I didn’t meet anyone else with herpes for nearly a year after getting diagnosed.
That’s a lie—of course I did. There was the guy who have given me herpes in the first place, and statistically I knew dozens, hundreds, thousands of people with the same virus over the years. I learned after I began publicly disclosing that I’d had friends with herpes my entire life, and some of them didn’t feel comfortable telling me this about themselves for months after I first disclosed to them. When my Women’s Health article went viral, I learned that my co-workers, my doctors, even random family members had herpes.
But I didn’t Meet Someone With Herpes, someone public, for a lonely ten months after getting diagnosed.
I was in Washington, DC at a sex conference, CatalystCon East. I was one of the youngest attendees and didn’t know how to define myself—my blog was barely three months old, my erotica unpublished, and I was mostly there to learn from these strangers who had made sexuality into a profession. There were sex workers, yes, but also sex toy reviewers, sex educators, activists, performers, and other writers. And, stunningly to me, there were STI educators, coaches and activists. Their sheer existence made me want to cry and laugh and shout because holy shit, these people were out there in the world fighting the stigma, and I’d had no idea! I wanted to be one of them. I realized I could do this type of work because there were other people doing the same thing. And they were happy. And they were respected. And they were unashamed.
Adrial Dale of The Herpes Opportunity and I met briefly on my first day at Catalyst, but I don’t remember much of what we said. I was so overwhelmed to have finally met someone else with herpes that I stammered something about my STI status and gave him one of the sad, scrappy business cards I’d printed out the previous day. I remember he smiled at me and looked a little bemused, politely not commenting on the fact that I was on the verge of tears because he probably saw that sort of thing all the time. It was one of the most impactful moments of my healing process, to find this tenuous connection with someone who had survived the quicksand of shame I was struggling to pull myself out of. Suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. Suddenly I could believe everything would be okay, because it was for him.
A few weeks ago, Adrial and I chatted over Skype about all things herpes: from hookup culture to disclosing (to lovers, and to the whole world). It was the most fun I’d had since my virus went viral, because being interviewed by someone herpes positive about herpes is a completely different ballgame. We didn’t have to talk about the basics, Herpes 101, and I could plunge into the nitty gritty details of shame, dating and opening up. Our conversation also clarified for me the fact that I am much better at talking about the now of my story than the then, those months I spent depressed and afraid and silent. I’m much better at being the snarky, self-loving, shameless sex writer than I am at articulating how I became her.
I’m getting a lot of love for being the light at the end of the tunnel for folks struggling with being herpes positive, but reaching that point was a long, uphill battle. I don’t know how to help others replicate my journey when I’m an expert only on my own life. As a coach, Adrial knows how to discuss topics I’m ill-prepared to speak to: how to go to war with your own pain and emerge on the other side feeling whole again. He’s quite a hero, and a herpes advocate more people should know. I’ve already been referring folks to The Herpes Opportunity forums when they have questions I can’t answer. But I also recommend watching Adrial’s videos and interviews with other herpsters, which you can find here.
Over the past few months I’ve worried about letting people down. I’m not a sex educator, or a medical expert, or a psychologist. I can only tell my story and hope it brings others some sense of relief, some flicker of light to break the shadow of isolation. When people ask me “How did you do it, how did you become so fearless?” I can only point to the people who showed me it was possible. Adrial is one of them. Now when I get messages from strangers thanking me for the work I’m doing, I think of how I am their Adrial, the first other person they’ve met or spoken to. It’s a bizarre thought, because he’s is a powerhouse of kindness and perspective that I’m not old enough to be capable of quite yet.
For anyone who wants a deep dive into healing from herpes with grace and confidence, Herpes Opportunity has put together a self-paced coaching program called the Opportunity Lifestyle Guides. It’s completely private, convenient and online. You can use the coupon code ELLA to receive 25% off the lifestyle guides—my hope is they will provide the personal guidance I cannot.
I am also expanding my Herpes Interviews project to include the stories of other herpes+ individuals—my friends, co-workers, and role models. I’m doing this for two reasons: one, I’m running out of exes to interview, and two, I believe the best way to destroy herpes stigma is to show how many people live with it every day. If those friends, family members, and fellow students had told me they’d had herpes when I got diagnosed, there are no words for how much less alone I would have felt. I want to help create a world where we can feel more comfortable disclosing, and talking about the highs and lows of living with an STI.
Stay tuned, kids. And hey, have you liked my Facebook page yet?