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Sometimes, you get herpes

Your stories

A place where we can share the stories coming from the #projectWomanKIND community. 

Sometimes, you get herpes

Jessica Vander Leahy

Sex can be awesome. When the people involved are totally into it and know what all their private junk does they can find themselves having the raddest time ever and wanting to talk about it. But sometimes sex can suck. There can be repercussions that can come from some good sexy time and often those things can be topics people don't want to talk about - they can be swept underneath that same rug you shagged on and to bring them up would only induce a world of pain and shame. But handling stuff like that is kinda BS because if we are going to engage in sex we need to be open to talking about it openly, right?

So this week on Project WomanKIND we are going to explore some of those taboo topics like STIs and unplanned pregnancies, in a bid to open up a dialogue that will hopefully encourage women to take their sexual health more seriously.

We want women to talk about the things that worry or bother them in all aspects of the bedroom, and their bodies, because shaming people doesn’t serve any other purpose than to force them into a silent suffering.

Here one woman from the Project WomanKIND community opens up about her journey to accepting her body after she felt an itch that wouldn't go away...

One Friday morning I woke up at my boyfriend’s house and was having the most horrendous pain all over my vagina. As lay there trying to mentally pinpoint where the discomfort was coming from I became more and more terrified to get up and inspect what exactly was going on. I could hardly bare to even walk because of the aching I was feeling. Naturally, I was scared half to death, which I would say is normal considering that when it comes to my vagina, anything out of the ordinary causes me to freak the fuck out. In a panic blurted out what was happening to my boyfriend and he reassuringly suggested it could be chaffing or maybe ingrown hair. I tried to convince myself that was the case.

After a little while I very reluctantly crawled to the bathroom. Honestly, I was hoping if I just ignored it would go away but I was so wrong. As I squat over the toilet, hovering over the lid, I tried to assess the damage and my heart dropped instantly to my stomach. I felt all of these small bumps everywhere on my vagina, top to bottom. They were so painful to touch and caused the type of surging pain that instantly makes you scream. They were everywhere.

Now I'm not normally an overreactor but I was bugging out so I gathered my things and grabbed an Uber home. Before I did anything else I did what comes naturally these days; I immediately starting Googling “bumps on vagina,” “sores on vagina” and “why the fuck is my vagina hurting right now?” I finally came across an all-natural remedy page telling me not to panic and to take a hot bath in baking soda. I thought 'Oh yeah sounds super easy, I’ll do this I’ll be fine in an hour'.

As I sat in this gross, cloudy brew of too much baking soda and tepid water I started to wonder when the flying fuck this shit was going to start to working. Time ticked on and I began to really worry so I called my gynaecologist hoping to be seen that day but of course my doctor wasn’t in and I couldn't be seen until Monday. For the zillionth time that day I sat in the murky water and tried my best to convince myself that the burning in my privates was nothing and I'd be fine before the doctor could even see me. But as the day crawled on and the pain became so unbearable and I knew something was seriously wrong. Finally my roommate came home and she took me to the emergency room.

When we arrived to the ER the staff decided that despite being in my early 20s I would be best served to wait with the paediatric patients. I thought this would mean I'd be seen faster but little did I know there were about thirty kids with runny noses ahead of me. Yes, I get it babies being sick is very scary but didn’t they know my vagina was going to fall off at any moment now?!

My roommate and I sat down. Well, she sat down, I hovered because the mere thought of a hard chair anywhere near my poor vagina was terrifying. An hour went by and we expected a wait so that was fine. Two hours ticked on and I was still in pain. Three hours went by and I didn't know how long I could cope. Four hours ... five hours ... SEVEN hours of lingering and leaning on clinical white walls, hovering over the same chair, and my name finally got called. I was taken back to a room without a real door where a nurse assured me a doctor would "be in soon."

TWO HOURS LATER a doctor came in asked how I was feeling. I answered his questions but he failed to physically examine me and then told me he would be back with another doctor to talk to me. After another hour two male doctors come in and quickly glanced over my symptoms and then my vagina before simultaneously telling me I have genital herpes. I don’t think I’d ever screamed like that in my life. I didn't know I could make those sounds. I was wailing at the top of my lungs. The doctors told me there is no way to know how long I’ve had herpes or who gave it to me or what caused the outbreak. There I was with a diagnosis but no real answers. I was distraught and the doctors left the room to continue on their rounds at which point my friend came in. While she stood there trying desperately to coo and comfort me I felt totally alone in my new reality. Honestly, I would have rather been dead in that moment.

After a few minutes of trying to get my head around the news I felt a heavy wave of guilt rush over my body. So tremendous that for a second it made me feel sicker than the physical pain. My mind screamed my boyfriend's name. It worried for him. 'Did I give this to him?' I wondered. I began shrieking at the top of my lungs at the thought of him going through the same agony. 'I’m guilty,' I thought, 'I’ve given this to him, and it’s all my fault because I’m a slut! I’m disgusting slut!' (FYI, not that it matters, but my sexual history is fairly mild and until this point I didn't think that the people I slept with or behaviour I engaged in was risky enough to give me any cause to worry about sexually transmitted diseases). At the time I felt like the diagnosis could define me, it could deem me as virtuous as a pirate's wench. I didn't deserve love or forgiveness from anyone, especially the man I loved.

All these horrible thoughts ran through my head and I was terrified he was going to break up with me. And though he was on the phone all night constantly checking in on me I was dreading telling him. I couldn’t bear to lose him.

When I arrived home from the hospital shortly after dawn I tried to compose myself after 12 core-shaking hours but still in pain, I couldn't sleep. So I picked up the phone up and called my boyfriend.

It was the scariest and most gut wrenching moment of my life. As soon as he answered I blurted out, "I have genital herpes!" In my mind I thought, 'This is where it could go bad or really bad' - there was no other outcome. But instead of calling me a whore he asked me not to cry. "We will figure it out," he said. His tone was so unexpected, so understanding and so heartfelt, it made me cry more. There was no anger or cursing, just a level of compassion that made me realise I couldn't have been more wrong about how this disclosure was going to go. In an instant he made me see that no matter what I did in this world, no matter what illness I had, I would always be worthy of love.

Since I was diagnosed one month ago my boyfriend was tested and he doesn't carry any herpes virus. It was such a relief for both of us. And together we've done just what he predicted when this whole thing started; we've figured it out. We learned that herpes doesn't mean you can never have sex again - no way, that would suck! We still have sex but we take precautions to stay safer than ever and we've learned a lot about the condition.

I've learned that genital herpes is one of the most common STI's in the world - the World Health Organisation claims that an estimated 400 million people worldwide are currently infected with the HSV-2 (the strain of herpes that causes genital outbreaks) and the CDC adds that in the US the HSV-2 infection is more common among women than among men (20.3 per cent versus 10.6 per cent in 14 to 49 year olds).

My road to acceptance is one where I've educated myself about what's best to do for myself physically and mentally. I am on some heavy antiviral drugs and that will minimise and hopefully prevent future outbreaks, which will reduce the risk of passing herpes on. I am now able to share what happened to me with other people and feel comfortable.

I've realised that having herpes isn't something I should be ashamed of or wish to die over. I am not disgusting, I am not a slut, and I do not deserve this for having sex. Sex, and anything that comes with it, should never be something that you should be embarrassed talk about because that's the best way to keep everyone safe. By opening up the conversation we crush the stigma. Lifting the shame is important because statistically speaking, someone you know or care about has herpes, so the more people hear about it the less uncomfortable it will be for them to disclose what's going on with them and less alone they will feel.

Because of my diagnosis I now know that no single thing, not even herpes, can define a whole person. Herpes is just something I have, it's not who I am.

*The author of this piece is a twenty-something American woman who works in fashion. She hopes her disclosure will inspire other women to get tested and take their sexual health seriously. And, she and her boyfriend are still very much in love.