Banff is gorgeous. Canada’s oldest national park is overwhelmingly beautiful in a way that nowhere I have ever been can even begin to imitate. Oceans of evergreen trees spill across hills overshadowed by craggy, white mountains. The river running alongside the resort town is the purest and loudest blue. I spent eight days in the Canadian Rockies listening to brilliant speakers at TED Summit and what will stay with me longest is the view. This indoor city cat fell in love with hiking trails overlooking the rapids. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t notice that I had no cell phone reception.
On day three of waking up to high altitude fresh air, I realized my anxiety had melted away. The frenetic daily terror of the last four months hadn’t made my connecting flight in Toronto. It wasn’t just the mountains, as spectacular as they were. Working a conference always requires leaving my personal life behind, no phone calls to family, no interviews with Teen Vogue, and no searching my handle on Twitter to see who was hurling bile in my direction. Whatever was happening online, for better or for worse, had to wait. It shocked me how quickly I felt better. Finally I had an excuse to walk away from the after-hours work that had defined and crushed me for the last year.
There is this trap that activists fall into, and I am no exception. To admit that being bombarded with hatred everyday is terrifying, upsetting and exhausting is to validate the efforts of anti-feminists and racists and radical, right wing conservatives to silence us. To take a step back from the work is to give up, to cede precious ground, to let the cause down. If you are not fighting, you are part of the problem. If you are not fighting, you are a bad activist.
It’s also not cool to admit that success is draining. That reading the dozens of emails from strangers a week, ranging from thoughtful declarations of solidarity to novel-length missives of trauma and desperation, is emotional labor. If you stop reading the messages entirely, you are called ungrateful or selfish, never mind that they trigger your worst memories and are often mixed in with emails calling you a disgusting whore. Closing down comments on your blog is censorship, closing down private messages to your Facebook page because you are often sexually harassed there is “letting a few bad apples ruin it for the rest of us.” Locking your Twitter account to prevent old, ironic tweets from being used against you by trolls is failing to protect other activists from harassment campaigns. And of course, you’re only in this for publicity if you make too many headlines. You don’t really care about making the world better. You want a name for yourself. You’re in this for the glory, or a book deal, or “Internet fame.”
Activist burnout is not a new concept. My bone-deep exhaustion, anxiety, irritability and impulsiveness are not unique to me. What may be unexpected is my current total lack of compassion. Empathy is not a limitless resource, despite what a dozen TED Talks and inspirational table coasters may tell you. It’s become impossible for me to read emails from imperfect strangers and assume the best in them. I’m tired of reading messages from men who hate their “trashy” ex-girlfriends for getting them sick. I’m tired of reading messages from women who bend over backwards to assure me that they weren’t a “slut”—they got herpes that one time they had a one night stand and yes, they should have known better. The hardest emails to read are the ones that genuinely ask me how I can even get out of bed every morning, knowing my life will always be harder than everyone else’s. These emails are almost always from white, upper-middle class straight people. It is hard to remain sympathetic to the notion that carrying an asymptomatic virus is the worst thing that has ever happened to them.
And of course, you know you’ve made it when people make videos screaming at you on YouTube. “I don’t think we should be that surprised that feminists are bragging about their STDs,” a self-described “contrarian polemicist” snarls to his 400,00+ subscribers in a video mocking the #ShoutYourStatus campaign I helped create for STI awareness month. “After all, they’re so fat and ugly, the mere fact that they’re having any kind of sex at all is a massive achievement.” The video currently has 255,864 views and led to an avalanche of men sending me emails, tweets, and writing comments on my Facebook page calling me any number of slurs. The harassment got so bad that I recruited two of my guy friends to moderate my social media pages while I, oh right, gave my TEDx talk that same fucking weekend.
Another vlogger, this time from the atheist community, made a video claiming that feminists find it empowering to give men STIs. He wrote in the comments, “While I understand the topic of STD’s is a touchy subject, I’m not speaking to those who get one thru safe sex and having your partner NOT disclose they have an STD. Legally you need to tell your partner, I’m talking about this woman Ella who labels her self a giant slut (her own words) and got an STD from sex. If you are proud of getting something that could potentially hurt or harm other people without disclosure, you’re a sick, twisted, fuck. Ella is one of those people. Being proud of something that can hurt people.”
Never mind the fact that none of that is true. Never mind the fact that when you literally Google my name, my herpes status is the first thing that comes up. Never mind the fact that it would make no sense for me to lie to sexual partners about my herpes status when making it easier to disclose has been my only goal for the last year and a half. Never mind all that: this video currently has 62,704 views, double the views of my TEDx talk about herpes stigma.
I realized something during my time offline in Banff. So much of my struggle during the past year has been to hold onto who I am as my life becomes more public. I’ve worried about “being myself,” about staying genuine, about staying humble. The irony didn’t escape me that in my effort to argue that herpes does not define us, this cause had come to define me. I focused so heavily on being Ella that I stopped thinking about the woman I want to become someday. I know what I want the world to look like in five years: better access to healthcare, less herpes stigma on television, real sex education in public schools. But I have no idea what I want my life to look like next July. What do I even want outside of this cause?
I’d like to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Maybe get a tan. Write fiction again.
So I’m going on vacation. I’m removing the contact form from my website and giving myself a 10pm social media curfew every night. Interviews, collaborations and freelance articles can wait until September. Barring an unforeseen celebrity scandal, I don’t want to publish the word “herpes” until the heat breaks in Brooklyn. The H community exists without me, and it’s time I take a break to let other voices be heard and give myself a chance to heal.
I’d like to say this retreat has nothing to do with the harassment I receive. That would be a lie. I know in my heart of hearts that the people who hate me are petty, cruel, unloved idiots who want nothing more than to shut me up. I am not shutting up, and I never will. I will continue to fight for my humanity and my right to live in this world as an equal, no matter my gender or my sexual orientation or my health. But being human comes with its limits, and I have reached a threshold. I need a break from online communities that enjoy accusing me of lying about my status, comb through my educational record to build an anti-feminist manifesto, screenshot my interviews and distort my words to deride my sexuality and my self-worth. This is not “letting them get to me” either. Telling a woman to not let harassment get to her is like telling a sprinter to not let a broken leg stop him from training for the summer Olympics. The violent, organized sexists who hate me have not won, but if I’m ever to continue gaining ground in this fight, I need to rest. I need to build some walls. I need some time to be a messy twenty-four year old living in the big city, with her assorted fuckups not mined for personal essay fodder.
Peace out, herpes. I’ll still have you in September.
P.S. This essay wasn’t uplifting. Sorry about that. My TEDx talk is pretty optimistic if you’re in need of a pep talk.