You know when you’re about to do something terrifying, and your buttcheeks are clenched like they have a mind of their own? Yeah, me too.
My phone is ringing.
I’m sitting completely still, toes and buttcheeks clenched to the maximum. My heart rate is nearing 150 beats/minute. All this adrenaline makes it feel like I’m working out. I’m sweating like crazy; things are getting increasingly blurry. Should I be worried?
Oh god, this is it, I’m gonna pass out and die. I’m laughing at myself and my drama; it’s something I got from my dad, which I love about him. I’m definitely gonna die here. There’s no immediate danger. I’m just so freaking nervous. Alright, here we go, it’s going to be fine, Katelyn.
“Hello?” I picked up the phone.
I was diagnosed with herpes in June of 2016. I was 19 years old, fresh outta high school, with a lot of hope and curiosity for the future. I consider myself to be a curious, artsy, dreamy type. I was always so grateful for life, even though I didn’t think I was anything special.
I actually thought that my artsy, dreamy self was an unrealistic version of me that I had just created in my head. There was no way I was ever going to live that out because “it didn’t make any sense.” So I lost myself in others and in things that essentially added zero value to my life because that was what I thought I deserved once I had herpes.
Instead of seeking support for what I was going through, I suffered. I told my sister and my mom. I told my sister’s ex-boyfriend (yikes). I told some of the friends that I had at the time that I had STI (sexually transmitted infections), but I couldn’t even bring myself to tell them that it was herpes. In fact, I pushed them away so much that I ended up not having friends anymore.
I was drinking, partying, and sleeping with far more people than I could handle. I did not care about myself, even a little bit. I pretended that I didn’t have herpes, and I never told any of my sexual partners following my diagnosis that I had it. It was “easier” to pretend that I didn’t have it because if no one knew, then I would never have to endure the pain of rejection.
My boyfriend and I clicked instantly over Twitter in October 2016. I remember knowing that I needed to disclose my STI status to him, but I was drunk, I trusted him, and he said that he trusted me. That was one of the many times I heard my inner knowing talking to me, and I decided that it was not the time to listen to it. I didn’t have another outbreak for two years.
Remember how I said I told my sister’s ex-boyfriend about me having herpes? Well, he wasn’t exactly the most morally upstanding person.
We were sitting at the kitchen table having a chat with my dad about how our trip to Palm Springs went, and my boyfriend received a text. He read it, and then looked up and said, “What is he talking about, he’s lying right?” The text was from my sister’s ex, and it said something along the lines of, “Just so you know, Katelyn never told you that she has herpes. She never told you that she has a deadly disease.”
Honestly, I don’t think that’s really accurate, it was much longer, but I chose to immediately block the words from my mind. A flood of really awful things that had built up over the years washed over me. I think I said, “Oh my f*cking god,” then disappeared from the room as quickly as possible. My secret was out, and the worst part is that I betrayed the love of my life in a way I never imagined I was capable of.
He cried, I held him, I told him I was sorry a million times, and that I didn’t know why I did it. At that moment in time, it seemed like our relationship was over, and it seemed like I ruined his life. I was devastated knowing how devastated he was.
I told him to break up with me because what I did was wildly unforgivable in my eyes. After a really long time of us trying to heal and doing some research on what it means to have herpes, we healed as best as we could.
He forgave me. It wasn’t easy, but it happened. For that, I am eternally grateful because I know how hard it is to forgive someone for doing something so blatantly horrible to you, especially when you thought they would never do that because they love you unconditionally. His ability to forgive me was what allowed me to forgive myself.
For a long time, I disliked my sister’s ex-boyfriend. He exposed the deepest darkest part of me all because I was reckless, and I shared that part of me with him when he didn’t earn the right to hear my story. I hated the fact that he had been such a negative burden in mine and my family’s life for so long.
I learned from a young age what many other women learn, “Do not be who you actually are because it’s too much, too sensitive, too emotional, too sluty, and too childish. Don’t be that girl because we want you to be a good girl and do what good girls do.”
I was taught to betray myself completely because I believed that I had to conform to the societal standards that put men and women in chains.
The major thing that all of this taught me was that I do not have to lie to everyone to cover up parts of myself that are “undesirable” because these things are actually my superpowers. It took a lot of self-reflection to finally see that about myself. It allowed me to forgive my sister’s ex-boyfriend, not because he asked for forgiveness, but because I was ready to move on. I know that what he did was his way of trying to piss me off, and he succeeded, so it was time to flip the script, and damn that was so powerful.
The most important part of all of this is that I have forgiven myself. For many years I have struggled with self-hate and perfectionism. When this happened, I thought I would never recover from such a traumatic event, especially one that I caused myself.
My perfectionism told me that I would never be able to rebuild my life because I would always have this nasty burden hanging over my head. My self-hate told me that I was unworthy of being loved because I did horrible things to people that did not deserve any of it.
I internalized my diagnosis because I didn’t have proper sexual education from any areas in my life, and I thought that literally no one had herpes. I thought I would be alone forever and too repulsive to ever be loved again.
But when I took a hard look at my true self, I forgave her for not knowing: not knowing how to navigate the world on my own, that I am actually an amazing and worthy human being, and not knowing that herpes is such a minute dent in my life.
I did those things because I was shaped to believe that I was unworthy, that I didn’t have control over my own life, that my dreams were unrealistic, that I was too much of everything I wasn’t supposed to be, and that herpes was the thing that was going to keep me from living the life I was meant to live.
But the only thing keeping me from living was me.
It’s so liberating to know that herpes is nothing in the grand scheme of things, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having it. It has almost no effect on my life whatsoever. Not only am I still standing, but I am still being loved by the man who stood by me this entire time, and if that doesn’t show you that you are worthy of love despite your STI, then I don’t know what does.
More than half of the American population has oral herpes, and one in five Americans have genital herpes. That means that most of the people you come into contact with probably have it or have come into contact with it before. Unfortunately, so many people are still contributing to the negative stigma that surrounds it by shaming others and spreading false information like “it’s a deadly disease.” (I had a good laugh at that phrase by the way.)
My point is that nearly everyone has herpes, and saying ignorant things and spreading false information about STIs is just making it worse. That includes making jokes about it, which causes people that do have it to hide in their shame even more.
I tell my story because I want to help break down the stigma, shame, and heartbreak that is involved with getting herpes and other STIs. I believe that my story will help others see herpes in no way defines who you are, and in fact, “It’s just another boring fact about your sexual health,” says the lovely Shoshanna Raven.
I want to be the voice that helps empower others, hold space for people who need it, and give others permission to be unapologetically themselves. I want people to say, “This does not define me, and this does not make me broken dirty, disgusting, unlovable, slutty, stupid, or shameful. It actually makes me human, and because of this, I am stronger. What if this is something that can actually transform my life into something that I never imagined possible?”
Remember me talking about clenched buttcheeks? I’ll explain:
I ended up confessing to the people I didn’t disclose to in my past over the phone. Up until recently, I believed that those people would forever be in the dark about it, which I had forced myself to not think about.
I started to feel like in order to move forward with being a completely new version of myself, I would have to make things right. I would need to come clean not only because it was obviously the right thing to do, but because I owed it to myself to let that version of me burn and the new one rise from the ashes.
Making those phone calls was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life thus far, but when I had those vulnerable conversations, something unexpected happened.
Not only was everyone extremely grateful that I called them, but I got to see how wonderful humans they are. In my head, it seemed like all the doom was upon me, but despite that, I still knew that it was going to be fine, even though I felt like I was going to pass out and die.
But did I die? No. And none of the scary stuff happened because I believe that most people are just like me—willing to forgive, love, and connect with other humans. I got to see that as I made each phone call. It was beautiful.
A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I am finally free from the chains that weighed me down for so long.
If you are reading this, and it resonates with you, just know that I wrote this for you. I see you, and I want you to feel the same kind of deep empowerment that my journey has allowed me to feel.
If you have herpes too, I hope it wakes you the f*ck up.