This week’s mentor post is about what goes through the mind of a person when they receive an STD diagnosis (in this case, herpes) from panic to acceptance and a call to remember that people with STIs are still people. A diagnosis doesn’t define a person.
“You have herpes.”
Those were the last words I really remember the doctor saying. She continued talking, but I was no longer there listening. You know the sound the teachers make in those Charlie Brown cartoons? That’s what I heard in the background while I was trapped inside my head, those words reverberating within – “You have herpes”. Type 1 genital herpes to be precise.
I drove back to work in a trance, because obviously going back to work was a smart choice. I tried to pretend to work, but I couldn’t stop crying. My co-workers were concerned. My “work-hubby” kept asking me what was wrong, but I would look at him with tear filled eyes and shake my head. He sent me a text asking, “Are you pregnant?” and when I responded with “I wish….”, he thought I was dying. Really, he did; he never thought he would hear me wish for pregnancy.
Looking back at it now, it’s almost comical. Later that day, the “work-hubby” pulled me aside and demanded I tell him what was wrong. When I finally broke down and said those words aloud, he responded with “Jesus Katie, is that all?? You get that just tubing down the Apple River”.
And he was right. Well, I’m not sure about the Apple River part, but he was right that I was making this big deal over nothing and it wasn’t devastating news, just a complication. It just took me awhile to realize it. Have those three words changed my life? Of course they have. Has the change been drastic or did my world come to an end? Definitely not. And the change I’ve experienced has nothing to do with the medical side effects of having herpes. It’s like having a skin condition that’s basically non-existent and I wouldn’t even remember I have it most of the time, if not for the social stigma. The change has come in the way others perceive me and in effect, how that makes me perceive myself.
It really sucks that this basically insignificant detail becomes the highlight of who I am as a person when I tell some people. Suddenly, that’s all they can see about me; it somehow defines who I am. It makes me feel ashamed and gross. Like it’s this dirty part of myself that others shouldn’t have to be exposed to, even if the exposure is just my words. I’m treated like some dangerous, infectious predator, but they don’t even question the person they are making out with (or receiving oral sex from) who has a high percentage chance of having oral herpes (I’m sorry, I forgot; they’re just cold sores when they are on your face – how dare I use that dirty word herpes), the exact same thing that’s on my junk. And please don’t take that as me bashing on anyone who has oral herpes. I have several amazing friends who get cold sores and I would be first in line if they were offering up make out sessions . I get it; people like to say cold sores because there is no stigma attached to that. It’s only bad when you say the word herpes because that implies it’s on your genitals, which correlates to sex. As a culture, we don’t talk about sex, especially not “risky, dirty” sex.
At least I’m a known risk. I’ll tell you up front that I have herpes, or as I like to say, that I’ve gone viral (insert creepy smile and wink), though I don’t have near as many hits as one of those cat videos. If after that you’re still inclined to get down and dirty with me, we can discuss safer practices and what the real likelihood is that you’ll actually contract something from me – which is pretty low on the risk totem pole. That’s not me trying to downplay it, but it is the truth. Yes, you are taking a risk by being with me, but not anymore of a risk than getting with any of the other 50 people at the munch who may or may not know what infections they carry. Herpes is so widespread, that most people have it. About 20% of the population has genital herpes; anywhere from 50-95% of the population has oral herpes. And you know what? About 80% of the people in both statistics have absolutely no idea because they’ve never had symptoms or the symptoms were so mild, they didn’t know.
I’ll admit it – before contracting herpes, I was pretty STI stupid. I knew basics and I knew about the various infections out there. I had a vague awareness of what herpes was as a couple of good friends and play partners had it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there like that who don’t know enough about STIs. That’s why I’m so adamant about educating people now (if you haven’t been to the Newbie Munch 201 on STIs and Safer Sex, you really should check it out). I’ve done a lot of research and try to share the knowledge I’ve acquired with anyone who’s willing to listen and have an open mind. Is there still some scary stuff out there? Yea, but it’s not nearly as scary as it gets hyped up to be.
I don’t want to feel shameful anymore because of some innocuous disease. I don’t want to worry about what people will think of me when they find out. I don’t want to worry about my “secret” being exposed. I don’t want to stress over when the right time to tell someone is. I’m perpetuating the stigma by holding on to all that grief and hiding this aspect of myself. While it may not be my most endearing feature (because we all know it’s my innocent face) and it isn’t something I’m going to glorify, I’m also not going to be afraid of it anymore either. This is a part of me, but it’s not who I am. I’m more than just a disease.
Plus, I’ve got to look at the bright side of things. Like my doctor emailing me a week after my appointment to say, “Good news – you don’t have gonorrhea or chlamydia!” Thanks Doc, because that would have been truly devastating news. You know, to find out I actually had a treatable STI….
Some things you can do to help stop perpetuating the stigma:
- Remember those with an STI are still people and treat them as such. You’re friends haven’t changed just because medically there’s something different about them.
- Say that your test results came back negative, instead of saying clean. If you’re clean because you don’t have an STI, then that must make me dirty.
- Don’t assume that you don’t have one just because you’ve never experienced symptoms or your test results came back negative (those results are only good up until the point you were tested and don’t take into account dormancy of infections or false negatives).
- Don’t tell some douchebag that you hope they get an STI. That’s like saying the people who have contracted one deserved it. Besides, douchebags are worthy of a more creative punishment.
- Don’t automatically assume that anyone who has an STI got it because they were sleeping with multiple people and/or practicing unsafe sex. You can take every precaution and still contract something, possibly with the first person you ever have sex with. Go ahead and call me a slut, I get off on it. But don’t call me a slut just because I’ve got the herp; that’s offensive.
- Educate yourself – The STD Project, CDC – STDs, and American Health Association are some good places to start.