I was in fifth grade when I learned about sex for the first time in school. We were taught how babies are made, how to protect ourselves from pregnancy, and all about the dangers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Of course, I knew the gist of it because I had an older brother and two very open-minded parents, but this was the first time I’d had a sex education lesson. I was uncomfortable when my teachers talked about penises and vaginas.
A few years later, as a freshman in high school, sex ed was a little more advanced. Rather than teaching us how babies are made, they focused more on the “being safe” aspect of sex. Talking about condoms and birth control and all the different kinds of sexually transmitted infections you can get if you are not safe. I clearly remember sitting in the classroom and seeing images of the different infections projected on the huge PowerPoint screen.
Those pictures were burned into my brain when I was lying on a cold table at my gynecologist’s office. My boyfriend and I had been seeing each other for about two months at that point. We were very open with each other and we’d had all of the necessary talks before becoming sexually active, all about contraceptives, STIs, past partners and relationships. We both got tested as a precaution and both of our tests can back negative.
“So, I think it’s herpes,” my doctor said to me that day.
It felt like the world was crumbling under me. I could feel the room spinning and all I could think about were those terrifying lectures and pictures from high school.
I had been smart and safe, but I had still gotten infected—and there is no cure.
I started bawling. I felt like my life was ruined. I was educated; I knew what this meant—or at least I thought I did—and that was it, my life was over.
I was there alone and my doctor tried to comfort me. I felt calmer and more grounded when she put her arms around me. All my fear subsided for a moment and to this day I’m so grateful for that small, simple gesture.
She then began to tell me what I had never learned in high school: one in five people have herpes. That’s 20 percent of the population. She told me that the initial breakout is the worst and that there’s a high chance that I will never have another breakout.
My biggest concern whether having herpes would affect my future chances of becoming a mother.
In that moment, I felt that I would never be able to have children of my own. I was relieved to hear that it would not directly impact my fertility. In the event I have a breakout while giving birth, I would need to have a C-section.
I left my appointment still feeling scared but slightly relieved by all of the new information my doctor had given me. She prescribed a few things for me: painkillers for the pain of my first breakout, a pill to clear up the initial breakout, some cream for the sores, and a suppression therapy prescription I would take for a year, which would keep the breakouts from happening and help my body adapt to the infection.
There are two different types of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2. I have HSV-1, the less severe of the two. HSV-1 causes those cold sores that many of us get on our mouths from time to time. Since herpes is spread by skin-to-skin contact, I eventually learned I had gotten infected by mouth-to-genital contact.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve learned that having herpes is not something I need to be ashamed of.
It’s been a year since my first and only breakout and I’m about to finish up my year-long suppression therapy prescription. My boyfriend and I are no longer together, which raised new fears of having to tell future partners about my infection. I eventually discussed it with a new love interest and he was incredibly understanding and supportive. I know not everyone will be as understanding as he was, but I’m hopeful now that I know having herpes is not as scary as I was once taught.
Herpes will not ruin my life. I’ve learned to live without constant fear and worry. I only wish that I had known the truth about this STI before my diagnosis.