn of 2019, shortly after a break up I was still in the process of transitioning out of living with my ex, when I first noticed the symptoms — itchiness, irritation, and pain that felt like my vulva was literally tearing in a few spots. Eventually it became excruciating, so I made an appointment at the sexual health clinic where I received my diagnosis.
Herpes simplex virus, or HSV, is a sexually transmitted disease that doesn’t always have to be transmitted via sex — some people get it during birth or in their younger years through saliva exchange. There are two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. I have HSV-1, which is typically oral and causes cold sores, but I am one of the few who experienced a genital outbreak instead. I’m very lucky, however, that I have only ever experienced that one outbreak, so I don’t currently take the daily antiviral. People with HSV-2 get their outbreaks genitally. During these genital outbreaks, HSV-2 symptoms are usually similar to what I experienced: the sores, inflammation, itchiness, discharge, and some even have cold or flu-like symptoms before those appear. There is currently no cure for herpes, but antiviral medications can help suppress or shorten the outbreaks, and reduce the rate of transmission.
Although all signs pointed to herpes, being diagnosed was still confusing — because my partner never told me he had it. Turns out, he had known for years, and just…didn’t tell me. I have a faint memory of him saying he couldn’t kiss me once because he had a cold sore, but I, like many people, didn’t know that cold sores are always a symptom of herpes. I tried to use humour as a coping mechanism for a while, telling him, “Wow! I got dumped and a parting gift, too,” but over time my anger about his deception festered — especially when I began to date again.
Knowing that not only would I have HSV for the rest of my life, but that I also had to tell every single person I would ever want to have sex with was brutal and infuriating. My ex certainly could have been more clear about his diagnosis so that I had the chance to protect myself. Instead, I now have to move about my dating life with much more caution, and brace myself for the higher potential of rejection.
In the three years since my ex and I broke up, I’ve mostly dated casually. I’ve been pretty lucky for the most part — the majority of people I’ve disclosed my diagnosis to were understanding about it and were still open to dating and having sex with me. That luck was a trend for a while, until this past spring when I met a man and we had an instantly powerful connection. When sex was on the table, I disclosed my diagnosis to him and he seemed understanding about it…but then ghosted me. When I finally got him to agree to meet up and talk, he shared that he didn’t want to have to deal with potentially telling future partners about it. Safe to say that being rejected by the first person to excite me in years, over the possibility of their future rejection, threw me for quite the loop.
Meeting someone amazing who saw my herpes as a dealbreaker stung a little extra because I truly prided myself on the confidence and knowledge with which I disclosed to potential partners. Once I received my diagnosis, I equipped myself with all the facts and statistics. I also made sure to disclose in a way that didn’t make it seem like this big, scary thing — because it’s not. The fact that, globally, 80% of people under the age of 50 have either HSV-1 or HSV-2 (and many people will never know that they have it) proves that it’s not some terrifying condition. That being said, there are still plenty of people out there who only know of the myths and misunderstandings about herpes: that it’s uncommon, that it’s only transmitted when you have a lot of partners in a short amount of time, that you always get it when you have sex with someone who has it, etc. For those of us who live with herpes, these falsehoods perpetuate the stigma and make it that much harder for us to have open conversations about it.
It took me a minute to bounce back from the rejection earlier this year, but now I’m more open about my diagnosis than ever. I post about it on social media and often educate others. I’ve even been totally honest with my family and friends, who have thankfully all been supportive. Understanding that I can embrace my sexuality while having HSV has been huge for me, and has made it a lot easier to talk about it with new people. Now, I usually opt to disclose on the first date, especially if I feel like a second date is likely to happen. That helps me gauge their comfort level upfront so that neither of our time is wasted if it’s a dealbreaker, and protects my anxious attachment self.
While I haven’t experienced any other negative reactions when I’ve revealed my diagnosis, there’s always a chance that I could in the future — and I’ve had to learn to be okay with that. How others feel about my condition isn’t a reflection on me or my worth whatsoever, and I’m still grateful for the chance to be someone who can educate them about herpes. Knowing that I’m one of billions who share this experience also makes me feel less alone, and like I’m going to be okay. I’m determined to live my best life no matter what, and honestly…I am.