I think I texted him that I needed to talk and asked if we could meet up. I might have called him directly, but my voice was shaking and brittle and I knew he would hear it. So I think I texted him, and he must have called me instead of answering the text—he liked to do that. Certain details are hazy, the exact order of events, whether he hung up on me because he was furious or I hung up on him because I was crying too hard. Was I crying? I must have been crying.
I remember wanting to tell him in person because that seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to see his face, read the reactions flickering across it as he processed what I was saying. Beyond anything else, anything my parents could say, any cookies my roommate could offer to bake, I wanted him to give me a hug. I wanted him to wrap me up in his arms and rock me side to side, and kiss my forehead, and tell me to stop being stupid—of course he wouldn’t leave. Of course he still adored me. Of course he understood. We would get through this together, and he wasn’t going anywhere, and it would be okay.
But he was busy, and he was with friends, and he was a little drunk. I asked about later, could we meet up later, but he insisted I tell him what was wrong right now. “I can’t just go about my day when the girl I care about is crying on the phone,” he said, a smile in his voice. And that seemed so kind, so romantic, so perfect, that I relented against my better judgment.
I told him I’d just gotten back from the school clinic. I had genital herpes. I was so sorry, I didn’t know. I didn’t know how this happened.
I remember splinters of what happened after that, the details driven too deep under my skin to remove. His tone. How dirty my window was. Some of the plastic blinds were bent at the edges. It had finally stopped raining. The word whore. And, later: This is what I get for falling for a girl like you.
The rest of the conversation is a blur, swallowed up by my brain in an effort to protect me. And if you were to ask him, the conversation never happened at all.
A journalist recently said during an interview that I seemed to have escaped the stigma that surrounds herpes in my personal life. I hadn’t faced any serious rejection on account of having an STI, and my family is tremendously supportive. Her voice was full of kindness and warmth as if she was delighted for me, her faith restored in humanity by my good fortune. And on one hand that’s good, even great: I don’t want to be seen as a victim or a long-suffering survivor. I don’t want to reaffirm stereotypes of the unlucky victim of an unfaithful or dishonest partner. I do want my story to be a positive one, a reassuring one to the newly diagnosed and the nervously dating. I haven’t faced any real rejection. I haven’t faced the stigma in person, up front.
Except for him. Except for that phone call and the emotional abuse that followed. Except for the guilt and shame and heavy responsibility of the next six months, when I thought I had given herpes to someone I was falling in love with.
This essay isn’t about why I stayed, or an explanation of what gaslighting is, or even how I got herpes. Those essays would be simple and feel dishonest as a result. The real story, the story of who I am and what has happened to me, is complicated and will take years to write. It isn’t a neat story, or a satisfying one, and it’s far from over. Becoming who you are is a messy process.
This essay is to warn you that there are parts of my story that are still unwritten, and that I am not capable of sharing yet, if at all. Writing about trauma is exhausting and complicated, and it is far more terrifying to share with the world than the fact that I have herpes. But it is equally terrifying to see assumptions drawn about what my life has been like since I got diagnosed. I’m a snarky, unapologetically confident twenty-something survivor who jokes about having bros in different area codes. I have been consistently impressed by the generosity and openness I have been shown by friends, family members, lovers and strangers. But everyone brushes up against stigma, and I am no exception. It just so happened that I learned about judgment and shame from the cupid’s bow mouth of someone I trusted, even more than I trusted myself.
I have focused my writing on the positive relationships I’ve had in my life, both before and after I contracted herpes. But many, many herpes positive individuals either stay in or wind up in abusive relationships after getting diagnosed. Their confidence and identity have both received massive blows, the world tells them they are unlovable, and they are scared. Maybe this person, this person who you love or trust or need or barely even know isn’t amazing, but they haven’t left you. They have “accepted” this part of you enough to stay. Could you ever find anyone else? Isn’t it better to stay with the devil you know than the devil you don’t? Why risk being alone forever? Don’t they have a right to be upset? Maybe you deserve to be treated like this, to be called terrible names, to be pushed around, to be blamed. You’re worthless. You’re disgusting.
You’re a whore.
It took me a long time to realize that was bullshit. And I only realized it with help. I had friends who told me daily that I deserved better than to walk on eggshells and invalidate my own feelings to keep the peace. I had exes who told me they saw me no differently, even if my smile was a little harder now. And eventually I met new partners who helped me rediscover my fire, my strength and my voice. But even now I struggle to talk about it, to remember the pages and pages of lies I wrote to reassure myself he was a good person because he had stayed with me, even if he hadn’t “forgiven” me. That’s what hurts the most: how I used my writing to police my own feelings, to suppress the rebellious quakes of doubt that threatened to demolish the only relationship I thought I would ever have. He is an easy man to fall in love with, but not an easy man to love, I wrote in a notebook, the words smooth and deliberate and deceptively beautiful. I wrote abuse out of my narrative.
But it’s there. Emotional abuse is not a bruise; it’s a fading scar. It matters, and so do I.
Recommended resources: The National Domestic Violence Hotline