How Herpes Saved My Life
I have genital and oral herpes—and I swear it saved my life. It sounds weird, I know, but it's true.
I contracted herpes as an undergrad at Berkeley in the mid 80s. My boyfriend had a cold sore on his lips after the first sunny day of skiing. Since childhood he would get the same little blister after the first day on the slopes, so he didn't think much of it. Both of us ignorant of the potential transmissions to genital areas, he went gloriously down on me.
If I hadn't contracted herpes in college, I think I would have engaged in a lot of stupid, unsafe sex. I'd likely have contracted far more serious sexual transmitted conditions. Let's be serious, I'd be… Dead.A week or so later my entire vulva erupted in horribly painful oozing sores. The nurse practitioner at the university health clinic coldly declared the diagnosis and bluntly dismissed me with a prescription slip. She was neither helpful nor comforting for this scared kid. Judgment hardened her face.
This initial outbreak lasted for a couple of painful weeks. For the next few years I suffered frequent and debilitating outbreaks. Why did I suffer so when others with the same disease got away with hardly an itch?
As I struggled with feeling contaminated and crippled during that first year, I was accepted into an excellent seminar on the mind-body connection in the Psychology department. As a coping mechanism of the grieving nerd, I decided to make herpes recurrences and triggers my research topic. Since this was before the Interweb, much less Google or medical information sites, it wasn't uncommon for the average citizen to be totally in the dark about their medical conditions. Armed with treasured access to the university library, I combed through card catalog (how archaic!) databases on disparate current research. This research process, supported by a non-judgmental and brilliant professor, helped me to better understand the disease, manage outbreaks and, most importantly, normalized the situation for me.
But that's not how herpes saved my life.
In college I claimed my sexual rights as an adult and became very sexually active and very experimental. I continued in my sexual growth as I moved from Berkeley to San Francisco. This was during the death-filled days of the AIDS pandemic. Having herpes was just so common that it just wasn't a big deal under the shadow of HIV's certain death sentence at the time.
My Herpes—yes, I saw the disease now as mine; the very bugs that would now live in my basal ganglion and share my body with me, as common as the bacteria in my stomach and mitochondria in each of my cells, were part of me now. My Herpes became the little annoyance that gave me the best reason/alibi/excuse ever to whip out a condom or dam or gloves with that new hottie I hooked up with. I'd smile and tell them I have herpes and talk about it as a common nuisance. I'd then tell them I was hot for them and don't want to harm them so I'd like to use a condom. I figured that if anyone had an issue with hot latex sex with me because of My Herpes, they didn't like me, the whole person. I wouldn't want to hang out with such a shallow sob.
It never caused a problem and no one ran away. With each occasion I felt stronger, smarter and sexier.
If I hadn't contracted herpes in college, I think I would have engaged in a lot of stupid, unsafe sex. I'd likely have contracted far more serious sexual transmitted conditions.
Let's be serious, I'd be…
Herpes is most contagious right before an outbreak and continues to be transmittable through the outbreak. You may or may not know when you're in a pre-outbreak stage. Some people feel a tingling sensation, others don't.
If you want to know more about the real facts on herpes, the CDC's website has some great info. One stat reads that 1 out of 5 sexually active adolescents and adults have herpes. That one may be you without even knowing it.
While not everyone with herpes experience recurrences, people with recurrent herpes usually have particular triggers or sets of triggers. These will vary from person to person. Obviously the college boyfriend was triggered by first exposure to bright sun light. Others are triggered by nuts, chocolate, stress, etc. You have to observe your own patterns.
My triggers turned out to be a combination of sleep deprivation, negative emotional stress, and a lowered immune system. So when I have an outbreak, I take that as my body's alert system to get some sleep, consider the blessings in my life, pop some vitamin C and take care of myself. My Herpes behaves as my personal stress watch-bug.Herpes is a pain and a hassle—but in the dating world I turned it into an advantage to stay healthy, ethical and joyously sexual.
Yes, My Herpes saved my life.