This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of 'Angela' and her experience with Herpes.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a normal, 20 something girl. I’m an economics major, sociology minor at a Midwest college. I party on weekends, serve at a local coffee shop for cash and love spending it all on shoes. I’m normal.
But I have herpes.
I grew up in a good home, in a middle class neighborhood and my parents are still together. Sex was never a taboo topic, and sexual health was never something I was shy about. I’ve had sex with ten men (only 2 of which I wasn’t in a relationship with), all of which I have used condoms with – most of the time.
For those of us who aren't sure, could you tell us what Herpes is?
Basically, herpes is a virus and once you have it, it’s yours for life. There are two types, Simplex 1 and 2. I have 1, which is the “lighter” version, that usual manifests as oral cold sores. However, I got it on my genitals, most likely after receiving oral sex from someone who has it. Simplex 2 is “stronger” and what most people show as genital herpes. Wikipedia explains more, as do numerous online sources (be sure to check references and always ask your doctor if your information is correct)
How did you get Herpes?
The crazy thing about herpes is, you never can be totally sure where you got it from.
My ex boyfriend from a few years ago, Chris, has herpes. He was completely honest about it with me from day one, and for that reason I still hold him in the highest regard. It was completely my decision to sleep with him full knowing the risk of catching it. We were always careful to use condoms. But not careful enough that the occasional night we would get caught up and not use one. But he’s had it for ten years and knows his body. He never once had sex with me when he thought there could be even the slightest risk. We had sex for over four years, and I never had a problem. We broke up last year.
How did you find out that you had it?
I had been seeing another guy, John, for a couple months about a year after Chris and I broke up. One night we had sex, and it was pretty rough (a trigger for a herpes outbreak). I woke up feeling sore, but thought it was just because we had gone at it pretty hard. A few days later we had sex again, and the next morning I woke up in unbearable pain. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the crotch, while giving me rug burn, while pouring acid over top. When I checked myself out, I saw a couple little sores. I freaked out and got to the doc that same day. He told me that it was just an allergic reaction to the condoms we used and gave me a cortisone cream. He still did an STI test, but I heard nothing back. 2 days later, the sores were everywhere, I couldn’t pee, or go to the bathroom, and couldn’t sleep or walk. New doc said it might be herpes, but didn’t test or give me anything for it. 2 days later I went to another doc.
This was possibly the worst experience of my life. I could barely open my legs I was in so much pain. He had to insert a speculum to do a swab, I was literally screaming and crying hysterically on the table. I was begging him to stop. He couldn’t finish swabbing because I was hurting so bad. He then had to scrap one of the sores to get cells for testing. Again, I was screaming and sobbing, but had to let him do it, because I had to know what was wrong with me. It was hell.
He prescribed me painkillers and Valtrex (an oral anti-viral for herpes). He said there was a chance it could be something else, but to be safe we’d start on Valtrex right away.
How did you feel when you found out?
I spent the week alone, at home, crying, sobbing. Anytime I would be wake up or feel the pain, I’d pop a pill and try to sleep. It was awful. My house fell apart, I stopped eating, I didn’t talk to anyone. I literally shut myself in.
I felt disgusting, and still do in a way. I felt like the light in me was turned off. I felt like the happy, bubbly, flirty, fun girl I used to be was killed. I was ashamed, I felt dirty, I felt like no one would love me again. When I told John, I watched the look in his eyes change. I haven’t heard from him since.
And although I have history of a sexual partner with herpes, that does NOT necessarily mean that Chris gave it to me. John could have given it to me just as easy. That’s the thing, you NEVER know. Chris has been a rock through this. I didn’t want to tell him, but I needed support. He has been amazing. In a weird way, it’s dissolved any remaining tension between us. And in another weird way, it cleared up any questions I had about John and the type of person he is. So, some good in the bad.
What sort of treatments have you tried? Have they been successful for you?
I have just been using Valtrex, and only when I feel an outbreak coming. I also avoid potential triggers, such as sun exposure and high stress situations. So far I’ve been successful in fighting this.
How has this affected your romantic life?
As I said, John and I broke up. To be honest, if a guy reacts like that, then I don’t want him in my life anyways.
I have not had any romantic partners since. I have been holding back on getting close with anyone because I am dreading the day I have to tell them.
Chris told me about his herpes about 2 months into our relationship, long before we had done more then make out. He trusted me not only to not tell anyone, but he also trusted that I would accept him for who he is, flaws and all. I remember that when he told me, I was not disgusted or even disappointed. If anything, I felt closer to him. And because of his honesty, I never had trust issues with him. So I hope the same will happen for me when I tell my next boyfriend. But if he can’t handle it, that’s fine too, because I don’t want to be with someone who won’t love me exactly the way I am.
And in a strange way, it’s almost a blessing… I won’t be sleeping with a guy I like right away, he now has to earn my trust.
What steps do you take to avoid giving Herpes to a partner?
The only sure fire way is not to have sex at all. Oral counts.
But if you and your partner are going to, and one of you is infected, you can take certain steps to be safer. Never, EVER have sex when there are sores present. Even in the healing stage, when they are no longer contagious, don’t have sex, it’s not worth the risk. Never have sex when you feel an outbreak about to happen (burning, itching, tingling). ALWAYS use a condom and a spermicide. Be open, honest and communicate. Trust your gut. Don’t take stupid risks. Continue to get screened. Make sure you always have a supply of Valtrex on hand just in case. But mainly, communicate honestly.
What advice would you give to someone who has just been diagnosed?
Before you’ve been diagnosed, if you feel that something “down there” is wrong, don’t wait. Go to a clinic right away and tell them what you think it is. I didn’t tell the first doc I thought it was herpes, because I didn’t want to believe it, I wanted it to just be a reaction to the condom. Get tested right away and get on medicine for it right away. Otherwise you’re in for a WORLD of pain.
Get a good drug plan. Always have a stash of meds just in case. Know your body and take extra good care of it. Do research, but don’t quote the internet. Talk to your doctor. Use the anonymous phone lines if you want to talk to someone. Always be open and honest with your partner. DON’T blame anyone. Accept that you chose to have sex in the first place, knowing that STIs ARE a possible outcome, and accept it. Never blame someone else, that will just kill you in the end.
What advice would you give to someone who's interested in a person who's been diagnosed?
Ask yourself if there is a future with this person. Ask your self if you are really willing to contract this virus that you will have forever. Don’t romance it. It HURTS, physically AND emotionally. What If you get it and you break up? Are you ready to be the one telling your new partner about it? Will you accept full responsibility if you get herpes? Or will you resent your partner? Beyond that, ask yourself how much you trust your partner. Will they be open and honest with you about the state of their health? Will they put you at risk if they’re horny one night? Will they respect you when you say no? If you can’t have an open and frank conversation with your partner about sex and STIs, whether or not either of you have one, I really think you need to reevaluate why you’re in that relationship in the first place.