Navigating sex, relationships, and life, alongside an incurable STI
Discovering you have a sexually transmitted infection can be a lonely experience. It wrinkles my brain that we live in a world where you can vomit copiously outside clubs, on buses, in the backs of cabs, or on a housemate’s bed, and it will be broadly welcomed as ‘hilarious’ – but STIs still carry such a stigma that catching one is rarely something you can casually gripe about with your friends over a coffee.
When I was diagnosed with herpes five years ago, I didn’t feel like there was a single person I could talk to. Thanks to some substandard sex education, I had just one very clear association with the virus – an episode of The Simpsons, where Krusty the Clown yelled at an unsmiling crowd through a fug of animated cigarette smoke:
“Let’s talk about herpes! Herpes, boberpies, banana-fanna-fo-ferbes, herpes! Does anyone in this room have HERPES?”
Now I had herpes, and I hated it.
So, like any hyper-anxious hypochondriac with no-one to talk to, I turned to Google for answers. My first piece of retrospective advice is do not search ‘herpes’ on Google Images if you think you may have it, or are newly diagnosed. Some of the pictures you will find there depict some severe and gnarly outbreaks.
This is unhelpful in two ways: If you’re coming to terms with a herpes diagnosis, looking at these pictures can be scary, and may exacerbate any feelings of low self-worth that you might already be experiencing.
If you think you MIGHT have herpes, but aren’t sure or haven’t been diagnosed, you may be inclined to take a look at the pictures and go ‘well my junk looks nothing like that, so I must be okay!’
Not true. Herpes can present in all manner of ways; my first outbreak, and every subsequent outbreak since, has never looked remotely like anything I saw online. If you are worried you may have picked up an STI, go and get a full sexual health screening.
After making the Google Images error, I was a girl possessed. I read medical pages, home remedies, holistic medicine websites, celebrity quotes about herpes, herpes dating sites, community message boards. It was a compulsion.
Below is a select list of the useful starter information I discovered:
1 – EVERYONE HAS HERPES!
Okay, not everyone. But for all the grief associated with herpes, a startlingly high number of people are walking around with it. According to the American research company the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six people between the ages of 14-49 have some form of genital herpes. It’s also incredibly common among young people – in 2016, over 12,000 heterosexual people under the age of 25 were diagnosed with genital herpes in the UK. That’s more than 42% of all diagnoses in the last year. It’s also worth noting that, according to the NHS, around 80% of people infected with herpes do not realise they have it, because they’ve never experienced an outbreak.
2 – THE FIRST OUTBREAK IS THE WORST
This is a generalisation – everyone is different, and some unlucky people will suffer repeated and painful outbreaks of herpes. But your body is pretty remarkable at coping with this rubbish, and over time it will start building up an immunity to the virus. This means herpes outbreaks tend to grow less severe, and occur less frequently, the longer you have herpes. For many people, outbreaks end up being an infrequent and mild annoyance, which their body will tackle without the help of antiviral medication. However, it’s still REALLY IMPORTANT that you do not have sex during a herpes outbreak, as they are highly infectious.
3 – THERE ARE SOME GREAT ONLINE RESOURCES SPREADING POSITIVITY AND SUPPORT
It’s so easy to get bogged down in the clinical aspects of herpes when you’re post-diagnosis, but sometimes you just need to feel less alone. When I was diagnosed I spent a lot of time browsing forums and reading personal accounts of people learning to live with the practical and emotional challenges of herpes. Now there are even more amazing Tumblrs, blogs, and online communities dedicated to the HSV community. Campaigner Ella Dawson’s fantastic blog, Diagnosis Glitter, and Earth Wind and Herpes are some great places to start.
4 – COLD WET TEABAGS ARE YOUR NEW BEST FRIENDS
This may sound a bit hokey, but this advice is NHS and FPA-approved, and worked like an absolute dream for me. If you’re suffering a herpes outbreak, putting cold wet teabags on your genitals will not only soothe the pain of an outbreak, but can allegedly speed up the healing process of blisters and sores. As if any of us needed yet another excuse to drink more tea!
The first weeks following my diagnosis were really hard work: not only because of the painful paper cuts all over my genitals, but the unwelcome realisation that my body and sex life were facing a permanent adjustment to a new set of circumstances. But the more I learnt about herpes, the more in control of my situation I felt. This STI would change my life, but not dictate it – and I had stopped feeling alone.