The first time I heard about genital herpes I was 23 and a friend of a friend had been diagnosed. She was devastated, I remember her crying about it in the pub and worrying about how she was going to tell her most recent partner. Our mutual friend, her housemate was concerned she might ‘catch’ herpes from her and saw it as something dirty. I didn’t know anything about herpes but I listened to her worries, didn’t judge and it was the start of a long friendship.
Then five years later I was 28, I had been in a relationship for four years and I was at home for Christmas with my family. I had been partying lots and was feeling run down. On the 29 December I started feeling ill, I had a temperature, really achy, and the glands in my groin were feeling swollen. My legs had been itchy for a few days but now the itch had spread to around my vagina. I knew something wasn’t right but I felt I couldn’t tell my parents so the next day I went back to Bristol. That day I felt a lot worse and I developed what looked like mouth ulcers on the skin around my vagina. They really hurt so I bathed them with warm water. I did the thing doctors tell you not to do and Googled my symptoms and from that was pretty sure I had herpes.
After a very uncomfortable night (having to sit in a warm bath to wee) I went to the sexual health centre in Bristol at 9am on New Years Eve. I felt at rock bottom. I filled in a form and got seen quickly. I explained my symptoms to the male doctor and he examined me. He and the nurse in the room were so kind and sympathetic. I was in a lot of pain and they made me feel at ease. Although my symptoms were consistent with herpes they couldn’t confirm the diagnosis until they got the results from the swabs they took. I remember the doctor saying that two out of three people have herpes and so that meant that either he or the nurse probably had it. It made me feel normal and that I was just unlucky to get symptoms. I was given some drugs and sent on my way.
I was quite upset by the diagnosis and worried about telling my boyfriend. I told him, and he was amazing. He was just upset that I was in pain and felt bad that maybe he might have contributed to it. There was no way of knowing who I had contracted it from as it can lie dormant but my partner occasionally suffered from cold sores so I did wonder if I had got it from oral sex. In which case at least I had fun getting it! A week later we were in Waitrose when I got the call from the sexual health clinic – they confirmed that I had HSV type 1. I remember they then listed all the others STIs I had been tested for – HIV was negative, syphilis negative etc etc. I remember feeling relieved that I just had herpes rather than another STI as it didn’t have any long term health impacts. Also after reading up about it I understood that you can still get it even if you use condoms. That made me feel better as I was feeling guilty about the times when I was younger and had had unprotected sex.
After that episode I didn’t get another herpes outbreak for about a year and that was so much milder and I knew what it was so it didn’t seem so scary. Telling my boyfriend that sex was off the cards because of herpes was fine (possibly because he was excited that might mean more blow jobs!).
It’s now eight years since my first episode and I’ve only had about five outbreaks in total. I went for years without one and had forgotten I have herpes but then last year I was a bit run down and stressed and had it twice in two months. It’s a good reminder to take care of myself but it’s mild enough now that it passes in a few days without taking medication. I am no longer with my boyfriend, I’ve had a few relationships since then however I’ve never felt compelled to tell a new partner about it. If I got symptoms in a relationship then yes of course I would. I’m careful with my sexual health, use condoms and have occasional STI tests. I’ve never had chlamydia or any other STIs.
I only told a few close friends at the time about it. I can remember some of them were quite shocked about it which I found a bit strange. I then became a bit sensitive to how people talked about herpes – there was a very promiscuous guy me and my university friends knew, he was a bit greasy and sleazy. I can remember people describing him as ‘looking like he has herpes’ – looking back I wish now I’d had the confidence to say ‘what like me?’. In recent years I’ve got really close to a new friend, and she confided in me that she has herpes. She was so relieved when I said I did too. We talk so openly about it and it really helps to normalise it. When we were messaging about it once it autocorrected to ‘heroes’ so that’s what we now call it.
I barely think about having herpes now. I tend to just think of it as I am someone who gets cold sores but instead of being on my face where everyone can see it they are in my knickers where I can hide them. I know what I would prefer!
Elisabeth, Bristol – blogging about her experiences for The Havelock Clinic
If you need information about herpes visit your local sexual health service or the Herpes Virus Association for advice and support. If you’d like to read more about coping with herpes read our blog ‘Genital herpes – what is there to worry about?’