In the first post that I wrote about having herpes, I mentioned that I didn’t know if I got it as an adult or as a child, I didn’t know if it was genital or oral, and I didn’t know if I would ever have an outbreak. But in hindsight, I realize a lot of that isn’t true. I’m 99% positive that I know when I got, who I got it from, that it is genital HSV-1, and that I have gotten an outbreak, but it was so minor and uneventful compared to what I was expecting after talking to friends that had experienced outbreaks and looking up pictures online when I first found out I was at risk (a big mistake), that I preferred to dismiss it as something else.
I’m still relatively new to all of this, so I guess I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s one of the nice benefits of writing about my experience; it helps me neatly package it into my unfolding narrative about my life.
Last year started out like any other year; completely unremarkable except for a transitory period in which I had to constantly remind myself to use the new year when writing the date. What I didn’t know and could never have realized at the time is that it would be a year marked by a series of major life changes.
Within a 4-month stretch of time, I started a new job, moved back to Seattle, and ended a 9-year relationship that had been a breath away from becoming a marriage for years. If I were a singer songwriter, I’d have enough material from this alone to write 2-3 albums.
A few months after all of that happened, I decided that it would be a good idea to start dating. My reasoning for doing this seemed sound enough. I didn’t really have much experience dating, and now that I had just turned 35, I couldn’t count on serendipitously finding myself in an amazing relationship again. It felt like my window of time to find companionate love was getting narrow, and I would need to get after it if I didn’t want to miss the window, and that meant I needed to become better at dating.
From what I’ve read, a lot of the things we do are only rationalized after our unconscious mind has already decided to do them. It turns out that we are really good at coming up with logical reasons for why we do things after the fact, and I suspect this was one of those times. In hindsight, I think I had forgotten what it was like to be happy AND single, so I was trying to find myself back in a relationship as quickly as possible.
I set up profiles across a set of dating apps, including Tinder, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, and OkCupid (who knew there were so many dating apps), and plunged back into the world of dating that I had left over a decade ago. It was fun, exciting, and exhausting. But I was getting the “dating practice” that I had set out for, and after a variety of first dates (and learning what “ghosting” is and which apps I had the best luck in), I found someone that I hit it off with via OkC.
I’m going to call this person Kim, but her name was obviously not Kim. I just need a way to refer to her going forward.
From the very beginning, we were both very clear that we weren’t looking for a serious relationship. It would be a casual thing, and that was perfectly fine for the both of us.
With that expectation set, we went on multiple dates over the next month. After each date, things got more comfortable and familiar until we got to the point where she stayed the night for the first time. She was the 3rd person I had been with in the last 13 years (I jumped from 1 long term relationship into another…it’s my MO).
The next night I was awakened by my buzzing phone around 3 AM. I had been having trouble sleeping through the night since moving back (something I attributed to getting used to the 3 hour time difference), so I decided to take a look at the phone because it was unlikely I’d fall back asleep quickly.
I found a very long text message from Kim waiting for me. I didn’t know this at the time, but I’ve since realized that the longer the text message you receive from someone, the more serious the content contained therein will be (and more often than not, it won’t be good).
I started making my way through the first sentence, where she laid the groundwork that she had meant to tell me something but gotten carried away the night before. In my mind, I was like “Oh no…where is this going?” A few words later, there it was.
A word that I had given literally no thought to since sex ed over 20 years ago outside of the occasional run in with it as the butt of a joke in a movie or other setting.
Another thing that I didn’t realize at the time, is that I was receiving the template “how to disclose you have herpes” message that is recommended to people with herpes: don’t make it sound serious, point out how common it is, point to a bunch of resources with more information, and let the other person know they don’t have to respond immediately…they can take their time to process it, and offer to answer any questions they might have.
She apologized for not telling me sooner, but assured me that with the medicine she was taking the risk of getting it was super low. And she ended by letting me know that she understood if I didn’t want to see her again after learning about this.
All hope of falling back asleep was gone. My body got a jolt of adrenaline that quickly passed into a zen-like state of calm as I made my way through some of the links she had sent me, learning more about herpes than I ever imagined I would need to know.
When I was done, I sent her a message back saying that I appreciated her telling me, it sounded like she was doing everything that should be done to manage it and reduce the risk, and that it changed nothing between us. We were still on for hanging out with my friends the following weekend. She responded saying she was relieved, and then I fell back asleep.
I thought that was that. But I was wrong. I spent the next few days opening up private browsers on my phone and computer at every chance to discreetly continue doing research and learning more about herpes.
I came across some young bloggers that had written about having it, skimmed their writings and moved on. I saw a bunch of pictures that made me cringe. I read all of the stats about how common it is, and what the risk is of getting it in all of the various configurations that are possible. I read a bunch of messages scattered throughout forums all over the internet from people who were scared about the potential of having it, asking for advice on how to live with it, or just reaching out for any comfort that could be found during a particularly dark mood. It was a rabbit’s hole that was deep, and I kept going deeper and deeper into it while trying to still be somewhat productive.
I found myself alternating between anxiety at the thought of having herpes, hope that I didn’t have it, and a resigned calm that I probably had it. This was my first attempt to make sense of the experience, and it was messy.
I kept returning to the message I had sent Kim and reevaluating if this really did “change nothing between us.” By the end of the week, I had realized that I couldn’t continue to see Kim after this, at least not in a romantic capacity. I wasn’t well equipped to handle this situation, and I was low-key freaking out. I didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
I think this is the reason that the template disclosure statement includes the part about “taking your time” to process the information. When you come from a point of near-complete ignorance, it takes a while to move past what you believe, regardless of how uninformed it may be, and truly accept the new information. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall back on a knee jerk reaction in the meantime.
I sent her a follow-up message letting her know that I had been thinking about the situation a lot and decided that I couldn’t continue to see her, but I wanted to still be friends. I didn’t blame her personally for anything that had happened, but it was just beyond my emotional and mental maturity at that point to be in a relationship of any kind with someone that I knew had herpes.
Kim responded with a message saying that although it wasn’t what she had hoped for, she understood, and she also wanted to stay friends.
A few minutes later she sent what was clearly a frustrated follow-up message saying that she didn’t get why this happened so often given how common herpes is. She had only discovered she had herpes in the last year, but it was clear that this was not the first time she had found herself in this situation.
That sentiment, a mixture of sadness, frustration, and exasperation that someone would walk away from you for something so common and blown out of proportion, stuck with me even though I wouldn’t truly start to understand it for another month.
A few notable things happened over the coming weeks. I don’t remember the exact order, but here they are.
I told a few of my friends about the message from Kim and that I might have herpes now. One of them thought it was messed up that Kim hadn’t told me in the run up to spending the night, and was surprised that I was still inviting her out with friends. The other mentioned to me that he had had herpes for a long time, and it wasn’t a big deal. I peppered him with a bunch of questions, like how girls took the information when he first disclosed his status and what dating and being in relationships was like with it. That quick conversation reinforced the still nascent thought in the back of my mind that it wasn’t the end of the world if I found out I had it.
I came down with a fever or cold or something similar for a few days. I woke up at night sweaty and had a hard time sleeping. A few people were sick at work, so I dismissed it as being nothing to worry about. But I also had read somewhere that getting a fever is an early sign that you have herpes after getting exposed to it, so I wasn’t in the clear. This made me extremely nervous and probably strengthened the night chills that I was experiencing. I literally remember my body shaking in bed and not knowing if it was from the fever or from my fear about what might be happening. I took a bunch of medicine and after it passed I clung to the hope that it was nothing and moved on. But a seed of doubt had been planted that would ultimately be vindicated.
I spent more time inspecting my body than I had ever done before. I looked for anything that seemed foreign or new looking for a sign that I did or did not have herpes. I didn’t find anything obvious, but I remember experiencing a prodrome (sign that an outbreak is coming) before what I think was my first outbreak. It was so minor, unremarkable, and unlike what I had been primed to expect by friends and the internet, that I was able to continue deluding myself about not having herpes. I even joked about it with the friends I had told about Kim’s message: “X weeks, and I’m happy to report, that I still don’t have herpes.” It’s only recently (last week or so) that I’ve come to accept that was most likely an outbreak.
While all of this was happening, I was still using the various dating apps to try to line up dates, but I had scaled back my activity significantly. I had also decided that I was done with casual dating (didn’t take very long with what was going on), and I was only going to look for serious relationships from that point on. Finally, I resolved that I would get tested and avoid getting involved with anyone until I knew definitively if I did or did not have herpes.
This meant that I would have to wait a minimum of 4-6 weeks before getting tested to give my body time to form the antibodies that the tests look for. I literally had a date marked in my calendar for when I would get tested, and I was optimistic that I would get back the results I wanted.
The timing for the test worked perfectly. I had just set up a 2nd date with someone that I was very excited about dating. I could see the long term potential, and she had broken the texting barrier, initiating a solid text conversation ahead of that second date. We were ridiculously compatible in a lot of ways.
I was nervous when I went in to get tested. I was being forced to confront something I was afraid to deal with. I whimpered to the doctor that I was there for a standard physical and to get tested for STDs and to please include herpes in the battery of tests.
I had read that per the CDC’s guidance, herpes testing wasn’t regularly including as part of STD screening unless you had symptoms or asked explicitly for it. And sure enough, the doctor asked me if I was seeing symptoms. I didn’t know if I was or wasn’t, so I walked her through having a sexual encounter with someone that later told me they had recently had an outbreak and tested positive for HSV-1. She agreed to include the test, but cautioned that it was impossible to know when I had actually acquired it or who I might have gotten it from.
The test results started coming back over a period of a few days. There were a string of negatives. That had to be a good sign. I was on a roll. The herpes test results were the last ones to come in, and I immediately logged in to see the results as soon as I got the notification they were ready. My heart sank. HSV-1. Positive. HSV-2. Negative. A few minutes later, I got a message from my doctor telling me what I already knew.
This happened Wednesday morning, and I still had my 2nd date with the girl I was excited about that Friday evening. I toyed around with telling her in advance of the date but decided that it would be better to tell her in person after that date. Hopefully another date would reduce the likelihood that she would opt to walk away, as I had done just the month before with Kim.
The next few days until the date were surprisingly easy. I had already spent so much time thinking about what if I had herpes, that once I confirmed the situation, it already felt like yesterday’s news. And the date itself was fantastic.
As dinner came to an end, the weight of having to disclose started to get to me. It was going to be my first time ever having to do something like this. I was scared sh**less as we walked together back to the bus stop to wait for her bus. She was talking to me the whole time, but I have no idea what she was saying. I was completely absorbed thinking about what I needed to do, how I would do it, and when I would do it.
I kept putting it off, until I decided that it would go down at the bus stop. It was a great plan, except that when we were getting close to the stop, we saw the bus approaching and wound up sprinting to catch it. We just barely got there in time for her to hop on the bus and me to miss my grand moment.
When I got home, I wrote a long text message to her. I tried to keep it short since I now believed long messages were correlated with bad news, but I wound up using the same disclosure template I had myself received. At the end of the message, I wrote that I understood if she decided not to see me again, and she didn’t have to respond to let me know (I wasn’t emotionally ready to see a rejection like that in writing). I moved the phone away to arm’s distance, closed an eye, and hit the send button before placing the phone down as far away from me as I could.
She took me up on my offer and never responded. That was the catalyst for one of the two lowest points I’ve experienced since getting herpes. I spent the next day, Saturday, wrapped in all kinds of sad thoughts generally centered on the idea that I would never be in a relationship again and that I had to get comfortable with the possibility that I’d be alone the rest of my life.
I went back to all of the blogs I had encountered during my first phase of research, but this time, I actually read them. I spent hours reading through Ella Dawson’s blog posts, finding her articles at different outlets, watching her TedX talk, and finding a podcast she had been on to talk about herpes. I read through other bloggers’ posts and listened to other podcasts. I spent a solid hour following up on online rumors about celebrities that were believed to have herpes. I was actively looking for evidence that there was life after herpes (especially one with love and relationships) and holding on dearly to every scrap that I found.
It was in this mood that I started to look back on everything that had happened. I still didn’t blame Kim for my getting herpes, but I did start to look at her decision to not disclose to me during the weeks we were dating more critically. In my mind, that became a betrayal that I would have a hard time letting go of. And there was no way I could be friends with someone that had done that to me.
I sent her a message to the tune of: “I had to disclose to someone that I was starting to date that I have herpes for the first time, and she chose to walk away. I don’t blame you for my having herpes, because my actions are my actions. But I don’t think I can forgive you for choosing to not disclose your status to me with all of the time that you had. I don’t want to talk to you or see you for a while.”
I don’t remember the message she sent back, but I do remember her advice to me to read about it more and realize that it was common and not a big deal. I deleted the message. I deleted her contact info. And I accepted that I would never talk to her again.
In hindsight, it was probably more harsh than it needed to be, but it felt good. It was my small way of trying to inflict a bit of the hurt I was feeling on the person that I thought had caused it. I wish that I had kept her phone number so I could apologize after getting out of that state, but I probably won’t ever get the chance now.
I was also in a state of disbelief that I had herpes. Ella had written something along the lines that she didn’t think she was the “target audience” for herpes. I felt the same way. I hadn’t been with a lot of people in my life. I had never casually dated before this. I had never randomly hooked up with anyone or had a one-night stand. I was a “good person.” It was like that scene in the movie 50/50 where JGL says “I can’t have cancer. I don’t smoke. I recycle.”
It took me a while to realize that herpes isn’t a moral thing. It doesn’t hop on to your body, assess your prior actions, and then decide if it’s going to infect you based on if you are a “good” or “bad” person. It’s all just probability and risk. Some people wind up getting herpes from the first person they ever sleep with. Hell, you could get it from the first person that you ever kiss. The moment you decide not to live a life of celibacy, you ARE the target audience for herpes, whether you like it or not.
Before continuing, I need to take a quick aside to talk about happiness and positivity. This is important context to consider whenever you read anything that I write about my experience with herpes. Research has found that we all have a “baseline happiness level” that we return to after really good things or really bad things happen to us. And that level is largely predetermined by the genetic lottery. Well, I won the genetic lottery. I’m very lucky in that I have a high baseline happiness level, and it generally doesn’t take me very long to return to it. Oftentimes, one good night of sleep is enough to begin the recovery and transition back to my baseline. That was the case here.
The next day I woke up feeling much better about everything. I knew that I still had a lot of healing ahead of me, and it would be a while before I felt close to whole again, but I could at least see that point in the not so distant future. I sent Ella a tweet that day thanking her vaguely for what she was doing since I had found a lot of comfort in her writings. And I started thinking about my next steps.
Among other things, I decided that I would eventually write publicly about my own status, but I wanted to tell my family and my ex from the 9-year relationship (we were and still are really good friends) about it first. I didn’t want them to learn about it the first time from a blog post.
That very day, I told my oldest brother. A few weeks later I told my ex, who confirmed she had been tested recently and didn’t have it. And a few weeks after that I told my older brother (yes, I’m the youngest. I understand that typically means something. But I reject it :p ). That left my parents, who I would eventually tell over the holidays. I also told a few friends serendipitously over the following weeks and months. Disclosing became easier, each and every time. It’s still not something that I cherish doing, but it’s no longer something I dread, at least within the context of telling friends and family.
I also defiantly returned to the dating world. There’s a lot of differing advice on when you should disclose to someone that you have herpes, but I decided that I wanted to be completely upfront about it. After several iterations, I landed on the following message in OkC, where I had always had the most success.
But my return to dating was short lived because I found myself moving toward a long-term relationship with someone (who was also HSV+; makes things easier I have to admit) and realizing that I actually wasn’t emotionally ready for a long-term relationship.
This was when I had the realization that I needed to step back and relearn what it means to be happy and single. No more dating apps. No more dates. Just a return to the core things that make me who I am and give me the most fulfillment. And an acceptance that I don’t have to rush into another relationship; there is plenty of time to sort that out once I’m ready.
I mentioned that I had two low points after learning I have herpes. The first one was after I disclosed my status to that girl after our second date. That’s when I experienced firsthand the kind of impact it could, and likely would, have on my life.
The second low point came after realizing that I now pose a risk to other people and can’t always count on myself to do the right thing.
I’m a little hesitant to write about this, because it’s fairly recent, and I’m still personally dealing with it, but I think it’s helpful to get out there for anyone that finds themselves in my shoes.
The fact that Kim had chosen not to disclose her status to me, effectively taking away my ability to decide for myself whether or not I wanted to take the risk of being with someone with herpes, still feels like a betrayal. And it has shaped my view around disclosure.
I promised myself that I would always, always, always tell someone that I have herpes before putting them at risk. It’s what I would have wanted. And it seems like the right thing to do in my mind.
Except, I didn’t disclose it to someone recently, and that has been one of the worst, most mentally and emotionally trying things that I’ve ever done.
I had to send my own “Kim message” to the person a few days after we had been together. Immediately after sending the message, I sent the following to a good friend that I was talking to about the situation. He also has herpes, so he was able to sympathize with what I was going through.
Although the person took it unbelievably well because they were already very knowledgable about it owing to a close friend having HSV-1, it has rocked me to my core, and I’m still trying to make peace with it and figure out how to never let it happen again (there was alcohol involved, so I know that is a big part of the answer).
Every day I dread the possibility of receiving a message from her telling me that she now has herpes, and I have no idea how I’ll deal with the message if I ever receive it.
Again, this isn’t something I’m excited about sharing, but I mention it because if you agree with my sentiment above that you should disclose, then please, please, please do everything in your power to avoid having to send a “Kim message,” because not only is it a shitty thing to do, but I can guarantee that it will leave you feeling rotten for a while.
This was part of the reason that I chose to disclose my status publicly so early in 2018. I didn’t really have a specific date in mind for when to do it, but I was thinking about waiting until at least the 6 month mark after getting back the results confirming my status.
Then this happened. And it accelerated my disclosure because I wanted all of my friends to know so that I would reduce the risk of ever finding myself in a similar situation again.
If you ask me how I’m doing these days, I’d say that 80% of the time I’m doing great and 20% of the time I’m managing.
I don’t like how often herpes creeps back into my thoughts, but I’m hopeful that will go down with time. And I still haven’t had a lot of experience disclosing my status in a romantic context, especially with someone that is HSV negative. That still worries me, a lot, but again, I’m in a good place right now having resolved to not date or pursue a relationship for a while. I imagine it’s going to be difficult when the time comes to do so. At worst, I might find myself extremely gun-shy about dating or pursuing anyone for a while, but I know that time makes all things easier, so I remain optimistic about what’s to come. And in the meantime, I’m doing what I can to cultivate my best self.