Jim, a 26-year-old mechanic from Marina, Calif., was diagnosed with genital herpes in 2005
"After a while, herpes becomes a practical issue instead of an emotional one," says Jim.CorbisI didn't think it was herpes at first. It didn't look like all the pictures on the Internet. I thought it might be ingrown hairs. It was a really mild outbreak. At the time, I was so broke, I decided to go to the local free clinic, where the homeless go. They did the test and, sure enough, it was herpes. I got it from my girlfriend. She told me she didn't know she had it. I don't really know whether she knew or not.
You worry that you're "dirty"
Getting the diagnosis was really upsetting. When you do research on herpes, you're given very bleak-seeming numbers and obtuse pleasantries that say, "Don't worry. It's going to be OK." There's a discordance between the information and how you feel. You worry that you're dirty, tainted…that people aren't going to want you.
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I used Valtrex and it worked fine. There's a weird feeling of spaced-out dehydration that I get, that other people I've talked to have said they've experienced too. My outbreaks last about a week. Five days, really. If I notice the outbreak ahead of time and start popping pills, it will last three days. I began to get fewer outbreaks over time. Now I have about four a year.
Dating with herpes
Since I was in a relationship with the person who gave it to me, I was able to keep the fear of sex out of my head until that relationship ended. Now, of course, I have definite worries about spreading it. It's pretty awkward, but after a while it becomes a practical fear instead of an emotional one. There are dating sites for people with herpes, but you have to pay to join and that's a bit of a drag.
There's a stigma attached to herpes. It's not something where I can take my poker buddies aside and talk about it with them. So that's one good thing about the commercial herpes sites: I paid my money, so I might as well take the chance to rant and rave.
If it ever gets to a physical point with a new relationship, then yeah, I'm going to have to drop the bomb. I'm probably just going to have to do that in a forthright and diplomatic way. I've heard a lot of people's stories. It seems like there's a tendency to find excuses—"Oh we were so drunk and then..."—for not being up-front. That's not something I want to be a part of.
Next Page: The herpes taboo [ pagebreak ]The herpes taboo
Herpes is not curable, and nobody ever took the time to romanticize it. Nobody wants HIV, but they made a musical about it, so it has gotten a little easier to talk about. Now HIV isn't considered anybody's fault. It's just this thing that happens to people. But it seems like herpes, in the public consciousness, is something that only happens to gutter guys and disco sluts.
Three years post-diagnosis
I'm feeling better now. The situation doesn't really have to change for your attitude to change. You can screw on your head a little straighter. The bottom line is that this disease is just an inconvenience compared with other diseases out there. It's sometimes uncomfortable, but it tends to appear less and less frequently as you age. There are many meds available. If you are a conscientious person, it just reduced your dating pool by four-fifths.
It does suck. But lots of people have access to a smaller dating pool for one reason or another. Ultimately there are people in far worse situations than I am. You could definitely do worse than genital herpes. My advice to others is keep your chin up. This is by no means the end of the world. It's just a matter of perspective.