I Have an STD but I Won't Let it Define Me Anymore

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Two years ago, I was living my dream. I had just started my master's degree studies, lost a lot of weight and was very proud of my looks, and was planning a future together with my first boyfriend, Tom. I couldn't have been more excited about life.

Then, one day I got sick. I had a fever and a headache, my lymph glands got swollen and I felt absolutely horrible. I just wanted to sleep all the time under three duvets. I noticed a small bump in my private parts. And another one. And a third one. I was confused but immediately knew that I had to book an appointment to see my gynecologist. Still, I wasn't too worried when I walked to the clinic. After all, I was in a steady, monogamous relationship with my first sexual partner, who had assured me he had gotten tested just before we started dating. It was probably just some inflammation. So, you can imagine my horror and absolute bewilderment when the doctor had one look at me and told me that I had genital herpes, an STD that there is no permanent cure for. Shocked, I kept repeating, ”How can this be possible? I've only ever slept with one guy in my whole life!” But all I got for an answer was: ”You just had bad luck.”

Leaving the clinic that day, I was completely shattered. I remember going home, heading straight to bed and crying for the rest of the day. My mum stroked my hair and assured me that everything would be fine. But I didn't feel fine. I felt like I'd never be fine again. I was absolutely sure that, at 23, my life was over. It was as if something had broken inside me for good, and I thought I could never be so carefree and happy as I had been just the day before. All I could think was that if I ever broke up with Tom, I could never have a one-night stand with a random guy, because what random guy would like to have sex with someone like me...someone filthy. Not that I'd ever had a one-night stand before, but suddenly, I felt like I'd lost out on the chance completely. I could never start a relationship with anyone before first telling them that I had a contagious disease. I could never go on casual dates with anyone without thinking, ”Would they be here if they knew?” I felt like from now on I would always be ”that girl.” The girl who had an STD.

After getting the diagnosis, I started asking around about how this could happen even though my boyfriend had been tested –– I found out something shocking: When you get tested for STDs, genital herpes will NOT be tested if you don't have any symptoms. However, many people never get any symptoms at all and can still infect their partners without knowing it. The good thing about genital herpes is that it is not dangerous. It will not kill you. You won't get cancer because of it, nor will it affect your fertility. It does give you bumps and sores that will hurt and might look awful. However, some people only get very mild symptoms — small bumps that can easily be mistaken for an ordinary pimple. This can cause people to not realize that they actually have herpes. But the worst part is that before my own diagnosis, I had no clue about all this. I had always been very aware of STDs, had attended the same sex ed classes as everyone else, studied the topic myself and even talked about it with my doctor. Still, I had never heard that herpes won't be tested if you don't have any symptoms or that no symptoms doesn't equal no disease. Neither had Tom, who had asked to be tested ”for everything” and had been told "everything was clean.” I had risked getting an STD without even knowing it, because I had trusted the health care system to, well, take care of me.

The physical effects aside, what no one ever talks about is how emotionally traumatizing getting an STD can be. Even if you rarely have any symptoms or your disease goes into remission (the virus stays in your body but it will only activate and cause you symptoms once every few years or so), getting an STD can leave a permanent mark on your self-esteem and sexuality, especially if you get a disease that will stay with you for life. When I got the diagnosis, the doctors gave me medicine to help with the physical symptoms —but not once did they ask how I was feeling or coping with it. No one told me that I could go and talk to someone. Instead, I had to seek for therapy myself. No one ever said to me, "This is not the end of the world." No one ever told me that I could, and should, continue enjoying my life just as I had done up until then.

For me, getting an STD ended up completely crushing my self-esteem. After I got the diagnosis I felt absolutely horrible about myself and, for a long time, I was certain that no one was ever going to love me again — let alone want me physically. It didn't help either when Tom and I broke up soon after my diagnosis and I started dating again. The first guy I told about my disease said to my face, using swear words, that he was shocked, as he had thought that I was "pure." He was obviously disgusted, and I never heard from him again. It was like my worst fear had just come true. I felt like the most undesirable person in the whole world for a long time after that.

Only after almost two years of therapy and moving in together with my new, most loving and respecting boyfriend Jim — who has nothing but supported me from the day I met him— am I starting to feel good about myself again and get my self-confidence back. I take medicine every day, which keeps the disease under control and I haven't had any symptoms in over a year now. But to be honest, even now (two years after the diagnosis), I still feel like my life will never be the same as it was before and my healing process is only beginning.

Even though Jim couldn't have been more wonderful about this, it took me a long time to trust him completely. It was so hard to believe that my disease really wasn't a problem for him or that he wasn't going to leave me because of it. However, to this day I haven't forgotten those hurtful words that that one guy said to me –– I still burst into tears every time I'm watching a movie where they make a 'funny' joke about someone having herpes. However, instead of accepting those jokes, or believing that I really am 'dirty' if someone says so, I now fight back. Now I understand that no one has the right to talk to me, or anyone else, like that, and childish jokes about a condition that affects millions of people’s physical and mental health around the world tell more about the joker than they do about me.

Yes, it is very important to tell girls about how they can prevent STDs and how to cope with the physical symptoms if they do get one. But I think that it is just as important to tell them how to survive mentally. STDs are very common these days: according to ASHA, more than half of the population will get an STD at some point in their lives. Yet, they are such a taboo that many people find it impossible to tell anyone if they have one. Personally, I haven't even told most of my family and closest friends about it. I hope that one day having an STD won't be so shameful and girls will understand that there is absolutely nothing to be embarassed of.

This is also why I'm telling my story now, with my own name. I refuse to be ashamed anymore. By giving a face to this disease, I want to show that any ordinary girl like me can suffer from it. You can't tell it by looking at me, but it also doesn't define me. If I could say one thing to the girl who was leaving that clinic two years ago –– and to all the girls who are struggling with the same issue –– it would be this: even if you have an STD, you are still beautiful and strong and deserve to be loved and treated with respect just as much as anyone else. You are not dirty or a used toothbrush. Your disease doesn't say anything about the beautiful person you are. This disease doesn't define you — it is not who you are. I really wish someone had told me that two years ago. Because they didn't, I'm telling it to myself now.

Tom and Jim's names have been changed.

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About The Author

An English Philology major and a Campus Correspondent for Her Campus Helsinki. In addition to Her Campus, I love good food, travelling, politics and cute dresses. My real passion is cookbooks, which I own way too many, and some day I would love to write one myself.