This story has been submitted anonymously for very obvious reasons.
It’s not how you imagine spending Valentine’s Day. Instead of engaging in my usual mock cynical eye rolls, here I was standing in a pharmacy clutching a prescription, fighting tears.
I had herpes.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
I listened, numbly, while the pharmacist explained to me how treatment work.
He tells me to drink lots of water as he hands me a spare emergency dose for the next breakout. I was wondering what he thought of me all dressed up, wearing my signature bright red lipstick. Did I look like I was overcompensating?
I began to wonder what I was projecting? Did I look like a wronged Madonna who was tricked by an evil prince? Or slatternous whore getting her just deserts for her promiscuous ways?
Did it matter?
In that moment it was all that mattered. I wanted him to know that I had been safe, that I had done all the right things. The things that good girls do. I had never wanted to be on the good girl side of the Madonna/whore dichotomy so badly.
Tears prickled ominously as I silently drowned in the shame rolling over me in waves. I was broken, useless, consigned to the scrapheap and good for nothing other than being branded with a scarlet H.
The consummate Valentine’s broken hearted cliché, I stumbled down the road, gasping through the sobs I was pouring down phone.
My friend tried to reason with me.
“It’s manageable,” they offered.
“I’ll kick that asshole in the dick,” I exclaimed.
“It could be worse.”
I called my mother – oh the horror.
“Everything will be fine.”
“You will be fine.”
“It could be worse.”
In that moment there was no “worse”. My life was spiralling out of control as the words of another writer came flashing back, obliterating rational thought: STDs are what happen to girls who don’t follow the rules, and what happen to boys when they sleep with the wrong kind of girls.
I was the wrong kind of girl.
I felt a compulsion to tell everyone. I walked back into my office and stared numbly at a screen, fighting the urge to make some sort of perverse joke on Facebook to claw back some control.
“What did you get for Valentine’s Day? I got herpes.”
But who talks about STDs? No one, really. Certainly not my friends, and lord knows we talk about everything else. From nipple clamps, to anal sex and latex fetishes, there is no stone unturned when it comes to sexual proclivities and preferences.
And yet, bring up STDs and we all cross ourselves like nuns, touch a few close-by wooden objects and thank our respective deities that we have never had one.
In this day and age, why are STDs the last taboo? And why is it women who – yet again – bear the brunt of the shame associated with being infected? STD shaming goes hand-in-hand with slut-shaming. You only get one if you’re whoring around, and if you do get one, you deserve it as punishment for being sexually empowered as a woman. Good girls – the girls worth dating – don’t have STDs.
And yet, STDs are on the rise. US government figures put the commonality of genital herpes at as high as 1 in 6 in the 14-49 age bracket; while in Australia, official figures from 2012 put the rates of infection here at 1 in 5 people. Chances are you know someone with it. You might even have it yourself. You can be asymptomatic for most of your adult life. So can the person who infected you.
And yet, the stigma is real, and it’s brutal.
I’m a couple of days TPH (Time Post-Herpes) now and cycling through my grief stages as I type. And it really is a kind of grief – my life is now firmly divided, hacked into two by a glaring red line (or sore if we want to be perverse). And as much as I wish I could go back to TBH (Time Before Herpes), I now have to scramble to figure out where to from here as I step into an endless, yawning black chasm of being “unclean”.
As I’m numbly sipping expensive Chardonnay from a glass the size of a goldfish bowl – bought on a whim to numb the news to – I’m contemplate dating with herpes.
A little piece of me dies as I imagine the first time I have to tell someone and they immediately walk out on me.
That tipsily spirals into imaginary me demanding someone leave after they insult me about my herpes positive status.
I feel stronger, a scab begins to grow over the wound inside.
When it comes down to it, I have never been one to follow convention when it comes to being open about my sexuality. I also refuse to pipe down about the abuse I suffered at the hands of an ex-boyfriend, even though it’s not the “done thing” and it makes people uncomfortable.
I won’t apologise for my herpes status, and I certainly won’t hide it – if a future lover leaves me because of it, that is their loss because I’m pretty great.
I refuse to be ashamed. I refuse to hide. I’ve always been loud, brash and unapologetic and that is going to sure as hell continue.
Who knows, maybe you’ll see me celebrating my Herp-a-versary next February 14, complete with fresh baked vulva cupcakes.