What It Feels Like to Have Herpes for 10 Years

Ten years ago I was diagnosed with herpes.

Ten is a big, round number. Double digits. Meaningful. Right?

This anniversary, or herpiversary, should mean something to me. I should feel something: pride or grief or gratitude. I have lived for a decade with a stigmatized virus. Outbreaks pained me, upset me, and annoyed me. I disclosed my STI to many partners, and we managed safer sex and transmission risks. For many of those years I wrote and spoke publicly about this virus, and I received praise and harassment for my honesty. Multiple therapists helped me heal from the trauma of diagnosis, and then the trauma of being a public figure associated with herpes.

Herpes defined me.

Until it didn’t.

When I was twenty — a junior in college clutching STI info pamphlets between her clammy fingers — I didn’t think I would ever feel apathetic about herpes. Medical professionals told me that herpes was manageable, but I did not want to “manage” my body. I dreaded a future burdened with awkward conversations and large, blue Valtrex tablets. I could not imagine that herpes would be normal, even forgettable, for weeks or months at a time. Shame, fear and confusion consumed me.

I didn’t want to feel shame, so I clung to anger and pride. I railed against ignorance about sexually transmitted infections. I projected an air of confidence. I fashioned myself as a role model, an activist, an advocate. Instead of living in fear of the scarlet letter H, I made herpes part of my brand. 

Time went on. Trump became President, and then a pandemic turned the world upside-down. Relationships started and ended. My writing evolved, my focus changed. Herpes slid down my list of worries until it dropped off it entirely. There were still necessary conversations while dating and prescription refills during outbreaks. Herpes existed in my life, but it lost its emotional charge. Maybe that’s what healing is. Maybe that’s the benefit of perspective.

Now here I am ten years later, surprised to feel no profound anything about this anniversary. And yet that’s exactly what I wanted most in 2013, when my denial wore off and the permanence of the diagnosis sank in. I wanted herpes to be the least interesting thing about me. I wanted herpes to feel normal. I wanted herpes to be forgettable.

Today is May 9th 2023. My partner is texting me about their allergies. My mom picked up french fries for me while she ran errands. After I publish this post, I’ll go to the library to continue line-editing my novel. I think about herpes rarely and without pain. It does not change the shape or color of my life. It has no hold on my future. This chapter of my life is over; it has been for quite some time.

I have herpes and it’s fine. It’s genuinely, unremarkably fine.

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

One thought on “What It Feels Like to Have Herpes for 10 Years

  1. Reading this I just wanted to say thank you, because when I had HPV a few years ago watching your video talking about herpes REALLY helped me a lot, because I couldn’t find anyone talking openly about what was happening to me and your testimony was the closest I found. And eventually I talked openly about HPV because I knew that there is important to have testimonies like this (and I know it helped another people who were living the same). You were a bit of fresh air when I felt everything would be wrong forever. And now I know it is not forever. ♥

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