The Conversation That Never Happened: On Herpes and Abusive Relationships

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

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

27 thoughts on “The Conversation That Never Happened: On Herpes and Abusive Relationships

  1. Hello all, I have been with my partner for almost 2 years now. I waited until we were engaged before having sex, and we’ve been engaged for 16 months now. Last week, he told me he had a sore on his penis. We were both in long-term monogamous marriages before our divorces, and hadn’t been in a relationship since. As I was trying to remain calm and ask questions, he disclosed that this wasn’t the first time. It hadn’t happened in 10 years, and a few times 5 years apart before that. So far, my blood tests are coming back negative. I love him and we were planning on marrying this year. I just feel so hurt and deceived, and I’m now questioning everything about him/our relationship…Please help me understand his perspective, and also point me in the direction where there are shared success stories of married couples with only 1 spouse that’s HSV 2 positive. Thank you!!! ❤

  2. Thank you Ella. I keep reading everything you wrote and it all resonates with me deeply. Especially this topic of staying in an abusive relationship because of fear! Plus being called horrid untrue names… thank you, wish I could talk to you on the phone!!

  3. I find it rather interesting how whenever one gives bad news about sexual issues to a partner, its almost always a reaction to blame the messenger. But it always begs the question. If i find out i have something, doesn’t that mean you were irresponsible enough not to check? (generalising)

  4. Reblogged this on sparrow st. claire and commented:
    A lot of the time, people ask me if I live in a bubble. And I sort of do, eschewing the news and indulging in my own (vast) jungle of escapist tendencies. (There is a reason for that which I will cover in another post.)

    When I recently wrote my blog about herpes it never occurred to me to see if anyone else was blogging about it. (It also never occurs to me to check the news from time to time and so I only know what’s going on because of HBO. Thanks John Oliver.) After hitting publish, I decided to root around on WordPress to see if there were any hits after typing in the word ‘herpes’. Lo and behold, Ella Dawson. Thank you Ella.

    If you happen to come upon my post, please make sure to hop over to Ella’s blog because she discusses her experiences in a raw, beautiful and unfiltered way. Plus she is an excellent writer at the ripe old age of 23.

  5. “I wrote abuse out of my narrative.”

    I did the same thing. Sometimes, I think that’s what disturbs me most about my own experience – how willfully I manipulated myself.

    You’ve shouldered a lot of responsibility with your activism. The fact that there are gaps in the public narrative is understandable and possibly even necessary. Writers have to control narratives, but a lot of writers wouldn’t intentionally acknowledge the gaps no matter how important that acknowledgment is to the readers’ perception. You are a bad-ass and singular writer for doing it.

    1. Signing on to say I did that too. I wrote it out of the story in my journal, in letters and emails to friends. Over and over again, I wrote it out of the story so I could figure out how to stay.

      Thanks for writing this, Ella.

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