What once was the worst thing in the world, has become a blessing of sorts. Life is so strange the way it works out sometimes.
I have had Oral Herpes since I was about 2. All of a sudden when I was little, I broke out with a mouth sore and have had them ever since. Every year or so I have an outbreak and have my whole life. No other members of my family have the oral kind so I must have picked it up somewhere else along the way. Kids put all manner of things in their mouths and drink after anyone so it could have come from daycare or school or at a family gathering.
However, I got it, it was a very confusing part of my childhood. In elementary school I got made fun of and people would constantly ask “what is that on your face?!” in a disgusted tone. There was an accompanying face that went along with the inquiry that let me know I was unacceptable. I felt gross, I felt damaged, I felt less-than.
My parents called it a cold-sore or a fever-blister so that’s what I learned to tell people. I’d say, “it is a cold-sore and lasts a few weeks, I’ve had it my whole life, I don’t know where I got it.” I didn’t know about transmission, STDs or anything until about 6th grade when we were shown terrible images in sex-ed about STDs to hopefully ensure we would never have sex or else be doomed to a life of rejection and unlovability. I had so many questions, but I was afraid to ask. I felt ashamed.
I carried a lot of that shame around after learning that it is a disease for people who do dirty things. It was for bad people. I was angry at the Universe, at God. I wanted to be an actress or a singer when I was little, but didn’t pursue it because what if I had an outbreak? I couldn’t use microphones other people used and I couldn’t do an onscreen kiss without fear of giving it to the other person. It was a dirty secret, until it couldn’t be hidden. It was incurable and I was stuck with it from the get-go. I felt like it was a cruel joke. What was the point of this pointless disease that never goes away?
I realize many people may not have had the reaction and experience I did with this; this is just how my traumatized little brain worked. My family never really talked to me about it or had much to say on the topic. I dealt with it alone.
I did start to find myself drawn to friends who didn’t seem to care or notice or were kinder about it. My first best friend in elementary school never cared, she asked once and was like, “oh, ok, want to play Pogs?!” She never gave it any more energy. It wasn’t who I was, she saw past it and didn’t even make the grossed-out face. I still love her for it to this day. She had character. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found a gem. She and the rest of our friends were special. I’m going to call them The Underdogs. We got along. We all had a hardship in our life whether visible or not and we quietly banded together. We were not popular, but we had each other. The first gift of my disease.
As a teen my father was always trying to teach me “character” and how to build it through adversity and I can tell you I wasn’t interested in it. I have always been drawn to glitz and ashamedly some of the shallower things in life. I was afraid not to fit in. I desperately wanted to be one of the “haves” and not one of the “have nots.” If my friends all jumped off a bridge, I was definitely joining them. I needed to be liked. Have I mentioned that I had some unresolved trauma issues that manifested in maladaptive behaviors? I have? Ok good…
My poor character and good character were in a constant tug of war throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. In middle-school I found myself feeling pretty high on the hog. I was the captain of my cheerleading squad, on the track team, lead in all the school plays, in the advanced classes etc. I felt like I was winning. I had arrived. Not that there wasn’t plenty of insecurity and fear under it all, but I was forging ahead and trying to take charge of my life. Then I hit high school. I went from a middle school of about 400 kids to a school with about 3000. I was lost instantly. I was not popular. I started to fade into the fray. I did not even try out for cheerleading which I loved. I got braces early on. I didn’t have an outbreak for a while.
Then in my senior year I was dating a popular person. I was desperately in love with him (extreme infatuation/unhealthy obsession), and he marginally liked me. Whatever character I had built it was not enough. I treated people like they were trophies. Rewards for being likeable or hopefully loveable. Loveable via the currency of beauty. I thought if I was beautiful or entertaining then people would like me and instead of developing other parts of myself (my brain, my interests, my goals, ambitions, hobbies), I focused on attractiveness. Having oral herpes was not good for the types of people I was seeking validation from. In the midst of a panic that my new boyfriend was going to break up with me, I had an outbreak. I went to his house and told him about it, and it ended how you can imagine. He made the gross face, got mad that I hadn’t told him and said he would never kiss me again, even after it had healed. He broke up with me officially a few weeks later. I hated myself and cursed God again. I had a dark night of the soul for what felt like years after.
I couldn’t see the wheels I had put in motion that led inevitably to that rejection. I couldn’t see that I was using people as a sort of Higher Power. That whatever you thought of me I would integrate into my being. From the very first “gross face” in elementary school, I had made that a part of me, I was gross because you thought I was. If you thought I was ugly, I was. If you thought I was needy, I was. If you thought I was beautiful I was, but it was all fleeting because another opinion would come along eventually. No one ever sat me down and talked to me about self-esteem or how to build it. It wasn’t until I got sober that that happened.
I took suppressive therapy pills with abandon for the next 8 years. Anti-viral medication to keep the disease from surfacing. I didn’t tell my partners. If I had an outbreak, I’d go out of town unexpectedly for a few weeks or I’d break up with you over the phone. I would never tell another partner again after my first shaming. I drank and used drugs and I kept people at bay. Now I don’t blame my Herpes for my alcoholism. I believe that was there from the beginning. When someone would break up with me, I sometimes felt relief because keeping up the lie was hard. I just figured I’d never get married or I’d meet someone with the same thing someday and it’d be ok. What I did was not ok. I’m not excusing it; I just didn’t know how to live. I didn’t know how to treat people with the respect they deserved, and I wasn’t choosing people who knew much about respecting me either. No one was asking, and I wasn’t telling.
When I got sober it was the one thing I felt the most resentful at God over, so I told my first sponsor. She laughed a little, she said she didn’t think it was a big deal. She said I couldn’t be dishonest about it anymore. Fuck… I was going to have to start developing character, and for me that meant developing faith. Now, don’t worry, I am not going to quote any scripture (did you not see me just curse?). I am not a religious person. I am a very spiritual person however. I have to be. I came to sanity and self-esteem via the path of hellacious self-destruction and incomprehensible demoralization. Like I said earlier, that break-up in high school just set off a “fuck-it” attitude that lasted another 7 years until I found myself involuntarily in treatment for addiction.
When I got sober, I met a guy (surprise surprise). He had been sober 7 years and I had a week when we first started hanging out. We would go to coffee and talk all night. He was (is) awesome. I hoped in the first few weeks of hanging out we were going to kiss at some point. A few weeks into our dating we were at another coffee shop. I don’t know if I’ve ever prayed so hard for the right words or shook so much as I was saying them. We were at a coffee shop late; they were closing soon. I really wanted to kiss him, but knew once he knew the truth, he might give me the face and leave, and I’d be stuck with my feelings of desire and rejection. I looked down at my empty cup and told him I had something serious to talk to him about. He looked concerned and said “okay, what is it?” I said “I don’t know how to talk about this so I’m just going to say it and then probably crawl into a hole and die. Ever since I was a little kid, I have gotten cold sores, and I don’t want to assume you will kiss me someday, but I want you to know so you can make informed decisions about your own body. I can help you look it up if it will help you get answers.” He laughed a little nervously and said, “do you mean oral herpes?” And I swallowed hard and looked up at him and said “yes.” He smiled and said, “thank you for telling me, do you have an outbreak right now?” I said “no.” He said, “okay good, and no, it’s not a big deal to me but thank you.” I didn’t know what to say. I looked at this person in front of me and I felt so much hope, but I tried to contain it. It seemed like we might have talked about something else, but I can’t recall. What I do remember is making out in the parking lot and feeling like I was on cloud 9. Honesty had not done me well in the past, but now I was doing it for myself and for the other person. My “picker” (the device in your brain used to choose a mate) was getting better too. I was with a person who was interested in me, the good and the bad. I chose a person who was not just interested in what I could give to them but who cared about my wellbeing and who I was as a person.
I told my sponsor that it went well, and she was happy for me. She told me that “adults talk about things in relationships. If you can talk about it, you can do it. If you can’t or if the other person can’t then it is an indicator of immaturity, and you should move on or wait until you can talk about it.” That applied to sex, love, affection, personal interests, time management etc. She also told me “If someone rejects you over this, then thank your lucky stars for the bullet you just dodged. Rejection is God’s protection.” I nodded my head but continued to mull over this prophesy. She was telling me that the people meant to be in my life were the ones who were not there for short-term payoffs (sex, attention, validation, abuse). She was telling me that my Herpes was now the barometer for people who were in my life for the right reasons. People who had character. Now, I totally hear you if it freaks you out and it is a deal-breaker for you! Good for you for standing up for your needs! This is just a story about MY life.
Now, I didn’t have that first boyfriend forever. We split ways amicably (another gift of sobriety) a couple years later. So then as a person dating again, I had to go through the whole rigamarole all over again. I’ll tell you what, assuming that someone wants to kiss you and then talking to them beforehand can be a tricky undertaking. First you have to not impulsively kiss people. Ok, I can do that (not drinking makes this easier). Then you have to ask them or have them ask you on a date and make sure they know it is a date (say the word “date” out loud when asking and watch for the face they make. Smiles are good). Check, I can do that, albeit extremely awkwardly at times. If the date or dates are going well, then I have to turn the convo at some point to Oral Herpes (Honesty, you fickle friend). Now, hopefully you’ve chosen well at this point like I did over the years, because I did not have anyone turn me away save for one and it was a person of questionable character. In fact, I chose that person out of pure character-defects (he was hot and a good dancer (wow…), hot a-holes are a dime a dozen my friends) and knew on some level it was a big mistake (definitely not an Underdog). It’s a longer story than that, but I’ll save it for another day. It got easier over time. Each time I had to tell someone new. Some people did want to wait and do their own research and get back to me. Some people used the opportunity to talk about other things they had (STDs and such) and all of them felt like it was a really nice thing to do and very brave of me (they told me; I’m not assuming). I got to be on the other side a few times, and each time it was not a big deal to me because how much I liked the person outweighed the risks. They were worth working through it for. Some people said I didn’t have to tell them if they weren’t asking. Trying to take the onus of responsibility off of my shoulders and I suppose they are right in some ways. But for me, character has been built through stepping into blind faith and telling the absolute truth ahead of time, no omissions. Stepping out on a limb all on my own, hand in hand with my Higher Power/The Universe/Self-Love/Doing-the-right-thing as my safety net. We do not get sober alone, thank God we have sponsors and other mentors in recovery to guide us, but a lot of life is done out there on your own in some scary-ass situations. I salute you.
So, after all these years (almost 39), I am actually grateful for Oral Herpes. It has weeded out the many in search of the few. It has provided time and again a chance to walk through fear into the realm of Faithfulness. I have learned that people have hopes and dreams for their lives, for their futures, and that I should not take these lightly. They have people who love and care about them and why shouldn’t I also be one of these people even if I don’t get what I want. They have the right to decide what goes into and onto their bodies. Denying that right to me felt wrong. Apparently, life is not about getting what I want (who knew)?! Somehow over the years I have begun to develop a little character. I still have a long way to go (maybe a few thousand more lives) before I enter sainthood.
I do think we’d do a little better on this planet if we were able to take out the shame in conversations around sex, kissing, relationships and love. I want to be at least a small part in changing the narrative around talking about STDs and about loving yourself and others. Teens and young adults need to hear about how to tell if someone really cares about you and how to handle rejection. We need to be able to have safe places to learn about why truth and honesty are good in the end. We need to teach those coming after us about how joyful relationships can be when you get the hard stuff out of the way. That freedom comes from truth good or bad. That rejection really is God’s protection. There is something infinitely better waiting for you. Even though it might feel sad or painful in the moment, you can stand on the fact that you did the right thing and that The Universe always rewards this. You have stared down the darkness and chosen light and you have stepped forward on your path into baddassery. You may have to pass on a few duds (albeit some hot duds that make you feel wiggly inside), to find another badass who is looking for you, just as you are, warts and all. The right Underdog who smiles, takes your hand, and never stops kissing you. Because you are the bee’s knees, you always have been…