Who am I with herpes? I’m exactly the same, and completely different.
I missed my six-month anniversary. I didn’t take my pulse on the whole “coming to terms with the HSV-2+ diagnosis” that day. And the day after, and the day after that, I still wasn’t up to it. I’m at six and a half months now. So, here’s my update.
About mid-January, I started dialogue with a fellow that connected with me on a herpes subreddit. That made disclosure a non-issue. But I was still very very uncertain about what I wanted my life to look like, what I wanted my sexual expression to look and feel like after the diagnosis. It helped that we shared much of the same experience and learning, but it didn’t make it any easier to have sex with him. It wouldn’t have been easy with anyone.
I was scared. Terrified, actually. I have spent a great deal of time talking about how herpes doesn’t change who you are. But it does. I've written extensively about how herpes is not punishment for a particular lifestyle, but it is a highly likely outcome of the lifestyle I’d chosen.
I used the word “outcome” back there. But herpes is most definitely a consequence, an unwelcome consequence, that was as surprising for me even as I near instantly came to a full knowing it was wholly predictable. Punishment? No. But it sure feels like it sometimes.
Herpes, for me, is indicative of the many times I chose to forego long-term physical and mental health for short-term pleasure. Had I honored myself, the whole of me, I would have been consistent about asking my partners if they had an STI. I would have been as adamant about condom use as I have shouted from the mountain tops time and again. But I wasn’t. So, there’s that.
I say that knowing I could easily have contracted herpes from someone with whom I was in a long-term committed relationship. And, remembering back through the many years of misattributed symptoms and false negative test results, I believe I very likely did contract herpes from my last boyfriend. We were together on and off for six years during my 40s.
He was not faithful. It was troubling, but not for the reasons you might assume. I loved him, but it was not a love that would sustain a lifetime partnership. I knew that from the get. Because of that, I never felt a possessiveness about him physically. But I tended not to feel a possessiveness about any man physically. Emotionally, yes. But I've always suspected monogamy isn't instinctual, it's a choice.
His unfaithfulness was troubling not because he had sex with other women, but because his behavior was dishonoring. He had expectations of me around monogamy, and therefore I had a right to the same expectations of him. And yet, when he was with other women, I either overlooked his behavior, or forgave him, or I would even venture to say I was complicit. And that is the most tragic part of it all. I didn’t have the self-love and self-respect I have now. I allowed things that were harmful to me emotionally and physically to go on with little protest.
I’ll never know from whom I contracted this “nuisance skin condition”. And that is not something that causes me to lose sleep. It’s simply a fact: I am HSV-2+. If I had the option of a do over, I’d do things differently, I’d do a lot of things differently, not just with regards to my sexual choices. But we all say that don’t we? We do. Indeed we do.
Regrets are a waste of time and energy. That’s an important truth I’ve gotten a hold of the last few years. Although I’m certainly not immune to falling into extended stretches of dark rumination, which prompt a descent into deep shame and paralyzing depression. But I’m walking it out. One foot in front of the other.
Back to this fellow I’m dating. I was waffley wishy washy all over the place prior to our first liaison, all the while knowing full well he’d be the one with whom I’d share my first post-diagnosis sexual experience. It was just too right to forego sex with him. It was easy, in so many ways, it just felt easy and right and good. He is truly one of the kindest men I’ve ever known. Consequently, sex with him was positive, affirming, and fun. Just as I anticipated.
All that uncertainly and confusion and anxiety preceding our first sexual encounter boiled down to this question, for which the answer lived inside all along:
Who am I with herpes? I’m exactly the same,
and completely different.
For some reason, I felt if I requested we be monogamous, I’d feel safe sharing the physical with him. Looking back now, I see I was so shaken up by the fact I had herpes, and that I’d gotten it from having sex, I wanted to protect my body and my mind and my heart from any such betrayal moving forward. But herpes is not a betrayal. It just is. A consequence. An outcome. A nuisance skin condition. To give it more credence than that is to buy into the stigma, to embrace the lie.
I asked him if he was amenable to the idea of physical exclusivity, and surprisingly, he was. He had no obligation nor compelling reason to agree to such terms. We had just started building a friendship, and because we are at such different places in our lives, it was always clear it is very unlikely we will have a long-term romantic relationship. Not entirely out of the question, but very unlikely.
The fact he was willing to agree to what I believed would make me feel good and safe is quite a testament to his character. I’ll always be thankful for his kindness and his willingness to enter into a monogamous agreement with me “for as long as it works for both of us”, which is how I framed my request.
He's eminently trustworthy, more honest and direct than anyone I’ve ever known. Yesterday, I texted to ask him if what we have is working for him. It’s working for me, but I want to do a check on him. He’s very kind and accommodating, to a fault actually. I don’t want him going along with what I’ve laid out without having equal input. I don’t want him to be nice to me because he doesn’t want to hurt me. Friendship is a collaboration. Although I readily and easily articulate my needs and layout my expectations, my needs aren’t more important than his.
I expect he’ll tell me he is content. But I still want to know. I feel it’s only right to ask because he’s not one to volunteer such information. He’s an introvert, trying hard to make it in this world of constant social chatter. I admire his efforts to express himself more fully, but I see him struggle. Yet, he’s walking it out, putting one foot in front of the other, addressing the changes he wants to make in himself because he truly desires to have deeper more fulfilling connections.
Or, I may be way off. Perhaps he’s not content with our arrangement. Perhaps he wants changes and he most certainly deserves his input considered. He may want to forego the sexual aspect altogether. How would that make me feel? Sad. Sad. Definitely very sad. I’ve waited a long time to build a trusting friendship with an ongoing fulfilling sexual component. But truly, I don’t want someone who is not fulfilled to merrily happen along with me. We’re too old for that nonsense. Our wisdom attained was hard fought. Neither of us need settle for less than we desire, and more importantly, less than we deserve.
Nothing is ever perfect. No other person is ever going to be and do everything I want and need. Yet I've come to know my worth and security and stability are born and live within me. It's my responsibility. It's all on me. That wisdom won was hardest fought of all. I absolutely do not live that truth consistently, but in the lookback, I’ve come so very far.
I’ve lived a lie for most of my life. I’ve lied to myself for most of my life. But once I get hold of the truth of me, I can never unknow it. It is time to put short-sightedness and immaturity aside and be the adult in mind and deed I’ve been in body for decades. But it is goddamn fucking hard, I tell you.
Who am I with herpes?
I’m exactly the same,
and completely different.
I Persevere. And life goes on.
[Original publication 4/6/2022]