Dear Lush Spa, I'm Not An Untouchable: On Two Years With Herpes

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Alarm bells buzz as I reach for my glasses on the nightstand, and somehow manage to unroll myself from tangled sheets. I slowly shuffle myself downstairs to brew my first cup of coffee. Somewhere between my first and second cup, I take my daily vitamins and medications. Omega-3, Multi-Vitamin, Super-B Complex, Valtrex. Valtrex, an oblong blue pill that stands out from the rest, and shapes a meaningful part of my identity.

Two years ago, almost to the day, I walked out of a Patient First mourning the woman I once was. I climbed into the passenger side of my Dad's truck and cried on my his shoulder asking him, "Who will ever love me?" Since that moment, I've come to realize that a lot of people hold significant amounts of love for me, including myself (something that wasn't always present). On the flip side of the support given by family, friends, and strangers, is the reality of how weighted the stigma of carrying a sexually transmitted infection (STI) really is.

No matter how many CDC statistics or "real life" experiences that myself and others who share in this educational pursuit present to the world, there are going to be those who don't get it, choose not to get it, and never will support it. I have felt shame online, but for the first time experienced it in person at the Lush Spa in Philadelphia.

After I take that not-so-little blue pill in the morning, you'll most likely find me hitting the gym, or on the pier for a yoga session.  Coaches and yoga instructors have never had a problem touching me. There has never been hesitation, or lack of love in adjustments given to improve a posture or encourage the engagement of different muscle groups in my body.

Friends and family members have never held back hugs, in fact, they hold me tighter. Sexual intimacy has improved, thanks to a partner with open ears and an understanding heart. There has never been a moment where I have felt "disgusting" or "unworthy" of pleasure in bed in that relationship because of the virus I carry. There is still meaningful touch, there is still pleasure and I'm more comfortable with expressing my sexual desires, needs, and emotions because of that honesty. My sexuality is so well-nurtured in this environment that I often forget I even carry the herpes virus. I just feel like me.

From a young age, many of us learn to differentiate "good" from "bad" touch. When I was first diagnosed with herpes, I remember dragging myself to the gym, and the simple brush of a shoulder by a fitness instructor was enough to bring me to tears. No, it was not an inherently 'bad' touch, but I was sensitive due to a negative experience that happened in my life. So many people are unaware of the invisible boundaries that exist due to the past weights we carry. As much as there is a healing power in touch, there is one that can ruin an entire day. This power of touch is one of the main reasons I sought my RYT 200 certification, to provide that love and care that others have shown me. To offer a safe space and sense of healing, if others are open to receiving it.

The overwhelming sense of judgement that I felt from across the table at Lush Spa Philadelphia when I disclosed my medications was enough for me to determine that it was not a safe space.  When disclosing to medical professionals and even my bikini waxer, no one has inquired further about Valtrex or herpes. I am open with my diagnosis, and usually, there are no further questions, nor should there be. In my research, I found a helpful guide entitled, "Basic Pharmacology for Massage Therapists." A brief description of Valtrex, an anti-viral, can be found on page 44. Although accurate, I do not feel that this guide gives enough background for navigating real-life scenarios like the one I encountered. Collectively, we need to do better.

I am not pushing this issue for free spa treatments, or Lush products. What I am advocating for is further education and understanding in the spa and beauty industry about sexual health, stigmas, and the value in creating a safe space. Lush presents itself as a holistic organization in support of "fresh" and "organic" products that have an "honest meaning beyond marketing." Additionally, Lush gives back through a variety of means (charity pots, limited edition products, etc.) to "advocate for the environment, animals and people in need." This company presents itself to the public as one who cares about its customers.

The support received from Lush Cosmetics North America has been honest and receptive to my comments and concerns, however, the as-promised response from Lush Philadelphia is so far, non-existent. As a company that appears to be so dedicated to the value of natural products and supportive of the good of the world around us, I am a bit disappointed in the way this situation was handled. I've made a list of reasons in my head as to why Lush's promise was left unfulfilled: The manager hasn't had a chance to talk with the masseuse. I'm at the bottom of the manager's 'to-do' list, especially after a return from vacation. The manager doesn't know what to say, or how to respond. Or maybe Lush is just hoping I fade away. If I were in the manager's shoes, I'm not sure I would know what to say, either, except maybe, "I'm sorry."

On it's Charitable Giving page, Lush claims that it focuses "...on campaigning and education efforts to make societal change." Although I have been assured multiple times through Lush's Twitter that my situation is being taken seriously, actions are beginning to speak louder than words. I can only hope that my correspondence and writing efforts hold true with Lush's mission. I've spent two years fighting this stigma in my own mind, and in the world around me, and it's not something I plan to back away from.

I pour my coffee just like everyone else. I say "shit" one too many times when I realize that I'm late for work. I may take one more pill in the morning than some, but that one blue pill is not the standard for who I am and how I should be treated.

How Herpes Unexpectedly Defined My LUSH Spa Experience

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Is it up here, or...down there?" the masseuse nervously inquired. While I applaud her knowledge of the differentiation of HSV-1 and HSV-2, the situation was not dealt with in a professional manner. 

One of my greatest fears is failure--that I won't do something 'just right,' or that I will disappoint myself in my execution of a project, or lack thereof.  I've been having a lot of fun lately, and seeing that this is my first summer in a new city--my first summer living in any city--I don't think that there is anything 'wrong' with that mindset. What I do see fault in is my avoidance of housekeeping, grocery shopping, and the mundane things that seemed to be so easily accomplished months ago. Things that kept me successful in running my active lifestyle, have somehow loosened their seems. Underneath the beer gardens and poolside mimosas, there is also an element of fear that I've kept from myself. School. 

When I submitted my deposit just a few months ago, I saw a box that said, "defer to Fall 2018." In hindsight, I wish I had checked it. I do not believe my original six-month plan was adequate time for me to adjust and explore my new city, and develop a new routine for what success means to me.  One of my best friends summed it up well in his advice to me, "It's not that you're incapable of completing the work now. But you have a lot on your plate and mind, and I'm not sure if you can give it the attention you want at the current time."

Since that conversation, there have been moments of weakness and uncertainty, and I'm still unsure as to what my next move is. What's right, what's wrong--it's overwhelming to me. Believe what you may about the power of the full moon and it's effects, but this past one was no different, at least for me. A feeling of strangulation by my innermost thoughts, a constant stream of intuitive analysis- to the point of physical manifestation of symptoms that don't add up. It's enough to make me want to lock myself in my apartment during the next cycle.

My stress management has improved with age, and typically, yoga does the trick. This time around, I dug deeper into my practice of self-care and booked a massage. After an already shitty Wednesday, I was looking forward to the time to decompress and let go--of school, people, injuries-- and just be. Originally, I was seeking a deep tissue massage, but when I learned that one of the two LUSH Spas in North America was in Center City, I quickly changed my mind.

I booked an appointment for "The Good Hour," a seventy minute deep tissue, ship-themed massage. After pre-paying for my services, I was greeted with lemon water and whisked away into the chic county kitchen. I was greeted by my masseuse, who handed me a paper that I thought nothing of. A usual list of any known allergies and medications I'm currently taking. I filled out the paperwork in a little under two minutes as she gave me a background story of the LUSH Spa. I knew something was wrong when her brows furrowed over my paper.

"...You take Valtrex? How long have you taken that?"Just about two years now.
"...Why are you taking that?"I have herpes.
I'm not sure what the usual spa standards are when it comes to disclosure forms, but I have written Valtrex on a variety of treatment forms, and this is the first instance when someone inquired how long and the reason it was prescribed to me. She scribbled something on the paper, shuffled it under the cabinet, and asked me to follow her upstairs. At this point, perhaps I was as nervous as she was.

Before leading me into the treatment room, I was given a chance to explore the LUSH bathroom--complete with a shower and almost any LUSH product you could think of. I did not care so much about experiencing the free LUSH products as much as I cared about my massage, so I quickly retreated into my supposed oasis. There were two chairs in the room, and I was asked to take a seat in one. After dropping the Big Blue bath bomb underneath the table, she joined me on the opposite side of the room. Before she sat down, she drew her hand to her face, and asked where I was infected. She couldn't even say the word, "herpes." It reminded me of a child describing his or her genitals for the first time: Awkwardness. Nervousness. Accompanied by a side of shame and slight embarrassment.

It's been almost two years to the day when I found out I had herpes, which is also why I think I was especially sensitive to this conversation. Herpes has become a common word in my vernacular, and for me is virtually just another part of who I am. I've done the crying. I've felt the shame and experienced the stigma. I know it exists in this world. And yet this conversation caused an internal breakdown. I bit my lip and shared my truth, "I have genital herpes. I was diagnosed two years ago and have only had one visible, physical outbreak. If you are uncomfortable touching me, or providing me this service, I'd be happy to leave." I knew I should have, and I wish I had. She insisted it was fine since I was on medication, but her attitudes, mannerisms, and questioning told me otherwise.  I felt like a leper.

I cried through half of my massage. Something I booked in an effort to show myself a little more love and de-stress, caused the opposite effect. I spent seventy minutes in my head trying to come up with a few sentences to share with my massage therapist. There was nothing wrong with the massage itself, even my therapist's touch, but the experience that LUSH intended to create was ruined by the lack of education, care, and sensitivity leading up to the main event.

I couldn't wait to escape after those seventy minutes. I was led to that little bathroom again and was faced with only my reflection. It reminded me of the girl I was two years ago, when I couldn't even face myself in the mirror because I was so disgusted. Mascara and eyeliner led a trail down my cheeks. As much as I tried to hide my tears, there was no way my therapist turned a blind eye. Tea and biscuits awaited my arrival downstairs, as did the massage therapist who I'd rather not be faced with again. She seemed over-friendly and energetic. I felt that we both wanted to say something to the other, but neither of us did.      

That night, I made a decision to contact LUSH*. I did not reach out to complain about my therapist, or the massage itself, but offer an opportunity for education. I have told chiropractors and other skin-care and holistic health enthusiasts about my medical health and diagnosis, and not once have they turned me away as a customer, or made me feel uncomfortable. This experience showed me that despite my efforts to educate, the stigma is very present, and very real. And no matter how much of a brave face I put on, I'm still affected by it.

As unpleasant as this experience was, it taught me something. There is still work to be done, and this is why I'm here. This is why I'm seeking to further my own education so I can create change, or at least a wave of it. Perhaps this is the universe's strange way of telling me to push forward with graduate school this semester. We are all afraid of something. Some people, like myself, are afraid of failure. Some people are afraid of spiders. For some, it's death. And some are afraid of being infected by an STI--likely because they are uneducated about STIs and only 'know' what society presents (which is usually not the best source of information). In her years of experience, I am sure this woman has touched many people with herpes, but I can guarantee you that not all of them disclosed--likely in fear of what unfolded during my experience: unnecessary shame, stigma, and lack of a safe space. I strive to change just that... 

*I have been in touch with LUSH North America since the incident and they assure me my comments and concerns are being taken seriously. The communication I have exchanged with them has been open, and very much a safe space for discussion (Thanks, LUSH!). I am supposed to hear from the store manager this Monday and will update this post accordingly. 
UPDATE- Lush Philadelphia remains silent