Whenever I’m being interviewed about herpes, I dread one question: “So how did you get it?”
This is an invasive question to ask, even when the person you’re speaking to is an STI+ advocate. But it’s a natural curiosity, and one I understand. We are used to stories having a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you’re telling a story about herpes, you start at the beginning: How’d you get it?
For the last five years I’ve written and spoken publicly about my life as a person with herpes. I’ve been asked how I contracted herpes more times than I can count. In the past, my answer has danced around a complicated truth: I’m not sure, and I never will be. It is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt how someone gets herpes when the virus is so common and so strange. Lots of folks are exposed to herpes as children in the form of a relative’s cold sores. Others are asymptomatic for their entire lives but still somehow transmit the virus to a sexual partner. Most people have their first herpes outbreak within a week or two of being exposed to the virus, but that isn’t true of everyone.
I think I know how I got herpes, but I’ll never have tangible proof. At the end of the day I don’t really care. The story of how I got herpes is painful for reasons that have little to do with the virus itself.
While I’ve alluded to the less than ideal circumstances surrounding my herpes diagnosis, I’ve never told the story from start to finish. There are three reasons for that silence.
First, though it may surprise some to hear it, I care a great deal for all of my exes, even those whom I no longer speak to. I have no desire to lay someone’s weakest moments out for public consumption. It is already hard to bare my worst self to the internet’s scrutiny—I don’t want to drag anyone onto the examination table beside me.
Next, while I have spoken of the connection between STIs and abusive relationships before, I am afraid to fill in the gaps that I left open. Shame layers upon itself, and the stigma of herpes combined with the stigma of mental illness combined with the stigma of abuse becomes a muzzle. Even as I chipped away at each of these social stigmas in my writing, I have lacked the strength or the will to tackle their intersection in my own life.
Last, trauma has warped my memory of certain events. It burned other details bright into my mind, the cutting remarks and the vomit dried under my fingernails. Fractured memories are common for survivors, making us doubt our version of the events we lived through. Combine that with a partner prone to gaslighting and you worry that you are an unreliable narrator of your own story.
The combination of privacy concerns, shame and doubt kept me from touching this part of my life in public. But in private I obsessed over it, writing about the same events over and over again as I tried to wring logic from illogical feelings. Last summer I spent a week at my dad’s house and wrote the entire story out again from start to finish. I filled forty pages with suppressed grief and guilt.
Where memory failed me, I dug up old screenshots and faded journals. I unearthed fights that at the time I had convinced myself were normal disagreements. Distance and maturity helped me see the relationship for what it was: unlucky and disturbing, but nothing for me to be ashamed of. If anything it fit a pattern I’d begun to see everywhere, that of a boy who didn’t much care for himself, and as a result had no energy to care about the humanity of the girl he was dating. My sexual wellbeing was collateral damage to his mental illness, an accidental casualty to a young boy’s ignorant cruelty.
During quarantine I’ve edited those forty pages into something with purpose: a reflection on how our mental health can deteriorate upon an STI diagnosis, and how STI stereotypes often lead to abusive relationship dynamics. The result is LIFE RUINER, a micro-memoir about my earliest days with herpes and the boy I thought I loved at the time. There is a disconnect between conversations about intimate partner violence (IPV) and about sexually transmitted infections; this story sits neatly in that chasm. My hope is that it will help others who have dealt with nondisclosure, unkind partners and self-loathing.
LIFE RUINER is the first large project I’ve been able to complete with the support of my Patreon community. It is available exclusively to read on Patreon, not only to thank the supporters who made this micro-memoir possible, but also to keep it close. If you would like to read LIFE RUINER, you can join my Patreon here. I’m not ready to expose this part of myself with the open internet, and I may never be. Be aware that LIFE RUINER contains depictions of suicide, nondisclosure, revenge porn, and verbal abuse.
If you are in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, please know that you are not alone. An STI is not a reflection of your character, and you always deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and generosity. It doesn’t matter if you have herpes, or HIV, or HPV, or shingles, or mono, or COVID-19. Viruses are part of our bodies, and they don’t justify cruelty or abuse.