There's no denying that the emotional toll of being diagnosed with herpes can be devastating (the stigma is that bad). However, I'm here to say that this woman's body is NOT ruined. Herpes is manageable, treatable, and it doesn't have to ruin your life or limit your ability to have an amazing sex life—it hasn't ruined mine, and I've had herpes for 18 years.
I was diagnosed with herpes when I was 16 years old—by my family practitioner. I don't actually know who I got it from, because I was too afraid to ask or confront anyone who I'd been sexually active with, but I know how I got it: by having unprotected sex.
After I saw and felt the first lesions, my mom took me to our doctor, who said, “This is herpes, and it’s the worst case I’ve ever seen in my entire career.” He then walked out of the room and came back with a prescription for Valtrax. That was it.
Living with herpes in my teen years wasn't exactly easy—at slumber parties, I was forced to sleep on the floor because the girls were afraid they’d get my infection. And if a boy asked one of my friends to introduce us, they'd tell him, "You don’t want me to do that, she’ll just infect you."
That truly did impact my view of myself, and my self-worth started to plummet.
But after a long and arduous process of self-discovery, I learned to accept and embrace the fact that herpes didn’t (and doesn’t) define me. I started to hone in on what was going well in my life instead of just my herpes. Not only did I have successes in school—I graduated with multiple honours degrees—but I also had amazing relationships, regardless of my disease.
That’s right, despite what many people may assume, herpes does not mean the end of your dating or sex life. I learned I could go on dates, have serious relationships, and even have amazing sex.
The only real difference when you have herpes is that you need to have an honest conversation about the infection, which is actually really amazing because usually people avoid talking about sex at all.
I admit that it did take me a while to get comfortable having that conversation. I didn’t know how to broach it, and I was scared. The first couple of times I told someone, there were waterworks—it was very dramatic.
But guess what? I’ve actually never had a partner say they didn’t want to be in a relationship with me or not have sex with me after I opened up to them about my herpes. It never really had an impact on the relationship at all.
After opening up the conversation, one previous partner said to me: "You mean, that's it? That's all you had to tell me?" And, another said, "Well, that doesn't change who you are, and I've already fallen for you, so it's just something we'll have to work around."
In fact, my now-husband already knew I had herpes before we started dating. We met through Facebook, after I'd launched the STD Project—a website and progressive movement set on eliminating the stigma surrounding STDs. He reached out to me and said: "Everything you're doing is amazing—it's so empowering and I love your energy!" We've been married since December, and herpes never got in the way of our relationship.
Now, not everyone with herpes have had experiences like mine. Plenty of people experience rejection. But as founder of the STD Project, I've spoken to a lot of people with herpes, and I hear over and over that the stigmas associated with it make living with the condition out to be far worse than the reality. The emotional and psychological impact is what’s bad about it, not the infection itself, because that’s really manageable and not a big deal. I'd compare it to maybe getting poison ivy, having psoriasis, or catching a cold—if you polled a bunch of people who've had any of those, most would say they don't like it, but it's not devastating. I actually get psoriasis on my head, and in my opinion, that’s way more annoying.
So when I hear people say things like a herpes diagnosis means “the world is over," I find it very disheartening. Because now I know better. Bottom line: Herpes is not the end of the world, unless you allow it to be.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health.