Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH
This interviewee reached out to me directly via the contact form. After exchanging a couple of emails, she asked how she could help and/or support The STI Project, so we asked her to share her story.
What follows is a remarkable and insightful look into dating with an STD, the mental battle one undergoes when talking to potential partners about an infection, and learning to accept oneself despite the outcome.
Exceptionally lovely is her introspective look at getting rejected post STD-talk. That’s what makes these stories so important. While we may experience similar things throughout living with an STD, what we take away from it can be as different as the individuals that tell the stories. It’s these unique and poignantly honest reactions that help us strip away misconceptions revealing what really happens once someone is diagnosed with an STD.
In the style of MTV’s Real World, this is what happens when people with STDs stop being polite and start getting real. Real beautiful, if you ask me.
1. How old are you?
2. What do you do for a living?
I’m a PhD student. Previously, I did research and evaluation for a non-profit.
3. What STD/STI do you have/have you had?
I was told I have HSV2, based on a culture, when I was having symptoms. I’ve never been tested for HSV1. Although, once, when I was a teen, I do recall having oral symptoms suggestive of it.
I also had one of the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, though, it has since cleared.
4. How long have you had or known you have an STD/STI?
I was diagnosed just over 5 years ago.
5. Do you know how you contracted this STD/STI?
I am about 90% sure whom I contracted it from, but I cannot be 100% positive, because I had unprotected sex with several individuals I did not know well and was never tested for HSV prior to having symptoms.However, I had a pretty severe outbreak that was not like anything I’d experienced within 2-3 weeks of starting to have (unprotected) sex with a man.
[The guy I think I contracted it from] turned out to be a pathological liar with antisocial personality disorder. He had been feeling ill and had an unexplained fever around the same time we started sleeping together, so my guess is he was asymptomatically shedding. When he told me he didn’t know he had herpes, it was hard to know what to believe, especially as his lies started to surface. He also claimed he got tested after my diagnosis, and the test came back clear, but I don’t necessarily believe that either. If I give him the benefit of the doubt on both accounts, it’s possible he had only just contracted herpes ,and his body may not have formed the antibodies which would have been detected by a blood test.
6. How has your life changed since you contracted an STD/STI?
I was not sure it had changed my life very much until quite recently. At some point, it became easier to hook up with the guy I got it from – the best sex of my life – rather than try to date. I wasn’t staying with him or avoiding dating because of herpes. I was avoiding dating, because I didn’t feel good about myself in general. This particular man came to represent all of the things I felt ashamed about, and the herpes seemed a manifestation of that shame, not an additional source.
Now, however, I’ve decided I do want a relationship, that I feel better about myself, and that I am no longer attracted to the ‘bad boy’ type, and, thus, I think I can have a healthy relationship. So, it’s only in the last 6 months or so I’ve had to confront what it means to have herpes, figure out how I feel about it, understand better how it spreads, disclose it to others who may or may not be okay with that, etc..
With attempts at dating, another shift has occurred: my disclosure to friends and family has increased. I only told 1 friend in my previous city, and we didn’t talk about it. I have, in the last 6 months, told 10 people, including men I was dating, family members, therapists, and friends, and have started to participate in sites like this.
The hardest part, for me, is learning how to deal with a whole new type of anxiety in addition to all that comes with dating in the first place (which has been more challenging for me than the average person).
7. Do the people who know you have an STD/STI treat you differently than they treated you before they knew?
That’s really hard to say. I think my friends now understand why I’ve been involuntarily abstinent for so long (ha!), and maybe have a better perspective on my relationship with my ‘giver’.
The most negative reaction I got – only a few weeks ago – was from my mom who said she was upset, because I was no longer ‘perfect’, and she worried I’d never find love. This, despite the fact that she disclosed her long-time partner had it! A few other people, after my disclosing, have told me they think they have it or know someone who does.
8. Are you currently under treatment for your STD/STI? If so, please share whether you have explored prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, or holistic and natural approaches.
Generally, I have not taken an anti-viral medication, unless I was having symptoms, which, in the last few years, have been prodromal itching, tingling, and discomfort, and very rarely sores. Once I started dating, though, as soon as I thought there might be a possibility of sex (as in the case with Guys 1 and 2 below), I started taking it to repress the virus – so far it hasn’t mattered.
I don’t have great insurance, and only acyclovir is affordable at this point. When I remember it, I’ll take L-Lysine. Generally, I eat pretty well but don’t exercise as much as I should, so there are more things I could be doing to improve my immune system holistically/naturally.
9. Has having an STD/STI hindered past relationships?
I have told 2 men I was dating, both of whom I met online and both of whom decided they weren’t comfortable with my having herpes, which, has definitely been tough. Since I know this is what a lot of people are concerned about, I do want to go into a little more detail about those experiences.
Guy 1, from a few months ago: I wasn’t sure how I felt about him. He was smart but not especially engaging. He seemed interested only in sex, as we ended up hanging out at his place rather than going out. I was attracted to him, so things progressed. Though, I didn’t feel completely in control of the situation, and that made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t really ready to tell him, considering my mixed feelings, but the issue was kind of ‘forced’ when it was clear where he thought we were headed. So, it was definitely the wrong moment to tell him, and I ended up including a lot of details he didn’t need to hear, especially about the guy I think I got it from. Hearing about my dysfunctional relationship with that guy so early in our dating might have been enough to give him pause on its own – again, keep in mind, from what I could tell, this dude was looking for casual sex. He said he would think about it for a few days. Though, I suspect, his mind was nearly made up from the beginning. I never felt so unsexy as when I thought maybe he’d be willing to take ‘the risk’ of having sex with me – I hate thinking of it that way! Ultimately, he said he wasn’t comfortable with the risk. Because of my unsure feelings, I wasn’t very upset.
Guy 2, from earlier this month: I felt a connection with this guy from the get-go. We didn’t even kiss until the end of the 3rd date, but by this point I was really into him, and we were having 4-6 hour dates. I decided I needed to tell him on our next date, which, in retrospect, was probably too soon, and I spent days agonizing over how to do it and what to say and how to not make the same mistake as before. (Ironically, this stress brought on prodromal symptoms.) I asked him to go for a walk with me. It was at the end of a great evening, and his initial response was, to paraphrase, ‘That doesn’t make me want to stop seeing you. I don’t know much about it, so I will be a little more hesitant to have sex, but I just need to do some research.’ He then proceeded to tell me he was leaving the country in just over a year and would probably move again a couple of years after that, ad infinitum. Had I known this ahead of time, I probably would have waited to disclose. I don’t know that I would have ended the relationship based on knowing he was leaving; though, that might have been the ‘smart’ thing to do.
Anyway, we spent the next few hours together talking, getting pretty intimate but without actually having intercourse (I said I didn’t want him to make that decision without doing his due diligence) and we, generally, had a wonderful time. He was sweet and affectionate, and when he left, I had every expectation of seeing him again. Instead, I woke up with a bad feeling, and felt his psychological distance over the next few days. He eventually emailed to say he was not comfortable with having a future relationship with me. After a few days, I responded and asked if he would be willing to share insight into his thought process since I would need to have the conversation again. He was gracious enough to respond and said the herpes was part of it but not the whole story. I think what it did was force him to think about whether he saw us long-term, and a combination of something about our chemistry not being quite right – not sure what he meant by that – and his plans to leave, knowing I couldn’t follow, meant that he wasn’t quite ready to accept the risk that came with my having herpes.
The second situation was definitely tough – especially having him change his mind like that. I honestly think that neither of those relationships would have lasted, but I’m not going to deny that it is painful having things end so abruptly. Personally, I do not feel better hearing that someone is rejecting the virus and not me, especially since that message often coincides with, ‘If it’s the right person, it won’t matter.’ Those messages aren’t mutually exclusive but do feel a bit contradictory. If we believe we are right for each other, and it’s the virus he’s rejecting, then that feels supremely unfair – indeed, almost tragic! If he’s ‘not the right person,’ then either I have misread who’s right for me (as maybe happened with Guys 1 and 2), or he doesn’t think I’m the right person to take the risk for, and, thus, it really is me he’s rejecting; the virus just brought into focus how he felt. Frankly, I prefer the latter scenario. That is, I feel like, if it is ‘me’ they are rejecting, then, at least it’s something I might have future control over since I can’t go back and change the decision I made that led to me contracting the virus. When there’s something that is brought into focus by the virus, it allows me to think, ‘Okay, this is a good reminder that everyone perceives events in different ways, that I can’t know what others are thinking unless I ask, and they can’t know how I’m connecting with them unless I share.’ That feels like something I can work with, something I can change in the future. I cannot change having the herpes virus.
10. Do you have a significant other? If so, how has this STD/STI affected your partner?
11. Have you been sexually active with someone since contracting an STD/STI whom you did not tell you had an STD/STI?
Yes, I had unprotected sex with an old friend/acquaintance from my hometown. I, honestly, completely forgot I even had herpes (the alcohol didn’t help), since the only person I’d had sex with since diagnosis was the guy I think gave it to me. I did not tell him once it occurred to me, and when I was home another time, we had sex again, which, I felt even worse about. I just wasn’t sure how to handle the situation after-the-fact, considering he and I were never very close, and we have a lot of the same friends in my small, gossipy hometown.
As a side note, I have now had 4 friends and family members question whether, at least with casual sex and if I’m on meds, it’s necessary to disclose. I was surprised by that suggestion, since they are, generally, honest people. It just drives home the fact that if there are honest people without the virus who feel this way, imagine how many are out there who have it and are even less honest! For me, at this point in my life, I’m just not interested in casual sex enough to do something I’d end up feeling bad about anyway.
12. How have you changed as a result of contracting an STD/STI?
I think I’m only starting to understand this. One thing it’s done is slow me down when it comes to sex! There was a time in my life (10 years ago or so) when I went out looking for hookups. That was a way of coping with depression and a chaotic, dysfunctional family, so I might have grown out of it eventually anyway. But, now, I have to be a lot more deliberate about dating, since I do not want situations like any of the above to happen again.
13. Why are you choosing to participate in this interview and/or is there anything else you would like to share with us?
In some ways, this feels like a new diagnosis, and I’m finding it helpful to read about others’ experiences. So, I hope, though I haven’t had the best luck yet and am not in a relationship, others will find it helpful to read about my experience and see that there are lessons to be learned and wisdom to be gleaned even when things don’t work out, and that it will all be okay.
Can you relate to this interviewee? Did it help you to read someone else’s story? Have you experienced something similar or do you have some feedback to share with this individual? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!