One student shares her experience living with an STI
Tori Dudys | Fulcrum Staff
Illustration by Mathias MacPhee
I THINK THAT something in life we all seem to forget about or ignore is that consequence we could have had to face, but didn’t. Maybe it was those few times you drove a bunch of friends home after smoking a joint, or that paragraph in your essay that you cut and pasted from Wikipedia because it seemed impossible to find a legitimate source. You probably got off scot-free—and after you parked in your driveway or your paper was graded and returned, you likely never thought about the incident again.
A dreadful discovery
The last sexual encounter I had with my two-timing gem was the most memorable I will ever have, not because it was great—although as I recall it really was—but because I learned the lesson everyone thinks they will never have to learn. Sometimes condoms aren’t enough to keep you safe.
Two weeks after we last slept together, I noticed some really tender bumps down there and immediately went with my loving roommate to the sexual health clinic downtown. After reading a pamphlet concerning genital herpes, I had a sinking feeling in my gut that my life was about to change. Sure enough, right after hoisting my legs up into those dreaded stirrups, the gynecologist took one look at me.
“Yup, it looks like herpes.”
Looking back on it now, it’s difficult for me to remember exactly in what order the thoughts running through my mind were processed. “I hate Tyler* with every fibre of my being,” was definitely one of them, but I think most prominent was my concern for Kyle, a guy I had been flirting with for a month before my first outbreak. I had slept with him a day before I noticed the bumps, bumps I initially thought were ingrown hairs. I didn’t know what to do.
After spending the weekend with Kyle, who lived in a different city at the time, I realized how much I cared about him and how much he seemed to like me in return. I cried in the doctor’s office, for many reasons, but I think this one terrified me the most; knowing I might have passed herpes to him made me more uncomfortable than the swab the seemingly indifferent doctor was taking.
Getting the facts straight
Of course, a long stream of tears was flowing while the doctor stated what seemed like a well-rehearsed diagnosis followed by my medication options. How could my doctor be so calm about this?, I wondered. She must have understood my life was about to change drastically. So much was running through my head. Maybe I’ll never have sex again, never fall in love, never have a family.
Though I now understand why my doctor was speaking so calmly—herpes really doesn’t change that much about your life, as I will soon discuss—she really should have explained a little more thoroughly what my future would hold. Health-wise, I figured the four or five bumps I had would leave in a matter of days. I had no idea they would triple in number and intensity, and I had no idea how to make the pain go away, apart from popping far too much over-the-counter Tylenol.
I will never forget the poor treatment I received at my initial diagnosis. There was a total lack of information from my doctor, and a subsequent lack of information from the nurse I called the next day. She didn’t know anything about genital herpes; when I asked her about it, her response was “Wait one second, dear, let me just find the binder.”
In the days following my primary outbreak, I had to rummage through a bunch of bullshit information I found on Google to self-problem-solve. A little over a week after my clinic visit, a nurse called me to confirm my initial diagnosis and the specific information about my type of herpes, and then she gave me the name of a very helpful website, Westoverheights.com, run by a medical clinic in Portland, OR. This would be the site I continuously turned to for guidance.
It turned out that I had herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1). The two main types of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2, differ slightly. The one I caught genitally is more typically seen on the mouth in the form of cold sores. It can be transferred to the genitals through oral sex and then subsequently passed on genitally, but it is much less contagious in its genital form since that’s not really the place it likes to live. HSV-2, on the other hand, is most commonly found on the genitals, with only about a one-per-cent rate of oral contraction. It’s more severe than HSV-1, occurring more frequently and with more blisters than a typical HSV-1 outbreak.
I think the scariest thing about being told I had HSV-1 was the prospect of telling potential sex partners. I was terrified that no potential partner would take me as I am. I told Kyle immediately; we cried together since we knew so little about the virus. Kyle was tested—a test you must specifically request at the doctor’s office since it is not included in the regular STI screening—and found out he also had it. If there is no visible sore, herpes tests are done via blood sample. They can’t identify the site of the virus via blood test; they simply detect whether or not the virus is present in the body. Kyle learned that both his parents have HSV-1 orally, meaning he probably picked it up from them through drink-sharing or little-kid kisses. It’s possible he has it genitally, but since he never had an outbreak, he’ll likely never know. According to the Herpes-Coldsores Support Network, about 80 per cent of all HSV-1 and HSV-2 carriers will never show symptoms.
Kyle and I had a great relationship and a regular sex life. He was very understanding, and we came to realize that the risks associated with catching HSV-1 genitally are so minimal that it wasn’t worth worrying too much about.
The most accurate information I was able to find came from Westover Heights. Generally, there is very little information available on the subject because the virus is good at hiding between outbreaks. There are many grey areas that doctors and scientists have not been able to work out, and currently there is no cure on the market. There are medications that can be used as suppressive therapy if outbreaks occur more than five times a year. For the most part, HSV-1 outbreaks are infrequent—many people don’t have more than one outbreak in their entire life. That being said, once HSV-1 and HSV-2 are contracted, they never leave the body. So far I have had my primary outbreak and two recurrences, both of which consisted of a single blister that lasted only a few days.
The shittiest thing? The stigma
When I got my first recurrence, I went to my family doctor to ask about a suppressive medication called Valtrex. You can imagine my surprise when she said, “Oh, Valtrex is amazing. I pop those like candy!”
I was excited because I thought I had found someone I could relate to, but after talking to her a little more, I realized she used it to supress cold sores, not genital HSV-1. When I told her my predicament, again to my surprise the doctor said, “I wish I had it genitally. Then I could hide it better.”
It was at this moment, about three months after my primary outbreak, that I finally came to a realization: the only difference between cold sores and what I contracted is the stigma around genital herpes. Both have the same symptoms, both are equally annoying (which is only slightly), and both are the exact same virus: HSV-1. I had spent three months thinking I was disgusting and damaged for absolutely no reason.
For the most part, STIs are minor inconveniences that, if handled properly, cause no more harm than a common cold. If someone contracts Chlamydia, as long as it is identified and treated quickly, it poses no severe threat; but for some reason, plenty of people ostracize, criticize, bully, and generally harass anyone who admits to having an STI.
There seems to be a common association between STIs and being dirty, unholy (even to those that do not subscribe to a religion), and unethical. In reality, STIs come with the territory of having sex—be it monogamous or promiscuous. As the mature, free-love-loving, freaky students that plenty of us are, we must accept the responsibility of informing ourselves about risks and also begin to try to remove the unnecessary stigmas surrounding such common infections.
After living with the virus for about seven months, I’ve come to view it differently. As much as I’m not necessarily thankful I caught it, HSV-1 has changed my life in positive ways. My days of choosing the wrong men have come to an end, and I have learned a lot about ignorance in so many different areas, not just surrounding STIs.
I choose my words more carefully now, because you never know who you’re talking to. Maybe telling someone their watch is “gay” seems funny to you, but what if that person is gay or has family or friends who are? Sure, “Herpes is for life,” and maybe you think it’s funny to bring this fact up after your friend has unprotected sex, but what if they already have herpes and haven’t told you because they’re afraid you will judge them? These are questions I never used to ask myself until I had to deal with my STI being the butt of people’s jokes.
Though herpes can be contracted even while using a condom or other means of protection, it’s not my mission or my place to preach to anyone about how to have sex or with whom to enjoy it. So many people have this virus, and plenty don’t even realize they have it. My best advice is to be as safe as you can, have fun, and take everything as it comes.
If you already have genital herpes and are worried about a change in your sex life, don’t be. I would be lying if I told you my sex life hasn’t changed at all since I caught herpes, but it definitely hasn’t changed as much as I thought it would. Kyle and I broke up a couple of months ago, and it scared me to think I would have to face the reality of living with herpes while having an active dating life all over again. Since then I’ve told four potential suitors about it. I informed them of their risks and gave them all the information I have at my disposal. Three out of four are fine with the risk, and the other one, well, let’s just say the nasty things he said to me made me laugh more than they hurt me.
After all, that’s the best way to get through most unpleasant experiences in life. Take your time to cry, but don’t let it get you down. In the end, herpes is too small to do anything about except shrug, smile, and make the occasional herp-derp joke with your friends. Maybe herpes isn’t funny, but I’m alive and well and sexy as ever, and I can only hope that everyone experiencing the same thing or something similar feels the way I do now.
If you have any questions or would like to contact the author, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Name withheld to protect anonymity.