Transformation Tuesday: My Story Before Herpes

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

              Everyone always seems to compliment me on my confidence, and the funny thing is, it hasn’t always been there. It’s been very much the opposite. Although content with who I am as a person, I was always very self-conscious of my appearance.
            The first instance that I can vividly remember is when I was seven years old. I was sitting in the bathtub playing with my Guinevere dolls and assorted Disney characters, and I looked down at my stomach touching the water. I asked my mom, “Why do I have this? Why does my belly stick out? None of the other little girls my age have one. Why me?” She assured me it was normal, and even told me she would ask her friend, who was a nurse, just to be sure. Little moments like this remained in my memory for a reason, and came to foreshadow patterns throughout my adolescence.

Middle school is never easy for anyone, but for me, it seemed especially difficult. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. My elementary school forbade us from wearing makeup or nail polish. Although there was little room for self-expression, I somehow managed to make my uniform geekier than the rest. In addition to my awkward sense of style, having braces from 6th to 9th grade did not do anything to boost my self-esteem. Like many teenagers*, I wondered if any boy would ever want to kiss me. Whenever boys found out I had a crush on them, it made them cringe. In 7th grade, my classmates and I were given the opportunity to request one person to be in our field trip group to DC. We wrote that person's name down on a piece of paper and folded it so no one could see. Of course, my piece fell. Suddenly, everyone knew I picked my crush. I was mortified, and so was he. Flashback to awkward middle school dances. I knew no one would ask me to dance, so I somehow found the courage to ask…when I was dressed up as Elvis Presley for Halloween. I was denied several times, and I kept asking until someone agreed to dance to Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Elvis and Green Day, how romantic. With a few slow dances under my belt, I still wondered when I would get my first kiss, and finally, at age 14, it happened--braces and all. There is a park behind my parents’ house, and we walked along the path, just far enough into the woods that no one could see us. I never talked to him again after that. 
Kisses seemed to be few and far between, especially since I spent my first year of high school at an all-girls school 40 minutes from my house.  The commute ended up being too much for me, and I just wasn’t happy.  So I transferred to a co-ed school for my sophomore year.  The braces were off and my confidence was starting to blossom. It was also during the end of this year when I began my first “real” relationship.  It was the first time I liked someone who shared the same feelings for me. I remember when I first made the decision to have sex. I didn’t know how to tell my parents, so in true Emily form, I wrote my mom a letter explaining that I needed to get on birth control.  I didn't have a car at the time, so she was still driving me to school. I somehow mustered up the courage to read it to her one morning. She was a bit taken aback, but the honesty method worked. 
The following year, I hit another teenage milestone: I had my wisdom teeth taken out. I don’t remember much about that day except fighting the nurse who insisted I be wheeled out to my parents’ car. My diet was very limited, since I could only eat soft foods. I ate Peeps, pudding, and applesauce for well over a week. I also discovered, that the scale began to reflect this. I was shrinking. Finally. My accumulated self-doubts and imperfections revealed themselves as an eating disorder, not only to myself, but also to those closest to me. Even though my confidence seemed to be growing, I still saw seventh grade Emily. I even saw second grade Emily. I saw the bowl cut. The braces. The crazy headbands. Teasing and taunting. I saw high waisted shorts and a quirky sense of style. I saw all of this when I looked into my reflection. “I’m not pretty,” the mirror told this to me in the morning when I awoke, and every night as I peeled off the layers of makeup that covered my ‘flaws.’ "My nose is too big. The way my dirty brown, un-blue, eyes are set into my head makes me feel unfeminine.  I'm not a blonde bombshell. I feel fat; my stomach looms over my feet when I gaze down; I look away. I do not have perfectly defined abs that all the girls in magazines so effortlessly flaunt. The ever-envied thigh gap is non-existent on me.  Stretch marks take their place. The way my butt hits my thighs is enough to ruin a day, and often, it does." 
I became a runner, and I most definitely ran from myself.  I ran until I could feel my joints throb in 110-degree heat.  I ran until I felt physical pain more than the voices screaming in my head.  But that pain I felt in my body wasn’t enough—I craved more.  I was working out between four-to-five hours every day in addition to limiting my daily caloric intake to less than 700 calories.  I remember the thrill of the day that I only consumed 400 calories; I was so proud of myself.  I fought doctors, nutritionists, and family members until I hit my lowest point of 99 pounds.  There is no excuse for a 5’7” woman to aspire to be skin and bones, yet I wanted it so badly. The more emaciated I became, the more powerful I felt. What I thought was power, ultimately was weakness. My eating disorder also revealed underlying general anxiety disorder. I missed over a month of school from my junior year of high school. Part of me was too tired to do anything, since I was not fueling my body properly. The other half of me was embarrassed to explain where I'd been, or even how I looked. Somewhere inside of me, I knew my state of being wasn't right. 
                 After consuming an exorbitant amount of chocolate in an attempt to gain weight, I was finally back to where I needed to be, or so I thought. I began taking Zoloft to assist with my anxiety, especially since I would be headed off to college in the fall. I chose Salisbury University, where my then-boyfriend was attending. Yes, I was that girl, the one who followed her boyfriend to college. We broke up within two months of me being there, and I did not dive into another relationship until my junior year. I have never been the type to bounce from relationship to relationship.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it just isn't my style. My second boyfriend introduced me to weight lifting. Although I had recovered from my eating disorder, I still had misconceptions about proper exercise and nutrition. In addition to adding weight lifting to my routine,  I replaced Zoloft with hot yoga. I was finally beginning to feel a true sense of confidence in myself, physically and mentally. So much so that  even had a photoshoot done to celebrate myself and my newfound self-esteem. 

               Although each of these relationships lasted over a year, I wish I had ended both of them sooner. I always choose to see people for their potential, rather than who they are in the present moment. I often give people more chances than they deserve, especially when it comes to relationships. I have had boyfriends go through my text messages, and even my diary.  I have been labeled as a slut and whore in these situations. Although I knew it wasn't okay then, I still tolerated it. I let it go, and I shouldn't have. It is evident to me now that I was a victim of emotional/verbal abuse.  I sacrificed my identity and my self-worth in stagnant relationships because of the potential I saw in each person. I put my partners above myself. Although I wish I had spent less time in these relationships, I do not regret them. I learned a lot about myself and what I need from a future partner, in addition to what is acceptable and what I need to walk away from regarding any relationship in my life. 
                           During the times when I felt most alone and uncertain, seemed to be the periods which revealed the most about me. They allowed me to face myself for who I really was, to build myself back up and grow from the experiences placed before me.  I lost myself, found myself, and lost myself multiple times on the course of my journey. Looking back, I suppose one could even assert that my eating disorder foreshadowed where I was in July 2015, consumed by the stigma of herpes. I am compelled to share my pre-herpes story because my confidence did not happen overnight. There isn't a switch that turns it on in our heads. It is something that is cultivated over time. It has truly been a lifelong process for me, and I'm still learning. I have a favorite quote from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that I found during high school, and I find it is applicable to my attitudes about my journey: 

"I have been through a lot and have suffered a great deal. But I have had lots of happy moments, as well. Every moment one lives is different from the other. The good, the bad, hardship, the joy, the tragedy, love, and happiness are all interwoven into one single, indescribable whole that is called life. You cannot separate the good from the bad. And perhaps there is no need to do so, either."

*Written from a heterosexual female's point of view

Building Positive Relationships: Herpes and Otherwise

Friday, March 18, 2016

It is often during times of transition and hardship that I’ve found I should be writing the most—I need to be writing. Obviously, I have neglected doing so over the last several weeks.  
Herpes has drastically improved all areas of my life. I once was lumped into society’s beliefs regarding STIs. I was uneducated and convinced of the associated stigmas, which is why my own diagnosis affected me in such a negative capacity. After months on a roller coaster of borderline alcoholism, depression, and failure, the beginning of 2016 has led to success in rising above my diagnosis. Life has removed some people from my circle without warning, without my permission. That loss propelled me to evaluate the relationships and behaviors that I was tolerating within my space. Who was devoting an equal amount of time to me as I was to them? Who cared to ask how I was doing or what was going on in my life? Was this friendship making me a better person, or causing unnecessary drama in my life? Was I constantly drained from certain people/relationships? I have always been the “nice girl,” the girl who is always too nice, who gives more chances than she should. I am a genuine person, but through this experience, I have grown a backbone. I have evaluated who deserves a space in my life, and those who were simply toxic to my well-being and success. Thus, I removed myself from those relationships without a second thought.

Although there has been much loss over the last few months, a lot of people have made their way back into my life. People whom I have drifted away from over the years, or people whom I distanced myself from for one reason or another. I have always been judicious with how I spend my time, and who I spend it with, if anyone at all. I am happy with the group of people whom I choose to involve myself with at present, and am honored that they choose to share their time with me. There is a lot of change happening now, positive change.

                     I recently accepted a new job opportunity to assist me in 'adulting,' in addition to an internship to pursue my passion for sexual health education. For the first time in my life, I have a strong support group of friends, and once I move into my new apartment, we’ll be less than a mile away from one another. For someone recently diagnosed with an STI, perhaps the biggest news of all is that I just started sleeping with someone new. Well, sort of.
I still have flashbacks to mid-July, a time when I could not bear to look at my body, to touch my flesh. I wanted nothing to do with myself, my pleasure, my sexuality. I remember sitting in front of my mirror in an attempt to see if there were any sores visible. I peered into my reflection and looked away. I couldn’t. I accepted the pain, but I could not face it within myself, not then.  After being diagnosed with genital herpes, sex was...honestly, unfulfilling. It was something I craved, but it was not in the same way as it once was. It wasn’t because I wanted the feeling of an orgasm, or to feel the weight of a body against my skin. It was to validate myself and my body through another person’s eyes as still being deemed worthy to receive physical affection. To know that I wasn't equated to my STI. I look back to those weekly sexual encounters now as so emotionless, uninvolved, and numbing. Once the absence of that relationship was felt, I was forced to look into myself, to validate myself. This time, I looked back. 
A lot of women have reached out to me recently about my current sex life, so now that I am sleeping with someone, I feel it is an appropriate time to address it. Truth is, this is the first time I have been in any type of sexual escapade since my diagnosis, with someone who isn’t HSV-2 positive. We had a past sexual history, past chemistry, and it has recently been rekindled, or perhaps it has always been there. I suppose my situation is different than most, since I came out publicly to friends and family on social media. I never really had to disclose my status to him separately, he somehow already knew. It was just a text between us saying that he didn’t believe in the stigmas associated with herpes, but at the same time, wasn’t trying to be HSV-2 positive. Simple, honest, respectful. When engaging in sexual situations with him, I don’t feel like less of a person for having herpes, and the sex is just as fulfilling, just as exciting, if not more so than before I had herpes. With my new STI comes a side of my sexual confidence that I haven't seen before. Hey, I'm not complaining.  
 I hold a lot of respect for him, not only for who he is as a person, but also in regards to my STI. I don't feel a need for his validation that I'm more than my disease, I already know. I have been spending a lot of time in thought about losing my post-herpes virginity (coined by Ella Dawson), and I placed myself in his situation. To be quite honest, I don’t know if I could do it. Having an STI has allowed me to separate the stigma from the person, and I am grateful for that unique window of understanding. But at first thought, I don’t know if I could engage in sexual activity with someone who had herpes, or any other STI, if I were STI-free. Upon further analysis of myself, I would be open to the idea, and discussion of education/prevention of transmission. If I really, truly cared for the person, I would sleep with him. I feel ashamed for admitting my immediate uncertainty in such a scenario, but at the same time, this is why I am so involved in STI awareness and the pursuit to defeat stigmas--because I was once a part of that culture. If anything, herpes has increased the integrity, sense of adventure, and fulfillment in my relationships with others, as well as myself.