Are You Fluent in Herpes?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

All I could think was, “it’s all-wrong,” as I stared into the television. While trapped inside during Winter Storm Jonas, I spent a significant amount of time watching the local news. Amidst the same weather forecasts and school closures, I noticed something seemingly unrelated to the blizzard: a commercial for Abreva, a treatment for cold sores. I sat in awe of the probability that the viewing audience likely would not identify this as herpes-related. 
Despite a background enriched with sexual health education, I never really considered cold sores to be synonymous with herpes until I was diagnosed with HSV-2. Personally, I test negative for HSV-1, but I know plenty of people who get cold sores on occasion. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 carry HSV-1 (67%), AKA a strain of herpes. 'Cold sore' provides a buffer, a level of innocence. It helps fulfill society’s need to conceal the 'dirty nature' of the herpes virus. These terms are interchangeable, yet we choose to keep distance between them. After scanning the Abreva website, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a section about herpes, but its portrayal is still problematic--the commercial fails to even mention the word 'herpes'. Herpes is only visible to those who choose to further their research on Abreva's website. Even if this step is taken, the stigma will most likely prevent people from accepting that they are carriers of the virus. How would society’s perception change if we begin to replace 'cold sore' with 'herpes' in these public broadcasts?
Over the last several years, there has been an increase in oral-to-genital transmission of the virus. Yes, your cold sore can spread to your partner’s genitals, potentially causing a genital HSV-1 infection. While HSV-1 typically prefers the mouth as its home, it sometimes decides that the South holds a better stake in real estate. When we are in the heat of the moment, we touch, we kiss. A lot. Everywhere.  How many of those with HSV-1 feel a need to disclose to their partners before going down on them? Even more importantly, how many people even know what a cold sore really is? Or that they test positive for HSV-1? How many people know the risks? 

The reality is that somewhere along the line, we all have probably been exposed to some strain of the herpes virus. My goal in highlighting this is not to instill fear, but to reach a level of awareness. I believe that one potential way to remove the dirtiness of herpes is for those who have experienced a cold sore to discuss it. Start the conversation with yourself by replacing 'cold sore' with 'herpes' just to see how it feels.  A word should not make anyone feel inferior, but words are powerful, and so are the stigmas attached to them. Did you feel like less of a person when you told yourself you had a cold sore? Probably not. When attaching the herpes label to oneself, one's self-perception may change.  Although it is easier to discuss sexuality in this time, our language reveals that we still have a long road ahead of us. Perhaps approaching the herpes stigma from an oral point of view will better the chances of a more inclusive HSV future. 

Still curious about HSV-1? Bustle provides an easy-to-read Q&A

No Stupid Questions: Seemingly Desperate Things I Asked Myself After I Was Diagnosed with Herpes

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

            When I was diagnosed with genital herpes, I spent most of the day in a tsunami of tears. It is disheartening to discover that you are ill, but to discover that your body is home to an STD makes you feel inadequate and damaged, thanks to the stigmas our society perpetuates. After coming out about my HSV2+ status, I had numerous individuals reach out to me regarding their own statuses. They informed me of how much my disclosure helped them with their own diagnosis. That alone is so moving to me, and it makes me feel like I do have the power to make some kind of difference in this field. I often ask myself, “What would I have wanted to hear? What would’ve helped me through this?” I am in no way a professional when it comes to any of this, but whether you have an STD, or are helping care for someone who has been diagnosed, I hope this enlightens your life and brings you peace throughout your journey.  

We often like to think we are invincible, that nothing bad could ever happen to us or our closest friends and family members. The reality is that tough times do happen to good people. You will be sad for a while, and you will get angry—an emotional reaction is natural. You have a right to your feelings, do not try to invalidate them; they will come up in other areas of your life and make themselves known in more destructive ways. I have always found difficulty in asking for help. Looking back, this was a time in my life when I probably needed some outside direction. I pretended to be okay for a while, but whenever alcohol entered the picture, I blacked out more often than not. I enjoy my wine and margaritas—don’t get me wrong, but the regular level of intoxication I reached post-diagnoses was unnecessary—and a direct result of concealing my feelings. 

I am one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. At my current place in life, I strongly feel that I am present here to spread awareness and help other individuals cope with their STD diagnosis. I am not sure how this will change or shift over time, but this feels right.  Your purpose will be different than mine, but whatever that reason may be, it is usually a positive one if you dig deep enough within yourself.  

This was one of the first questions I asked myself in the car after leaving the doctor. It sounds like an over-dramatic, desperate, soap opera-like question, but it is realistic. You feel broken. You feel like you have “damaged goods.” Society tells us that people with STDs are promiscuous and somehow “deserve” what they get.  I have been told that I deserved to get herpes. These beliefs about infections make us see STD+ individuals as objects rather than people. We poke fun at STDs and think nothing of it, but in reality, we are equating these people to their diagnosis, and that’s not okay. My advice and solution to this question is to love yourself first. I have always been confident in myself, but loving myself has not been the easiest adventure in my life thus far. 

Surprisingly, my herpes diagnosis has helped me with that. I’ve seen myself hit rock bottom, I have been torn apart physically, mentally, and emotionally. I always knew I was strong, but this experience has proved to me the level of strength I am capable of. Here I am today, probably the most-Emily I have felt since my diagnosis, and I am continually falling in love with myself. I know that probably sounds conceited, but there is a distinct difference between cockiness and confidence. There’s a quote I saw on Instagram that says, “We beg women to love themselves, but tell confident women to calm down.” Be that woman that loves herself, wholeheartedly. Show the world your fire and watch your level of happiness increase. That goes for men, too. It won’t happen overnight, but I promise you, if you dedicate a part of your day to investing in yourself, the love will follow. Put into the world what you would like to receive. If you do not learn to love yourself within the context of your STD, it is unlikely that others will. I do not mean to sound harsh in that statement, but even without an STD, it is difficult to truly have a loving relationship with an individual who does not value himself/herself. I see these relationships fail time and time again, and I have been involved in relationships like that, too. The love you deny yourself cannot be found in other people, you must look within. The relationships that flourish are between those individuals who love themselves so effortlessly, and are so comfortable with their quirks, that they find someone just as quirky to share them with. Spend some time getting reacquainted with yourself post-diagnosis before you look to someone else to validate your worth. Hint: You are worthy.

It is likely that you may never know the answer to this, which can be difficult to accept. STDs are tricky. For me, I was regularly tested for STDs, including herpes. At the time of my initial infection, my culture was positive and my blood results were negative, which signaled that this was recent—leaving it pretty obvious as to where it originated, based on my sexual history. Even if you are 100% sure of its origins, do not expect the responsible party to be there when you are having a meltdown. Do not expect that person to be there if you need someone to talk to about it. In short, do not expect anything of that person; it will save you a lot of time and grief. I had trouble struggling alone in this, and I still get angry when I think about it. As much as you want someone to be there for you, especially the person you contracted the disease from, it is a possibility that they may choose absence. They may choose that it is not a priority for them.  They may choose not to share in this with you. They have a choice in this, it may not always be the right one, but they are entitled to making it. Just because someone should be there, does not mean that he or she will be.     

This will vary depending on which STD you have, but it will change in some capacity. Firstly, your sex drive may not be what it once was. When I was diagnosed, I did not even want to look at myself, I felt disgusting. I did not see myself as the sexual person I once knew. It has taken me a while to get my desire back to speed. Secondly, you will have to disclose to current/future partners about your STD status. Although I see this as a moral obligation, there are some people who decide to forgo disclosure, which is one of the most selfish and disturbing actions you can take, in my opinion. If you know that you have an STD, or strongly suspect there’s a possibility you have one, please give that other person the knowledge to make an informed decision before consenting to any type of intimate relationship. Some people will be willing to take that risk, while others may not be--and that's okay. In addition, there will be certain precautions you will have to take. If you are intimate with someone who has the same strain of herpes as you, your sexual relationship can remain pretty "normal," whatever that may be for you. Sometimes, I would get get flare ups due to the friction in sexual intercourse, but that's been the only "difference" I really had to deal with. Again, I cannot speak to other STDs as well, but these are all things to consider in your research. 

Your perception of this question will vary depending on how you identify. Personally, this was not my biggest concern. At this point in my life, I do not foresee myself having children, nor do I really want them. I have certain goals that I would like to achieve and adventures I want to embark on, and I don't see how children will fit into that vision. Yes, I am self-admittedly too selfish to have children, but I will settle for being the cool aunt. Although I do not want children, this question still crossed my mind. With herpes, yes, you can still bear children, but there are certain precautions you will need to take if you want to have a vaginal delivery. Also, if you are positive and your partner is negative, there are certain actions you will have to take if you’re trying to conceive. All of this information can be further clarified through a professional. 

Again, this will be STD-specific. Herpes can be transmitted whether you use protection or not. Every time you engage in sexual activity will be a risk for your partner. I am on daily antiviral therapy, which significantly decreases the chance that a partner would contract the virus, but that chance still exists. It is important to inform your current/potential partner of your STD status, and his or her chances of contracting the virus. I have always been an advocate of safe sex, but my STD diagnosis has caused me to become even more aware of what precautions to take. For example, having herpes also makes me more susceptible to contracting other STDs, like HIV, so it is especially important to find out the STD status of potential partners. As much as I would like to trust people by their word alone, my health is not worth the risk. Ask for a hard copy: "Show me yours' I'll show you mine," should be the philosophy when it comes to sharing test results. 

You will be okay, but the time it takes to heal is different for each person. We are all so beautifully designed as individuals and how we process our emotions is completely different from one person to the next. I received confirmation of my herpes status on July 18th. I first saw glimpses of my old self reappear in early November, but I do not think I was fully myself until late December/early January. There is no specific time it will take for you to feel back to “normal.” When you think about it, you never will be who you once were. You will change and grow from this experience, or, making a case for denial, you will run as far as you can. 

~ Get informed. Learn as much as you can about your STD--you can never accumulate too much knowledge. 
~ Tell your closest friends, give them information. They may not understand everything you’re going through, but they will be a shoulder for you to cry on. 
~ I chose to tell the world, but you don't have to. This felt right for me, it may not feel right for you.
~ Do not be afraid to seek professional help if needed. Sometimes we just need an objective point of view and someone to listen to--and there's nothing wrong with that. 
~ Channel your emotions into creative energies—learn a new skill, take up a new hobby, get involved in your community. Become involved in things that make you happy and move you forward.
~ Buy the stuffed animal version of your STD. Yes, it exists and makes it a little less frightening. My herpes microbe's name is Herman and he looks like the sun. 
~ No matter how angry you may be, do not seek revenge on the person who transmitted the STD to you. Let karma take care of business while you rise in positivity.  
Don't listen to everything I say. My journey is completely different than yours'. My diagnosis, my story, the people involved. Yes, there will be similarities, but no two stories are exactly alike. Another big secret: I don't know everything. Although I am farther along than when I was first diagnosed, I'm still learning and have a long way to go. 

The Problem with Happy

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

It is a question we’d like to think we know the answer to.  In a world so unwilling to slow down, we’re quick to claim that we have our lives together. To say that we have a steady job, a significant other, a house, a family—to prove that we are headed towards some destination of societal accomplishment. We are so eager to say that we have all of these things, but the one claim we aren’t as willing to make is that we are genuinely happy.  
I am working temp jobs, I am single, and I don’t have much to my name other than my story and about seventy pairs of shoes; but yet, here I am, content without all of the things and people that society says I’m supposed to have in order to be happy.  It has taken me a long time to realize that happiness is not a reward. Upon this realization, it is easy to spot those who do not find contentment within themselves. It is especially disheartening for me to see people who once were so dedicated to fulfilling their dreams, submit to society's prescription of time.  
You can only offer someone as much depth as you are willing to offer yourself. Be honest—rethink your job, your hobbies, and your habits. Have you stopped working towards your goals because you’ve become stuck in a societal trap of conformity? Of convincing yourself that you are happy because you’re supposed to be? You cannot add to the growth and sustainment of friendships/relationships if you stop stimulating your intellect. If you do not feed your passions, your potential is stunted. You become stagnant, stuck in a cycle of discontent- always dependent upon a new possession to emit the happiness which you do not hold within yourself. Instead of being caught up in the timeline of where you're expected to be, slow down and expand. Learn a new language, read a book that is not quite your style, watch the local news. Small steps towards inner-peace contribute to a greater conversation than the material things we cultivate in our lives. Work towards something bigger than what you see, find complexities hidden within seemingly mundane moments. You have a greater purpose in this life than to simply wait for the next step.   
Although I am without a steady paycheck, I am committed to my progress. I read. I write. I practice yoga. I go to the gym. I am aware of the world outside of myself. I listen to what my peers have to offer. I am fascinated by other people and their passions, their dreams, their stories.  The people who are most impressive to me are not those who achieve a certain stage of the "American Dream," but the ones who continue moving towards their goals, despite uncertainty and defeat. There is an important distinction between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. I know I cannot depend on a pair of shoes to make me happy, but I can count on them to carry my feet forward into the woman I am striving to become. 

To Be an Orgasm

Saturday, January 9, 2016

            I love being lost. Somewhat of a DC area native, I find myself drawn to the hustle and bustle of a city. In January of 2013, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in London and Paris, for just short of a month. That was the one time in my life when I felt most like myself, and I believe I will always be searching for that person.  Regardless, there is something about a city that moves me. I lose my controlled sense of self, my awareness, which somehow brings me more towards a self with no hesitation, no overthinking--I just am. It’s weird. Since I moved back to the area, post BA degree, I’ve yearned for more exploration and culture. I’ve missed learning, but I forgot that there were opportunities in my own backyard.
            This morning, I ventured to NBC 4’s 2016 Health and Fitness Expo. I am a self-admitted gym rat. When I was in elementary and middle school, I played basketball and soccer, but never liked the competitiveness of sports in high school. Instead of participating in team sports, I began at-home workout videos of Denise Austin (nerdy and mom-like, I know) as well as running in my neighborhood. College came along and I found myself involved in classes offered on campus. I was exposed to spin, yoga, and weightlifting—activities/hobbies that I’m still involved in today. So one would say that I was eager to see what this fitness expo had to offer. 
            The Type-A person that I am viewed the list of exhibiters in attendance beforehand. Although somewhat disappointed, I was still hopeful that they would have more to offer than what appeared on paper. There were no sexual/reproductive health groups on the list. There were three organizations listed under the “HIV/AIDS Prevention” category, but none of the groups focused specifically on HIV/AIDS. There was an entire category devoted to mental health, and as an anxiety sufferer, I was glad, but was still left wondering about STD+ people, like myself. Where do we go? I imagined myself as someone just becoming sexually active, or just learning about my body’s reproductive system, and feeling lost—much like the effect a city has on me, my body leaves me in a similar state. An orgasm--that is a good lost. But the feeling I felt today, the sense of not belonging to something, being surrounded by fitness gimmicks and diet pills, where would I be left to turn? I didn’t belong. I didn’t fit into any of the boxes. There was no safe space for me. There was no safe space for those of us with STDs.
              I planned to participate in one of the yoga sessions offered and had some time to spare beforehand. I found a Courage Wall. It’s a project entitled “We Live Big” that leaves chalkboard walls up with the phrase, “I wish I had the courage to...” and you fill in the blank. The movement strives to raise awareness about living life on purpose. Its mission states: "It's about courage and vibrance. It's about finding your passion and creating a meaningful life. We encourage people to uncover their authentic selves, continue to grow, and make contributions to the world." Pondering this, I walked around the convention center searching for the right words to fill in the empty space.
I couldn’t. I have been courageous with my heart. I have been courageous in my ambitions. And most importantly, I was courageous in disclosing my HSV2+ status. And I’m damn proud of that. Instead of writing nothing, I decided to write something. I eliminated the blank space provided for me and created my own: “I have the courage to change STD stigma.” I do, and I will. 
There were several organizations founded by Kickstarter that have my own mind churning potential ways to create a safe space for STD disclosure and education. I will be writing to NBC 4 to seek out a space for sexual education in future expos. That absence said something to me. It said that our society is still uncomfortable discussing sexual education. Our society still stigmatizes STDs. Our society still is conflicted in accepting sexual health as health. Society is still not okay with discussing the consequences and positive outcomes of our actions--straight, gay, bi, asexual—whatever you may be. We all suffered in a similar silence today. The next time I attend an expo such as this, I hope to be someone speaking, or presenting.  I want to be the person who makes you feel that good type of lost. I want to be that orgasm. 

Carrie Bradshaw and Consent

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

As a writer, I believe it is crucial to remain critical of one’s work. There are many research papers I wrote during my undergraduate career that I now look back to and wish I had stated things differently, or had been more inclusive. Though I am still proud of these pieces and what they accomplished, it is too late to go back and change the words that could have been.  Which is why I’m choosing now to write with a more critical lens.
Under the assumption that most people reading my blog are friends and family, you are all well aware of my obsession with Sex and the City, and personal identification with the show’s main character, Carrie Bradshaw. As much as I would love to spend thousands of dollars on Manolo Blahniks funded by writing a weekly sex column in New York City, I know this is not a realistic goal. That does not mean the dream should be shoved to the back of my closet, it just needs a refreshed approach. Shifting from a research-based, academic perspective on sexuality, to one combined with complexities in my own sex life/relationships is challenging. So just how does one navigate writing about his or her relationships in an ethical and moral way? Is it even possible?

Revealing myself as herpes positive on social media was a challenging decision to make, for a variety of reasons. One of my main concerns was that it would automatically put the other party in the same limelight. Even though I do not explicitly mention names, inferences can be made, and that person is put in a situation where he, most likely, does not want to be. It becomes an issue of consent, as Ella Dawson so wonderfully writes about here and here. As soon as I read her articles, I put my own work into perspective, and Carrie Bradshaw’s, too. Carrie wrote about all of her loves and ex-lovers, and fruitfully so, however, I cannot say that I ever recall her asking for consent from these gentlemen. Every man I have been involved with has influenced my writing. Never have I once asked any of them for permission, but they’re there—in poems, in fiction, in non-fiction--all parties accounted for. Here I am writing, more publicly than I ever have before, about the intricacies of casual sex in relation to my STD diagnosis, and it’s difficult to accept that it is not only my experience to claim. 
Yesterday, I found myself questioning one specific article I wrote, a combination between a call for action and somewhat of an open letter. It’s a moral conundrum that I have yet to receive a clear answer on; I don’t think there is one. Opinions, yes. Answers, no. It is not desirable for the overarching theme of my work to be labeled as 'spiteful', but that is what I fear. That type of negativity defeats the purpose of writing on the issue all together.  I’ve edited and reread the piece time and time again, and I see a lot of things. I see anger, I see hurt, but I also see forgiveness, truth, and light for others, including for that person.  There’s depth, there, certainly, but some level of exposure, as well. I want to be honest. I want to show my moments of vulnerability and doubt. I want to bleed. Even moments such as this, when I am questioning my work, I want it all documented. I cannot anticipate how the article will impact my life, but I know that I’m doing the right thing by continuing to analyze and question the role of consent in my writing.
          It is amusing when I think back to my undergraduate work from this perspective. I wrote plenty of research papers about consent in sex, but somehow managed to miss the idea of consent within my personal writing. A recurring theme throughout my gender and sexuality courses, "the personal is political," never fully struck a chord with me until now. Since the whole “I have herpes” conversation is out of the way, I suppose my new disclosure is that if we become involved in any way, I will want to write about you, about us, and I hope you’re not frightened by that possibility, and the probability that I will ask for permission.
        Consent is not an issue exclusive to sex writers. It plays a role across all writing mediums. There is always going to be something that someone does not want you to say. People will talk. I’m sure people are already talking. There will be denial. There will be questions. There will be accusations. I’m either the girl he gave herpes to, or the girl who didn’t tell him I had herpes. Small talk in regards to exposure isn’t the goal.  In the end, I do hope the light revealed overshadows the darkness. I am not set out on a mission of destruction; I hope for enlightenment. Unfortunately, we can only help those who want to help themselves. 

An Evening with Cultured Souls

Sunday, January 3, 2016

More often than not, our millennial hangouts turn into binge drinking, lost conversation, and a night no one remembers. While on occasion these nights prove to be entertaining, making them habitual is wasted time and energy on friendships that do not really evolve into much of anything meaningful. They serve as an escape from reality.   
I do not desire to be an escape in anyone’s life, be it a friend or lover. I want to be able to provide a life with more depth; I want to be someone that causes you to think about things from a new perspective, I want to talk about more than the mundane ins and outs of each day.  I want to know what people are passionate about and what they’re working towards. Authenticity is magic, and when you meet those who are truly content, you know.  Your relationship flourishes and you’re able to share pieces of your life that begin to add instead of subtract. That’s how you know when someone contributes value to you and your ambitions. These are the people who will grow with you. These are the genuine ones.

Last night, my fellow old soul, Rachael, and I decided to do something a little different.  After plenty of time spent out celebrating the holiday season, we decided to stay in and cook dinner, “an evening of culture” as we called it. We made red wine soaked spaghetti, Caprese bread, and brussels sprouts roasted in balsamic vinegar—which were all equally delicious. We danced around in the kitchen to a mix of Frank Sinatra and French music, took selfies of ourselves from every possible angle on a Polaroid camera, and made a list of adventures we hope to embark on in 2016. As I grow older, I’m beginning to see people as they are, which is not always easy. It can be disappointing at times to realize that people you know are really people you knew. People grow apart and move on in different directions in life, for a variety of reasons. Just as soon as someone leaves, we are often presented with a new adventure or person, and I’m lucky enough to have found that in Rachael over the last six months. 

She summed up our relationship best: “Life has brought me a genuine, fun-loving friend, and I am so grateful.”  I love you, Rachael, and I am so, so happy you were brought into my life.  Thank you for being true to yourself. You weave so much value and meaning into my life, as well as into the lives of others.  I honor your authenticity and zest.