Four months ago, two weeks after my 21st birthday and right around Halloween, I started feeling some kind of stinging in my genitals. I am no stranger to a UTI, so at first I assumed it was that. However, this UTI started to take on life of its own, progressing differently than other garden variety ones from swimsuits and sex.
I knew it would be something worse once I couldn’t sit. To sit upright became unbelievably painful, requiring a slacker slouch in any and all situations. I took to lying in bed, hermiting more and more to avoid sitting publicly. I panicked, like most people do when confronted with a dicey health problem. Then I went to Student Health. The family practitioner frowned as she peered between the stirrups, but assured me it was only razor burn. As I waddled home with a new cream and antibiotics for a yeast infection, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she could not possibly be right. I hadn’t shaved in two weeks.
Since I pretty much knew that this was no yeast infection, I opted to not start taking my antibiotics (which were very reactive with alcohol) so as to be able to enjoy the festivities. It was Halloween, so despite the fact that I slumped to avoid direct pressure on my lady bits and had an important midterm the next day, I wanted to go out. Fortunately, I had just gotten a new koala onesie that was comfortable, wonderfully loose and cute in a decidedly un-sexy way. Which is perfect because stinging junk makes you feel the opposite of sexy.
I headed out to accompany a friend to her sorority date function. The koala onesie, made of a gray sweatshirt material, was a security blanket. The night progressed, leading us all to our favorite bar, where we took shots of Fireball (the only $6 dollar shot) and drank Blue Moon beneath the stained glass lamps. I was sitting at the bar painfully, kicking my legs in my koala onesie, wanting to go home but knowing I needed to be out of my lair. I should have been studying, but my genitals also shouldn’t have been stinging. The night ended with a drunk fight between friends in front of the local 7-11. I stopped to buy black coffee and Fritos there, intending to study all night. This was 1 AM.
I trudged back to my room in my koala costume, stained with Fritos and beer now. My roommate, who had been home studying all night, was treated to a sad and messy koala waddling into the living room. I grabbed my laptop, and was about to pull up my study Powerpoints, when an email from my mother binged into my inbox. I was in tears before the first line was over. My roommate, thinking the fight had caused this outburst, tried to soothe me. “No…this email from my mom. It’s….nice” was what I came up with as a justification. I could not tell my mother this.
The next day, I took the disastrous midterm, wrote an apology email to the professor, and got back in bed. Later that day, the stinging had gotten so bad that I knew I needed to do something. I picked up my phone on selfie mode, walked to the bathroom like it was to my grave, and squatted down. Even my amateur eye could spot the bumps.
I made an appointment online, and the next morning showed up at Student Health instead of my sorority’s barbecue. The family practitioner took one look, winced and said “you have herpes”. I started crying again. Even as she slid some educational materials into my hand, I couldn’t stop. Eventually she just left me in there to collect myself. I called a friend, raggedly bawling into the phone. She kept trying to console me, tell me statistics and comforting words, but I just kept thinking, this isn’t you. This isn’t your life. It’s mine, and now I have herpes. Forever.
The hardest thing about having herpes isn’t actually having herpes. Actually, having herpes sucks less than acne, or cavities, or ingrown toenails. My particular type of herpes, HSV I, recurs very infrequently. But the stigma is powerful. The isolation can be, too. And the use of the word lifelong is enough to make any 20-something balk. But most days, I forget about it. I continue doing all the things I do normally. And then I remember it, and I do a little bit more research. I haven’t had to disclose to a partner yet, but someday I will. And I want to have valid information to tell them, to help them make a decision.
The road is rocky, but the bumps get easier to maneuver. Time is key. As a student abroad currently, I’m learning all the time about understanding and accepting diversity. Sometimes this means coming at diversity with questions poised, ready to explore every inch. Other times this means sitting quietly and letting it wash over you. I’m trying to get better at the latter, from the inside out. And when I start to feel the stigma, and feel dirty or broken or damaged, I just remind myself with my favorite mantra: this doesn’t beat you. It doesn’t get to. It doesn’t matter that much, anyway.