I Am Not Afraid Of Who I Am: Cultivating Power Through Vulnerability

Monday, October 17, 2016

I am always grateful for opportunities to share my story, and potentially open minds. A mix of old and new, here is what I shared with Salisbury students today. 

This is the kind of woman that makes me hope I never have a daughter. What a slut. You filthy, diseased whore. Mentally and physically ill. Kill yourself. I hope she tours the Middle East so I can read her memoirs from prison.
Since publicly disclosing my HSV-2 positive status, this is just a short list of the reactions I have received in response to my blog and various publications. What is most disheartening perhaps, is that before these comments were even typed, the majority of them ran through my head upon learning that I carried the virus.

That day in July 2015 will forever be engrained in my mind. It is similar to most stories you will read about people discovering that they have herpes. Lying on an examination table surrounded by a team of nurses who continued giving me hugs that I did not want, nor need, to receive. There is a sense of shock. A sense that this isn’t reality. And then, there is the moment when reality sets in. I remember crying to my father, asking him, who would ever want me? Now that I have this? Who would ever love me? Or try to? Who can see past this? Who can see me?  As the tears and questions subsided, the stigma of calling my body home to a sexually transmitted disease began to set in. 

Overwhelming confusion followed the course of the next week. Several days in limbo had passed when I finally received a phone call that my blood test was negative, and I did not have the herpes virus. A sudden wave of relief poured over me. The next day, I received a phone call with a conflicting story. My culture had returned positive for herpes, signaling a recent infection. It takes a significant amount of time to develop antibodies to the virus, so it would not appear in my blood for several months. Until then, I threw myself into researching everything I could about HSV-1 and 2. Twelve weeks after my initial diagnosis, I received the results of my latest blood test: “This test confirms patient has genital herpes, HSV-2 +.” I never realized how much it affected my self-esteem until I saw the paper reflecting proof that I carried the virus, officially. For months, I masked my pain with a temporary high: alcohol. More often than not, each time I took a sip would lead to memories that I would not later recall. I consider this as one of the darkest periods in my life.

I struggled for several months associating my name with herpes. I constantly compared myself to what society had told me this person was like, and I did not see a reflection of myself in her. I am the girl who wears her heart on her sleeve. I am the girl that is not emotionally capable of having a one-night stand. The individual who transmitted herpes to me was someone whom I trusted, and had known for several years.  I was the person that society told me is not the “type” to contract an STD. As it turns out, there is no "type."  Despite society’s definitions, here I am, testing positive for herpes. I have come to learn over the last year that I do not stand alone in my confusion or my story. 

I am certain that there is a greater purpose in my contracting the virus. I have career goals aligned with sexual health and education, so I firmly believe life is steering me on this course for a reason. The stigmatization of the herpes virus is more overblown than I originally thought. The looks and responses I have experienced from members of the medical community have been snide and judgmental. From nurses whom I have spoken with on the phone who asserted, "You should've worn a condom," to glances received after picking up my Valtrex prescription at the Target Pharmacy. Most people who have herpes, do not even know they are infected. This is commonly referred to as "The Silent Spread." Even if you use a condom, you can still contract and spread the herpes virus. The only way to prevent its contraction is to abstain from sexual contact. You have cold sores? You have herpes, too. There is no "lesser" version of the herpes virus. It is our terminology and misunderstanding that leads us to stigmatize herpes and those who carry it.  This is what I hope to see change during my lifetime, and is a great portion of why I am so open, willing, and eager to discuss my HSV-2+ status. 

After my relationship with the person whom I contracted herpes from came to an abrupt stop, I found the strength, confidence, and power in sharing my story. From that moment, I decided to cultivate my vulnerability to create positive change in the world around me. My journey, with the initial hope of impacting a small piece of the world, has turned into something much larger than that. Since publishing my inaugural blog post in December 2015, I have received nearly 30,000 views. I have been published on a variety of mediums, including Thought Catalog, Elite Daily, and The Feminist Wire. Most recently, I became a contributor to The Salisbury Flyer with my own bi-weekly, sexual health column. I am fortunate to have a voice and platform for sharing my story, although myself, and others in my line of work, face a significant amount of backlash and harassment. The negativity is countered by the emails I receive from men and women across the globe who identify with my story and they often bring me to tears. The lessons from my journey continue to reveal themselves to me in unexpected ways.

The most meaningful one I have encountered thus far has been normalcy. We see the facts and figures reported by the CDC of just how common herpes is, but it is difficult to believe. It is estimated that 776,000 people in the United States contract some form of the herpes virus annually, yet we are still left feeling so alone, so lost and worthless. We all encounter stigmas and stereotypes in our lives at some point. Whether it be a disease a loved one carries, our own mental health status, or something as simple as a career path, or outside interest. We take a risk each day in our presentation of who we are to the world, and others can choose to accept or deny our reality. Those questions and fear I held in regard to love and acceptance were answered sooner than I thought. I thought it would be impossible for someone to love and hold affection towards me. I was convinced that no one could or would want to see me in a sexual light. But I was proven wrong. Not only did I learn that I am still worthy of pleasure and respect, regardless of the virus I carry, but also, that disclosing my herpes status was no longer my biggest fear.

We all are afraid of something. I find that being oneself in a world constantly trying to tell you who to be is one of the most common ones. We hide behind social norms and tend to only share the positives on social media. We all have a story, and a part of ourselves that we are afraid to bring to light. I try to approach my life in a way that reminds me that we are all carrying different burdens, and some we are more comfortable sharing than others. Some eat away at us until the day we bid the earth farewell.

I am afraid of failure. I am afraid of having my heart broken again. I am afraid of living a passionless life. But one thing I do not fear is sharing my story with the world.    

Letting Go: Time Travel Through Attachment and Memory

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A day before my yoga training began; I had a realization of one of my life purposes. I truly believe that one of my roles on this planet is to teach people how to fall in love with who they are, body and soul. I am reminded of my time in Paris, The City of Lights and Love. While dining on the Eiffel Tower, as snow glistened through the window, tears rolled down my cheeks. The experience was so surreal, and I knew. I knew I was ready to fall in love. A tad naive, and three years later, I now realize I attached that love (or what I thought was love) to a person, as opposed to my true first love, myself.

As humans, we habitually hold attachments, and often hold on to things we shouldn’t, for longer than we should. We attach ourselves to other people, even though they may be toxic to our well-being. We attach ourselves to memories, how a person made us feel, or maybe what he or she saved us from. We attach ourselves to emotions, a close cousin of memory, there often cannot be one without the other. We attach ourselves to wealth and material items, like the pile of stuffed animals in the corner of our parents’ basement that bring us back to our childhood. Each day, every person around us is carrying some kind of attachment, some kind of weight he or she may not be willing to share with the world, or even, him or herself. 

For me, detachment has been a lesson I was never eager to embrace.  Even if there was some sense of need to let go, I just was not ready. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. Now, personally, I can see a bigger picture as opposed to fantasies in my head. I am someone who has let people consume me, even control me in friendships and romantic relationships. Even when people were not in my daily life, I was a victim of memory and emotions tied to their identities. It was not wholly the responsibility of these individuals to blame; it was my tendency to prioritize fantasy over reality.  I am a dreamer, I always hope I remain one, but I am learning that there is a much-needed dose of reality to balance that side of myself.

 My awareness of my attachments, merely thoughts in my head that I am in control of, help me release the ones that no longer serve me. The friendships that fueled negativity and imbalance, the relationships that bred toxicity and stagnancy. Fantasies of certain people and relationships, of where they could go or could have gone, held me back from other beautiful people in my life. We so easily let our thoughts consume us, take us away from our pain, or pain we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves. The past will haunt us, and if we’re not careful, it will seep into our present. It will tear through meaningful relationships; ones that never had a chance to blossom. It will take us away from friendships and leave us surrounded by things instead of ideas and voices. It will leave us lonely and empty-hearted and consumed by the mundane. It will keep us close to home, and we may never act out the courage to explore the world, or the depths of ourselves.

At the root of attachment, is fear. From a gender perspective, men are taught to hold in their emotions, while women are taught to exhale them, to bleed, to embrace their femininity. I am a highly sensitive and intuitive person. I feel everything very deeply. Love and pain are rooted within me, and I acknowledge that and let myself feel as needed. As I have become comfortable in expressing my vulnerabilities and sharing my emotions, I cannot imagine keeping them locked within me again. I was haunted for so long by my own mind, by what could be or could have been. I was a prisoner to emotions that I was afraid to disclose. Once I found that freedom in release, I was so much more content within myself and my thought processes. 

I think part of the reason, we cling so tightly to people and material items from our past is because they are tangible. We see them as vehicles to travel back to a certain point in time. A certain feeling. We think that releasing them means we no longer will reach that part of ourselves again, or we are somehow tossing them away. But if we devote that same sense of longing of those people and things,  to ourselves, we can live through those memories on a daily basis and use them to propel us forward, instead of pulling our heart-strings in painful melodies. As we learn to devote that love to ourselves, we are able to grow and reach our true potential in friendships, relationships, and maybe even our purpose in the world. 

I wish I could return back to that moment in Paris, sipping champagne and gazing through tears as each snowflake fell. I still have a box of memories from that trip, including the receipt from the restaurant. In some sense, I have returned to that moment. I met my memories halfway, and moved forward in a positive relationship with myself, as opposed to my original fantasy. Upon that realization, I know I am meant to help others seek the same sense of happiness and inner peace that I have found within myself. 

"Memory is a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past.."