Content warning: This story contains references to mental illness. 

This story is part of our Naked Week Coverage. Read more stories here.

I heard something a couple of months ago that shocked me. “You know you can get genital herpes if someone with a cold sore goes down on you,” my friend said. 

A quick Google search and boom, it was true. And sure enough, two months later I was sitting sobbing in the University doctor’s office because I had just been told I had herpes after someone with a cold sore went down on me. 

Ivy* writes about her experience of being diagnosed with herpes and the journey she has gone on to get past the stigma surrounding this sexually transmitted infection (STI).

After the diagnosis, I walked home bawling my eyes out and screeching down the phone to my best friend, “my life is over. I’m never going to recover from this”.

I didn’t mean physically, I meant mentally. The damage that herpes has done to me physically is nothing compared to its effect on my mental health. 

However, I am out on the other side and here to share my story so that if this ever happens to you, you are armed with the knowledge to get through.

Let’s break down this wall that society has built up around herpes. 

Herpes is associated with being dirty and people are scared of it because of the fact that once you have it, the virus lives in your nervous system forever

I was talking to a friend over a coffee and he mentioned he saw something about herpes online. 

”Could you imagine having that? It’s so disgusting I cannot imagine anything worse.”

 Yes, I could imagine it, because at that time I had an outbreak. I silently sipped my coffee and nodded.

Naturally, after the diagnosis, I started endless online research. What was this mysterious virus the indie softboy with shit tattoos cursed me with? I trawled the web for hours, happening upon more images of genitals than I’d ever seen in my life. But I also found some mind-boggling facts about herpes.

Once you’ve got it, Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is a virus that lies dormant in your nerve cells and can pop back up now and then in what is known as an outbreak. There are two types, HSV-1 (the cold sore type) and HSV-2 (the stigmatised genital type transmitted through sex), they also are part of the same family as chicken pox and shingles.  

Some people get incredibly itchy, painful bumps, some get blisters, and some get small cuts. Some people get a herpes outbreak once and never again, some people get outbreaks every month and some people don’t even get symptoms - it is a very individual experience. 

The shame surrounding HSV-2 because it is sexually contracted is so damaging but so ridiculous because it is so common.

We will happily discuss how we caught Covid-19 at a superspreader wedding event. We’ll bring soup to our friends who have the flu. And we’re even likely to discuss our UTIs these days. But should you catch herpes you’re condemned to suffer alone in shame.

Eighty percent of the population has HSV-1 and up to 20% of adults have HSV-2 - and 80% of people don’t even know they have it, according to the New Zealand Herpes Foundation.

Most of us have herpes and might not even know it. Statistics say it’s highly likely your nana, your lecturer, your dog groomer, your bus driver… or you, have herpes. 

Since my diagnosis, a couple of people have tried to brush it off, explaining that it’s not life threatening and my goodness, does that make my herpes outbreak burn in rage. 

No, herpes won’t kill you, but the stigma might. 

I fell into a deep hole of depression after my diagnosis, and the only feeling I could surmount it to was grief. I was suicidal the week after. I thought my life would never be the same. 

I’d been through a challenging year and a difficult breakup, and now I was hit with this truck of luck. How could anyone ever want to be with me again? I felt dirty, I was damaged, and this was not how my life was meant to be. 

My life was ruined all because I had five seconds of the worst head of my life (if I had to contract herpes, why oh why couldn’t it have been from good sex?). 

Now I’ve come out the other side with the help of my close friends, family and a great therapist. Still, the toll that the herpes diagnosis took on my mental health was unprecedented.

If you have herpes, you are not alone. In fact, if you do not have herpes, you are statistically more alone and that’s quite comforting. 

It’s also important to talk, you never know who might have herpes. 

Two weeks after my diagnosis I was at a house party, and started to pour my woes out to a new friend I made the week before. I was welcomed with stunned silence. 

“Wait, I had those symptoms last week, it went away, so I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. Low and behold my friend was a potential STI sister, and she didn’t even know it. We silently screamed together as she frantically scrolled through her camera roll, trying to find a photo.

Condoms are incredibly important in preventing transmission but also may not stop the spread, as herpes requires skin-on-skin contact, and outbreaks can essentially appear anywhere on the body. 

In my experience, condoms are not used as much as they should be, and my version of “safe sex” was going raw and getting a chlamydia test once every two months. 

Please, if you take anything from this article, use protection because it only takes one unfortunate sexual encounter and you can have yourself a sexually transmitted infection.

Herpes is a normal and common part of life. If you have it, you’re not alone, you’re not damaged, and you’re still you. 

So, if you see someone walking around looking hot as fuck, that’s probably me and guess what, I have herpes but guess what … you might too.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons

Top Image: An illustration of people. Photo: iStock

Where to get help:

  • New Zealand Herpes Foundation - 0508 11 12 13 from a landline or 09 433 6526 from a mobile
  • 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
  • Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training. 
  • Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.

OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.

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