I had barely finished my first semester of college when I found out I had herpes. A high school friend and I wound up taking our friendship a little further, and 20 seconds into the act that would change my life forever, he stopped.
My friend said I was too much like a sister, and he couldn't continue. Then he left. I worried about how that incident would affect our friendship. Little did I know my worries would extend far beyond that concern.
Less than a week later, I found myself in excruciating pain. It hurt to walk, and I couldn't use soap anywhere near my genital area. I knew enough about sexually transmitted diseases to know that I had herpes, but I didn't know exactly what to do.
As I sat in the college health center waiting to see a doctor, I watched my very short-lived social life drift by. I was thinking that I'd probably never go on another date, or get a boyfriend for that matter, and I'd certainly never have sex again.
The nurse who examined me revealed that they had herpes and said it was no big deal. They had been free of outbreaks for 12 years, and the same might be the case for me, they said.
Genital herpes is a contagious viral infection that remains permanently in the nerve cells. Many people are unaware they have it, because they don't experience symptoms or because they attribute the symptoms to something else. During an outbreak, blisters or sores appear on or around the genital area. Some people never experience a second outbreak.
The nurse taught me how to manage the virus, but managing my personal life was another story.
When I confronted my friend about the situation, I asked if he knew that he had herpes. ''I thought it was a cut,'' he said.
''How would you cut yourself there?'' I asked.
Years later, I've come to the realization that he knew he had herpes, and that is the reason he stopped in the midst of our sexual adventure. Our friendship, unfortunately, ended as quickly as the act. It was hard enough to face the fact that we'd had sex, or tried to, and it was much harder to cope with the fact that I had caught an incurable sexually transmitted disease.
The Silent Approach
In 1989, when I got herpes, the nurse told me I couldn't transmit the virus unless I was having an outbreak. (At the time, many doctors and other health care providers believed this to be the case, although a number of research studies had already suggested otherwise.) So, I decided to keep quiet. For three years, I had a boyfriend who never knew I had herpes. Each time I had an outbreak, which for me consisted of a very small cluster of blisters that lasted two or three days, I'd pretend I had a yeast infection and say I couldn't have sex until it was gone.
By the time I finished college in 1994, the possibility of spreading the virus even when you didn't have an outbreak had become more widely accepted by health care providers. I was still uncomfortable about bringing up the subject, but now I didn't have much of a choice. I didn't date for awhile, but inevitably, I met someone.
I held off on sex for as long as I could, but it got more and more difficult. One day, my new beau reassured me, "I'm disease-free, I just got tested. You have nothing to worry about."
I appreciated his honesty and knew I had to tell him that he was the one who had something to worry about.
Soon, my secret was out. I explained that I had herpes, and that was why I was being so cautious. I told him that to my knowledge I had never spread the virus to anyone else, and that I was very careful. I had always insisted on using condoms, which can reduce the risk of transmission. My selling point, however, was telling him that approximately one in four people has herpes and, statistically speaking, he undoubtedly had slept with someone who had herpes. He said he would know if he had been with someone who had herpes.
"How?" I asked.
He thought about that for a minute and then realized he might not know. In the end, instead of rejecting me, he chose to continue our relationship. What a relief. But after we had sex, he would always wash himself like a doctor scrubbing down for an operation. I could hardly blame him, but it wreaked havoc on my self-esteem. Since he was disease-free, he refused to wear condoms, instead choosing the scrub-down -- something that would do nothing to prevent herpes transmission.
That relationship eventually came to an end, leaving me worried yet again about getting back in the dating game. Then, while surfing the Web for information on the latest herpes medication, I stumbled across a web site for people with herpes.
Finding Help and Support
There are dozens of web sites that provide online support and information for people with herpes. Many feature chat rooms, bulletin boards, treatment information, personal ads, and social groups around the world. A friend of mine had recently married a guy she met on the Web -- proving that not every Internet date is a psycho -- so I gave it a try.
I met dozens of electronic pen pals and eventually went on several dates. It was a relief not to worry about when to bring up my medical history, and to bond with a guy over asymptomatic shedding instead of having to explain it.
The whole experience made me more comfortable with the fact that I have herpes and gave me the confidence to begin dating again. It was as if I had just re-entered mainstream society. Not everyone with herpes has to date someone infected with the virus to find true love, but in my case, it worked.
Mr. Right Online
Eventually, I met a man online who lived only three miles from me. We discovered we had numerous mutual friends. Given the circumstances, it was surprising that we hooked up on the Web and not at a neighborhood barbecue.
Soon we will be married, and more than 100 family members and friends are invited to join our celebration. Most have no idea how we really met, but it's not important. Herpes brought us together, but it's the love, laughter, and good times that keep us close.
Ann Smith is a pseudonym for a journalist living in California.