I had a secret weapon when it came to dealing with my herpes diagnosis: my best friend.
This interview is different from the previous two I’ve done—BFF is not a romantic partner, but she knows me better than any boyfriend ever could. We grew up together in those stupidly formative years of college, navigating hookup culture, bros who didn’t text back, that one time the toilet wouldn’t stop flushing, and two very broken vaginas. She has had a glorious front row seat to my entire herpes debacle and is always on hand to offer some perspective and tough love. Her friendship reminds me daily that the best method of self-care is to surround yourself with people who will love you no matter the circumstances.
We sat down to chat about coping with my diagnosis (genital herpes!), her diagnosis (Vulvar Vestibulitis!), and why everyone needs to talk about sex like adults.
This transcript has been edited for length. Names have been changed.
Ella: I don’t even know where to start because it’s you and you’re my best friend and we talk about this all the time.
BFF: We do, it’s true.
Ella: So, I don’t remember much of those first few weeks after getting diagnosed because of trauma haze, and I selectively remember parts of the relationship I was in at the time for self-preservation. My first memory of that morning was that I woke up at 6am with some fucked up symptoms, and I had to wait for the health clinic to open at noon. What do you remember of that morning?
BFF: My first real salient memory was that another friend and I had gone to lunch. When he and I got back, you had just come from the clinic, and you sat on my bed and just, like, freaked out. My friend was sitting there like, “Should I be here? Should I leave?” And you were like, “I don’t give a fuck.”
Ella: It didn’t even occur to me to be embarrassed. I remember being very gallows humor-y about it. I remember trying to put on a brave face and saying, “I’M GOING TO BE FINE, this is just my fucking luck.”
BFF: I remember more specifically when you told Paul because I got so mad at him. I think I was madder than you were. I did a lot of screaming and ranting after you hung up the phone and—
Ella: See, I don’t remember that all.
BFF: I remember this so vividly. I remember being in our little living room and telling you, “He needs to put his fucking big boy pants on.” When you do big boy things like having sex, those come with adult consequences!
Ella: What do you remember about me telling him I’d been diagnosed with herpes? I remember texting him that I needed to talk to him about something in person. He said, “No, we need to have this conversation right now, the girl I care about is crying on the phone, you have to tell me right now.” And he’d been drinking. I remember telling him what had happened and him just… it was like flipping a switch. He said some terrible things. He had this very icy voice that wasn’t yelling but was very threatening. I’m trying to remember the sequence of events because at some point I called my mom and asked her to pick me up, and when I told him I was going home he was like, “No no, you can’t leave, I need your help dealing with this.”
BFF: Obviously I didn’t hear everything, but what I do remember is that he got really victim-blamey. “This is your fault, blah blah blah.” And it’s just like, what the fuck?
Ella: Yeah, it was… it was ridiculous. But at the time I felt so responsible.
BFF: You did, and that made me so mad. Because first of all, now we know it wasn’t your fault. And STIs are no one’s fault unless you’re consciously putting people at risk. Otherwise it’s just a freak thing that happens.
Ella: In that scenario I’ll never really know what happened, but it wasn’t okay to be like, “This is your fucking fault,” and make me responsible for all of the feelings he was having.
BFF: Absolutely. He freaked out, and that’s fine, freak out all you want, but there’s a line. He crossed it. He went really far on the other side of that line.
Ella: He trampled that line and kept on going.
BFF: He kicked it a couple times and was like, “Fuck you, line.”
Ella: Did you think it was him who had gotten me sick?
BFF: Part of me did wonder, but that’s not a productive train of thought. It doesn’t matter, that’s not going to help anyone or anything about the situation. It matters how you handle it moving forward.
Ella: And that’s still how I feel. I don’t really care how I got herpes, but I do care about how people treat me in relationships. It’s funny because I had to go tell my exes after that, and they were all great. Obviously they weren’t in the process of getting diagnosed, they weren’t the person who had just had sex with me… it’s a different scenario. But at the same time, he was just mean.
BFF: It showcases someone’s maturity and ability to deal with difficult situations. I can understand how someone would be like, “Oh yikes,” and have a little freak out. But…
Ella: Be an adult, be a nice person. I remember being aggravated after the fact because we’d had similar amounts of partners and experiences, and it wasn’t at all logical to blame me. What prompted me to take responsibility was that he’d been tested more recently and was like, “I don’t have anything.” As time has gone on, I’ve learned that people don’t always know what they’re being tested for. The Wesleyan health center didn’t test for herpes unless you requested it specifically.
BFF: Most health centers don’t! I just went to the gynecologist a couple months ago and asked them to test me for everything. They were like, “Well, we’re not going to do herpes because that’s stupid. Are you having an outbreak right now? No, you’re not.”
Ella: Even now I don’t come up positive for herpes when I’m tested for antibodies. I’ve only had cultures come back positive. Looking back I can understand why—if all parties were being honest—he would point the finger at me… but now it doesn’t make sense.
BFF: And people should know how accurate tests are, and what you’re being tested for, because what if he hadn’t been tested for it?
Ella: I don’t think he had been; most people aren’t. Over the summer after doing a lot of research, I told him, “We should talk about the fact that my immune system is really weak and the virus wouldn’t have lived in my body for very long without expressing itself, and there’s every possibility that maybe we rushed to blame me.” He said, “That’s possible,” and then shut the conversation down. I dropped it because it didn’t matter to me either way, but I resented having to shoulder that guilt.
BFF: That’s such a character flaw, you know, to not even consider taking responsibility.
Ella: To not even want to discuss it. And I can understand blame, a lot of people struggle with blame after getting diagnosed. But if you want a relationship to work, at a certain point you have to get over it, or at least stop guilt tripping your partner.
BFF: Especially with something that isn’t actually that big of a deal.
Ella: I got diagnosed at the end of the school year. How do you remember me coming back at the end of the summer?
BFF: I remember you were happy, honestly. I know you felt really sick.
Ella: I had lost a lot of weight too.
BFF: You had lost a lot of weight, and I know the Valtrex side effects were kicking your ass. But I think otherwise you were in a much better place, and it seemed like things had improved significantly. Which was why I was so fucking mad when you and Paul got back together.
Ella: We kind of, sort of got back together. For like, two weeks.
BFF: It was a very dramatic two weeks.
Ella: I don’t judge myself for it anymore because it’s so core to who I am to be forgiving, and to believe people when they tell me that they’ve changed. He played on all of my… I won’t even call them weaknesses, just like, character traits of being nurturing and understanding. He knew exactly what to say: “I’m working on xyz, I feel isolated, I need help understanding how the virus works, I need help telling my family.” I don’t judge myself anymore for falling for it, and I’m honestly shocked I got out of the relationship as quickly as I did. It took two weeks and some intervention from friends, but I’m amazed that I never went back. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I knew you would fucking kill me if I did.
BFF: Sometimes I think about that moment: we were having brunch on the weekend, or you were eating waffles, I don’t know if I was eating anything.
Ella: I was always eating waffles.
BFF: You were telling me about the night where everything had happened.
Ella: His fake suicide attempt night?
BFF: That’s the one. That was the harshest love I think I’ve given a person in my entire life.
Ella: You told me I needed to get out of the relationship immediately.
BFF: I totally understood because it’s so hard to see when you’re the one in it, but you were devastated. You were sobbing hysterically while eating waffles and I was like, “Who the fuck is this kid that he can do this to you?” I remember saying I loved you too much to watch you try and fix this guy. Because you were not going to be able to, and it was hurting you so much.
Ella: I didn’t listen, but I do remember that conversation and I… I remember knowing you were right. I just wasn’t ready yet.
BFF: And that’s totally normal.
Ella: The night that I did leave, I got super dolled up and put on my favorite power outfit and I was like, “I’m going down there and I’m breaking up with him.” When I got to his place, I desperately wanted to pretend none of it had ever happened because he was being really sweet. But I knew you were waiting for me back at the apartment and I just needed to do it. It goes to show that it does take people a while to leave those relationships. Tough love is important, but sometimes we need to come to that realization ourselves. I’m so glad I had you in my corner. And it’s funny, because he hated you so much. He never wanted to come over to our apartment. It was partially a control thing, he liked to have me on his turf, but he also… I think he knew that you knew he was full of shit. We would have fights in the common room downstairs because he didn’t want to come upstairs. He was terrified of you because he knew you were a threat.
BFF: I hated the kid too, there was nothing good about him.
Ella: He was pretty and he was charming.
BFF: He was very charming, but he wasn’t trying to charm me.
Ella: In the beginning he was. He did our dishes and other superficial things. He was always trying to make you laugh. I remember he used to come over when we had just started seeing each other and be like, “HI THERE,” and after he left you’d tell me, “I fucking hate him, he doesn’t need to say hello to me every time he comes over.”
BFF: I remember he asked me once about my major and my interests, and I was like, “Get out of my fucking face, dickbag.”
Ella: And now years later, you’re sitting on my bed and I’m just like, fuck, friendships matter.
Ella: I don’t think either of us had thought about herpes much before I got diagnosed. How had you understood it before?
BFF: I think we all had some concept of STIs from our various terrible sex ed. A friend and I were at work earlier this year and we couldn’t remember the difference between chlamydia and gonorrhea. We spent like half an hour trying to figure it out. And that’s at age 23.
Ella: I think that a lot of us assume that if there’s ever anything funny going on, we should go to the doctor. That’s it. And I still do that, I go to the doctor and I’m like, “This seems weird, can you tell me what it is?” We don’t think of STIs as being asymptomatic. I don’t even know what the difference is between chlamydia and gonorrhea.
BFF: I don’t even think we came to a conclusion. But so many people are in the dark because our sex education on STIs is so bad. We don’t know anything, we just know that you can get x, y and z, but not what happens then. Not how they manifest, not how they’re treated, how you live with them, none of that is covered.
Ella: It’s just, “They exist, be afraid.” Did you have abstinence-only education?
BFF: I had health online at Brigham Young Unversity, so no, it was not comprehensive. I think I took a language elective so I couldn’t take health because of scheduling, and I had to get my credit online. I had to take quizzes and stuff but it wasn’t hard. I don’t think I learned anything, it was just, “Use condoms, the end.”
Ella: I’m so interested in the outside perspective of seeing a friend get diagnosed. I felt like I was everybody’s Glee cautionary tale.
BFF: I was somewhat desensitized by the fact that I’d gone through my own sex weirdness. So I was a lot more acquainted with things that could go wrong. I remember us doing research, sitting on one of our beds with a bunch of Google searches.
Ella: And all the fucking pamphlets.
BFF: Just learning what we could, which we should not have had to do.
Ella: Because there were no resources.
BFF: That was my experience too; I was diagnosed with something I’d never even heard of. That made it easier for me when you got diagnosed to be like, okay, let’s do this. Let’s take this herpes down.
Ella: We’re gonna make it our bitch.
Ella: And then senior year I was living with you, and you had your broken vagina saga, and we also lived with the daughter of someone really high up at Planned Parenthood. She was the least phased of all. She was like, “Yup! Herpes, it happens! Everything will be fine!” I didn’t get horrified reactions from any of you. All of my friends were like, “That sucks, what can I do to help? Can I bring you Diet Coke from Weshop?”
BFF: As we learned more, it became so much easier to manage than any of us thought it would be.
Ella: Oh yeah, it didn’t really impact my life. It was mostly psychological. I don’t think we knew anyone else though. Or at least we didn’t know that we knew anyone else with herpes. It’s funny because now I know a lot of our friends have it.
Ella: Yeah! And they don’t talk about it. They waited months and months if not years to tell me, and it’s really common in our clique, like, some of our best friends. They saw what I was going through and they wanted to be supportive, but they themselves were much more reserved about it. I was very “rah rah herpes” in a way that nobody really is. Even before I was publicly writing, we had our STI poster in the bathroom.
BFF: I do remember that.
Ella: I think it said, “1 in 4 people has an STI by age 25,” and I’d be like, “That’s me, I’m the 1 in 4 of us in this apartment!”
BFF: That’s common with things that are as stigmatized as herpes. I had that experience when I ran an eating disorder support group. Years later people would be like, “So I had an eating disorder.”
Ella: Years after you guys became friends?
BFF: Years after they knew about my involvement with the group. I don’t know if it’s just that people aren’t ready to talk about it? People do shame themselves a lot, even if it’s not…
Ella: You can logically know something isn’t a reflection of your character but still struggle with it.
BFF: Absolutely, and it might have helped that you were so open about it. It was the first fucking time that we heard about anyone we knew having herpes.
Ella: Or any STI. I refused to isolate myself the way so many people do. That first day, I told you, I told my parents, I told Paul, I told a few other close friends, and I don’t think I waited long before calling my exes. I didn’t keep it a secret. And part of the reason Paul had such a hard time was because he told literally no one. I still don’t know to this day if he has told anyone. He didn’t tell his parents, he was really worried about things showing up on his insurance bill.
BFF: Which is so funny because his parents seemed like they would have been fine with it.
Ella: I know, right? They were so open-minded and smart. But that made it harder for me, because I was the person he was leaning on. I’m so glad I had friends who were like, “We’re going to figure it out, we’re going to help!” People are so worried that their friends will judge them. If they’re good friends, they’re not going to judge you.
BFF: And if they do judge you, who the fuck needs them anyway?
Ella: Exactly, they’re shitty friends. Get better friends.
Ella: Did me getting diagnosed change the way that you approach sexual health?
BFF: Yeah! I’ve told people, “Hey, my best friend has herpes! So… you should know that safe sex is really important to me! Do you get tested? What’s your status?”
Ella: “Let’s talk about condoms! Why aren’t you wearing one?”
BFF: Ugh, fuck, that guy was such a mess. That was the most surreal Facebook exchange of my life: “What do you do when someone puts their dick in you and it doesn’t have a condom on it?”
Ella: Well, we went to Wesleyan where not everyone uses protection but most people do. No one’s like, “What do you mean, you want me to wear a condom?!”
BFF: He was like, “I’ve never worn one.” And I was like, “Who are you?!”
Ella: “Where have you been? Where has your dick been?”
BFF: Anyway, back to the subject. It’s definitely come up, and because I have to talk about sex logistics anyway, it connects well. So I’m like, “Hey, my vagina’s broken, and also we should talk about safe sex.”
Ella: You’re one of the few people in my life who understands what it’s like to have to have a conversation before sex.
BFF: I don’t understand how people don’t. I’ve had so many guys be like, “It’s so refreshing how open you are about this,” and I’m like, do you just not talk? All of a sudden are you just having sex?
Ella: You get the “this is refreshing” thing too?
BFF: Yeah, all the time.
Ella: Do people tell you their weird sex baggage?
BFF: YES! That one guy had an emotional crisis on top of me.
Ella: People are so relieved that they’re even talking about sex with someone they might have sex with. I hear all the time, “Oh, I can’t have sex with someone after the first date because I can’t perform,” or, “This weird thing happened to my penis recently.” I didn’t really need to know that, but good for you I guess? There’s such a sigh of relief when you start those conversations. Even if for us it’s like, “Oh god, I have to tell them this embarrassing thing, this is going to be awkward.”
BFF: How a guy responds to that conversation is usually indicative of how much I should be having sex with him in the first place. If they’re like, “Oh that’s really weird,” I’m like, “Excuse me, did you just call my vagina weird? Because that’s going to be a problem.”
Ella: Do you want to talk about your vagina at all?
BFF: Um, sure. As queen of the broken vaginas—
Ella: We need to make you a crown.
BFF: I really should have a crown for all the shit I’ve had to deal with. You and I had very different and yet similar vaginal experiences. I pretended to have a lot more sexual experience than I actually had because I was so ashamed of the fact that I was a virgin, even though I had no control over that. But I had no idea I had no control over that until three gynecologists later, which is just so sad. It’s so sad that it took someone so long to diagnose me.
Ella: Did you eventually just see the right gynecologist who was like, “Oh, I’ve seen this before”?
BFF: I talked to two gynecologists first. One was like, “You just have a tight vagina. Sex is going to hurt.” And I was like, “Okay, that seems like a really professional opinion, thank you.” But I was 16 years old, I didn’t know any better. And then I saw a doctor at Wesleyan when I was 18 and she asked if I was having sex. When I said no, she was like, “Why aren’t you having sex?!” That’s why I always felt like Wesleyan was sex-positive almost to a detrimental level.
Ella: There’s a lot of virgin-shaming at Wes.
BFF: And I virgin-shamed myself, how shitty is that? No one else was shaming me, no one else knew, but…
Ella: It’s the voice inside your head that’s the loudest.
BFF: So it wasn’t until that third gynecologist. We were doing my exam, and I was like, “I haven’t had sex yet because every time I try to, it’s immensely painful.” She poked me with a Q-tip for 45 seconds and then said, “Here’s the deal. You have Vulvar Vestibulitis, which basically means your nerves are broken. Worse case scenario, you have to get surgery. Best case scenario, I refer you to a physical therapist and you’re fine.” When I saw the physical therapist, she was so normal. She told me all sorts of stories about the other women she had treated. I remember she was like, “What size is your partner?” I was like, “Um, average?” And she said, “Oh, you’re lucky, one of my patients has a partner with a very large penis and it’s very difficult for her.”
Ella: Oh my god, that’s insane. When you have weirdly stigmatized sexual conditions, you wind up having extremely frank and bizarre conversations with strangers. People are like, okay, you’ve been through that, let’s talk about dick size.
BFF: I remember that being a joke whenever someone would complain about a small penis. I’d be like, “Bring him over, hello.”
Ella: Eventually when you did have partners who were larger, you were like, “FUCK.”
BFF: It got to the point where I physically could not have sex. Even now, it’s difficult some days. Also, use lube! I smacked so many people down with the hand of God about lube. I was at this guy’s house and someone was like, “I just don’t understand why people use lube. If you need lube, you’re not doing your job.” That’s the most misogynistic thing I’ve ever heard.
Ella: I hate those people.
BFF: First of all, everyone should use lube because it makes sex so much better. But also, women are just different. Why are you trying to box all of our vaginas into the same category? That’s not how people work. Some people just don’t get as wet as other people.
Ella: And it’s not necessarily a reflection of how attracted you are to someone. It’s fun when you use lube with someone who’s never used it before, and it’s like “A Whole New World” starts playing.
BFF: It’s a little different for me because it’s a necessity. It’s not quite as sexy. Sometimes I’m like, “Damn it, where’s the lube, have to find the lube,” because it rolled somewhere.
Ella: But you have that gigantic, industrial-sized bottle of lube.
BFF: I don’t carry that one around anymore. I keep that one at home now. I have a little bottle. Carrying around 16 ounces of lube freaked people out.
Ella: It was like the size of a shampoo bottle.
BFF: And it was called Slippery Stuff! But yeah, no one has really had a problem with lube. Unless they’re like, “Oh I have lube,” and I’m like, “Get your fucking shitty lube out of here.” Don’t insult me by giving me this substandard lube. And I slammed all those people down—I was like, “You know nothing about sex. I’m sorry, you know nothing.”
Ella: I’m really sad this is going to be a transcript because the sass on your face right now… “YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW.”
BFF: People are just so ill-informed, it’s remarkable.
Ella: Especially about Vaginismus. It’s the sort of thing you read one horror story about in Cosmo. That’s the only time I ever heard about it.
BFF: Vaginismus wasn’t even my main issue. I had heard of Vaginismus before and I was like, “Oh, that’s weird.” I just thought I had a medically tiny vagina. That was my understanding of my anatomy, when in reality it was a nerve issue, and that issue triggered Vaginismus. But Vaginismus wasn’t the thing that needed to be solved. That’s when they brought out all the lidocaine and gloves. Physical therapy is so sexy.
Ella: I always wondered how someone becomes a physical therapist of the vagina.
BFF: I think it’s so inspiring. There have been moments when I’ve been like, you know, my physical therapist changed my life. It kind of ruined sex for a little while, but she just put things in my vagina and talked to me about the Golden Globes.
Ella: It sounds like it was a very safe experience.
BFF: It was, and it had to be. People can’t go into that feeling uncomfortable. She showed me a figure of the pelvic floor muscles and explained what happened to me every time I tried to have sex. It was so helpful because I didn’t understand before then. Physical therapy was absolutely transformative. Every single person I’ve told about my experience has been like, “Vagina physical therapist? Who knew?” But it’s a muscle like anything else.
Ella: Vaginas have to push out a baby.
BFF: Exactly, that’s why the whole pelvic floor system is so important. Can you even imagine what women had to go through before we had ways to treat this? No one knows the statistics of how common it is and people don’t even know why Vulvar Vestibulitis and Vaginismus exist. Some of us just win the genetic lottery, I suppose. But that’s so horrifying, and it took four years for someone to diagnose me. For some people it takes a lifetime.
Ella: There are folks who never figure it out, especially in rural areas or people who can’t afford good healthcare. I’m sure a lot of women never say anything, they internalize it that much.
BFF: I can’t imagine it, because I couldn’t have sex, and I don’t know how other people do.
Ella: We need a lot of education and stigma busting, and part of it is just being like, “Hey guys, this is a thing that happens and it’s common.” You mentioned knowing others, right?
BFF: I have a family member; she’s the only person who has told me about it. She self-diagnosed and self-treated Vaginismus with dilators. That was an interesting moment; we wished we had talked to each other about it earlier.
Ella: Have you found any online communities?
BFF: I’ve found a couple blogs. The one blog I did read was really… weird. I don’t know how to describe it. It felt like it was being written by someone who was really young, which is fine but so contrary to my experience. I couldn’t help but be jealous of someone in that situation. I would have loved to be diagnosed at 16, before it was a pressing issue in my life. I would have loved to have more preparation before becoming a sexually active person. Because I just lied for years: “Oh, I have my period.”
Ella: To dodge having penetrative sex?
BFF: Mmhm. I’d be like, “How about a blowjob?”
Ella: You mentioned the other night that people have been asking you about my writing. What’s it been like having people find out about me, as someone who knows me so well? How are people talking to you about my writing and my life?
BFF: Well, my dad emailed me a link to your HuffPost Live interview and said, “Very cool, check this out!” And I’m like, “Thanks dad, I already knew!” It’s such a different experience for me, I grew up with you. I knew all these things before they were on the Internet. I was there! But I think people are very impressed because it’s the Wesleyan community, people are very progressive.
Ella: Wesleyan gets very excited when it discovers an injustice it never knew existed. Has anybody been nasty about it?
BFF: Oh god no.
Ella: Most people are extremely nice, but every so often a stranger will message me and be like, “Ha ha, you’re a disgusting bitch!” My mother was upset because one of our neighbors said “Ew” when she told her about my Women’s Health essay.
BFF: I would fucking murder anyone who said anything negative about you. I would go to wherever they were and punch them in the face. I don’t think anyone could shit talk you to me even if they wanted to. People know how close we are.
Ella: But then your mother thinks you’re going to get herpes from sharing a bed with me.
BFF: She did the same thing when you used to take Epsom salt baths our junior year. She asked if I was wearing shower shoes. I was like, “Am I going to get herpes on my feet, mom? What do you think is going to happen?”
Ella: Your mom is so funny. If it were anyone else I’d be hurt, but your mom is just… she’s so strange.
BFF: She has a lot of really misinformed ideas about everything. She thinks tampons cause cancer.
Ella: People with herpes get so freaked out about stigma, but if somebody says something stupid or ignorant about herpes, it’s because no one has told them otherwise. A lot of it is misinformation and fear. I’m not saying it’s your job to go educate everyone if you have a stigmatized illness, but do not take it personally. They’re morons. Or they’re the seriously ill-informed mother of your best friend.
BFF: And I tell everyone. Not that you have herpes, but like, every time I go to a bar with a new person I’m like, “Let’s talk about herpes.” I remember one of the first times I went out with a friend from work, I gave her a 45 minute lecture about STIs. I feel like it’s my responsibility as one of the few people who actually knows anything to be like, “Hello friends, let’s have an honest conversation about STIs.”
Ella: Are people weird about it?
BFF: I mean, that friend was freaked out because she had a very different experience going to school in the South, where things were a lot more conservative. But since we’ve become friends, she’s gotten tested twice, and I don’t think she’d been tested before. It was 100% because of my influence, which is awesome because everyone should be getting tested! Even though my mom thinks everyone who gets tested is a whore, which isn’t true.
Ella: If I ever get a reality show or a sitcom based on my life, your mom needs to be a character.
BFF: I mean, If you hadn’t gotten herpes, we would never know this much.
Ella: We were surrounded by information about getting tested, but we didn’t know it wasn’t complete information. We both thought we were so informed. So yay for talking about herpes, thank you for helping me with my mission. I’ve got the East Coast, you’ve got the West Coast. The takeaway message is to be aware and get tested, and that if you do have herpes, it’s going to be fine.
BFF: And have conversations about sexual health! Bottom line, that’s the most important thing you can do. This seems so obvious to us now, but we were once those people who didn’t know.
Ella: That’s seems like a good note to end on.