As I trudged my way up the back stairs of the cabin, I couldn’t have been more relieved. It was finally Friday, the beginning of the best portion of the week. As a camp counselor, I didn’t get much time to myself but this weekend was my weekend. After two weeks of being in excruciating pain, my meds were finally working and I was back to walking, sleeping and feeling like myself again. The doctors took about a billion tests throughout my illness, trying to find exactly what was wrong with me with no luck. I won’t lie-it was exhausting trying to get back to a healthy state while being in charge of 14 other people but I was doing it with surprising grace. About fifteen minutes later, the loudspeaker was telling everyone to go to lunch. I grabbed my phone to notice a missed call. Knowing immediately what it was, I waited for the girls to leave until I called back.
“Thank you for calling back so quickly. I wanted to let you know your test results came in. You tested positive for HSV-2.”
I didn’t do much that weekend other than cry. I had an STD. Not just any STD but HERPES. Freaking herpes. Why me? An STD is the ultimate stain on my innocence. I was branded. I couldn’t tell a soul-they would make assumptions about me. How were my parents going to react to their daughter having herpes? What was I going to do in future relationships? I was screwed for life.
For those of you who don’t know, an STD is a sexually transmitted disease caused by infections that are passed to others during sexual contact. For those of you who did know, you probably remember your middle school health teacher preaching abstinence while showing you the god awful pictures of what would happen to you if you didn’t use a condom.
Before July, I was ignorant about STDs. Yes, I knew the general basics of what STDs were and knew it was a bad thing to have, but those middle school health classes are designed to strike fear into you. I assumed, just like everyone else, that the girls that had the STDs were the ones who slept around, they weren’t careful, they didn’t have any self-respect.
I was so utterly wrong.
Having an STD is a big deal, but it is not an earth-shattering life ruiner. According to Planned Parenthood’s website, over half of us will experience an STD or an STI (sexually transmitted infection) sometime in our lives. In fact, about 25% of all people have some form of herpes in them at this very moment. As someone living with an incurable STD, it truly isn’t as bad as your health teacher made it seem.
There are two major strands of the Herpes virus; HSV-1: experiencing cold sores and things of that nature and HSV-2: genital herpes. Having HSV-2 means I am prone to both cold sores and genital herpes, but more commonly with experience the latter of the two. Like all STDs, HSV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, usually in a sexual manner. Herpes is typically asymptomatic, or there are very mild symptoms that go unnoticed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 87.4% of infected individuals are unaware they have the virus. Breakouts typically come up to 4-5 times a year, however, there’s a possibility I could go my whole life without another breakout. While incurable, there are medicines to keep my pain in control.
What’s it like living with an STD?
Most of the time, I don’t even remember I have it. Since arriving at college, there have only been two moments where it has been an apparent factor- the first time my friends bragged about sleeping with random dudes and the first time I decided to have sex with another boy since learning I had contracted herpes from the last one. Living with herpes has made me grow up and realize I couldn’t just sleep around with random boys in college like the TV shows made it seem. It has made me realize the importance of practicing and preaching safe sex. Most importantly, it has made me aware of how ignorant the majority of people are to STDs and the stigma we, as a society, have created about them. I could count on two hands the people who know I have this, many of my closest friends not included, but that was my choice. Having herpes rarely has an influence on my life and has not made a difference in the way people treat me at all.
How did your parents react?
At first, they took the whole ordeal very personally and assumed they had made an error in how they raised me, however, as time went on they became more accepting and supportive. My mom, who took me to the initial doctor’s appointment where they told me I could potentially have an STD, told me she too had an STD at 18. While hers was curable, she understood the panic and pain I was drowning in but was still disappointed in me and herself. My dad, unfortunately, did not have that kind of reaction. His initial response was to be mad at me for making irresponsible choices. He immediately deemed the boy I was with at the time inferior and told me said boy wouldn’t be allowed near my house ever again.
My least favorite feeling in the whole world is the feeling I have disappointed my parents. Honestly, that hurt more than the idea I was going to forever live with herpes. Eventually, they started to understand that I wasn’t purposefully going out and being sexually reckless and STDs are significantly more common than they thought. They too were ignorant to the real world of sexually transmitted diseases. It is still an avoided topic in our house, but they are here to help me get through this emotionally and physically.
Can you have sex with an STD?
Yes, of course, you can have sex. However, your health teachers weren’t wrong about this one. You need to use a condom. Please note that STDs can be passed without having sexual intercourse. They are just as likely to be passed through something as simple as skin-to-skin contact. Each STD is different so make sure to talk to your doctor about what you can and can’t do safely. In addition, you need to be able to tell your partner that you carry an STD. That by far was the scariest part for me, but it is critical for the safety of your partner.
How do you tell your partner you have an STD?
This one is a hard one. A majority of the time it depends on the partner and the relationship between both of the people involved. I was fortunate to have relationships where I could talk about my herpes comfortably. I have only had to have this discussion three times. The first one was the boy I was with this summer. I had warned him when the doctors had originally brought up the idea that I could potentially have an STD. Once that was confirmed, we sat down and discussed our options and where to go as a couple from there. He freaked out for a little bit-as most people would when they find out they probably have an STD-but after about 20 minutes was calm and ready to move forward with this new information. He was extremely supportive, took the information very well and even printed out an entire book’s worth of articles for me so we could learn about HSV together. Despite my reluctance, I needed to tell anyone I had been involved with previously as a precaution. I had also warned that boy before I got the test results back and he took it with surprising grace as well.
The worst was earlier this fall when I decided to have sex again. My boy from summer camp and I had ended things at the end of the summer, in fear of a long distance relationship. I was finally with a boy who I really liked again. Knowing he was a virgin really hit home for me when we originally discussed going further. Was his first time really going to be riddled with an STD lurking around? I sat him down and told him once things became more serious. I allowed him to ask as many questions as he wanted and gave him the option to back out of our relationship if he wasn’t comfortable. He did end up coming to terms with it and that was the last time we talked about it. He never changed his attitude about me and I was so much happier that I wasn’t keeping some big secret from him anymore!
Sexually transmitted diseases are a big deal but are easily preventable and, for the most part, easily treatable. It is a scary topic, but hopefully, this article informed you on the “real world of living with an STD” just a little bit more than your health teacher or WedMD. If you or someone you know is going through learning how to live with an STD or you want to learn a little bit more, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will personally get back to you.