I have genital and oral herpes — and I swear it saved my life.
It sounds weird, I know, but it’s true.

I contracted herpes as an undergrad at Berkeley in the mid 80’s. One day, my boyfriend at the time had a cold sore on his lips after the first sunny day of skiing. Since childhood he would get the same little blister after the first day on the slopes, so he didn’t think much of it. I grew up without previous exposure to the common cold sore. I had no idea.

Both of us were ignorant of the potential transmissions to genital areas. That night he went gloriously down on me.

A week or so later my entire vulva erupted in horribly painful oozing sores. The nurse practitioner at the university health clinic coldly declared the diagnosis, and bluntly dismissed me with a prescription slip. She was neither helpful nor comforting for this scared kid. Judgment hardened her face.

This initial outbreak lasted for a couple of painful weeks. For the next few years, I suffered frequent and debilitating outbreaks. Why did I suffer so when others with the same disease got away with hardly an itch?

That first year I struggled with feeling contaminated and crippled. During that same time I was accepted into an excellent seminar on the mind-body connection in the Psychology department. At that time, this was a bit fringe for Berkeley psychology with an emphasis on lab mice research and abnormal psychology. As a coping mechanism of the grieving nerd, I decided to make herpes recurrences and its triggers as my research topic. Since this was before the internet, (yes there was a time before the web), much less Google or medical information sites, it wasn’t uncommon for the average citizen to be totally in the dark about their medical conditions. Armed with treasured access to the university library, I combed through card catalog (yes, analog card catalogs, on paper! Omg!) databases on disparate current research. This research process, supported by the non-judgmental and brilliant professor, helped me to better understand the disease, manage outbreaks, and, most importantly, normalized the situation for me.

But that’s not how herpes saved my life.

In college, I claimed my sexual rights as an adult and became very sexually active and very experimental.

(Yes, I saw my first sexual acts with consent and agency as a personal right of passage in claiming of adult responsibility. “Losing your virginity” is such a silly and medieval concept. What is there to lose? The focus really ought to be on what responsibilities we step up to — but I’ll leave that discussion to another occasion.)

Contracting herpes was a reality check and slap on my face of my early sexual self. I was engaging in behaviors that could make my life miserable.

Something had to change.

I learned about how to minimize outbreaks, reduce risks of transmission to others, and reduce my secondary exposures to other diseases and infections.

I continued in my sexual growth as I moved from Berkeley to San Francisco. This was during the death-filled days of the AIDS pandemic. Having herpes was just so common — that it just wasn’t a big deal under the shadow of HIV’s certain death sentence at the time.

My Herpes — yes, I saw the disease now as mine, the very bugs that would now live in my basal ganglion and share my body with me, as common as the bacteria in my stomach and mitochondria in each of my cells, were part of me now and forever.

My Herpes became the little annoyance that gave me the best reason/alibi/excuse ever to whip out a condom or dam or gloves with that new hottie I hooked up with.

I’d smile and tell them I have herpes and talk about it as a common nuisance. I’d then tell them I was hot for them and don’t want to harm them so I’d like to use a condom. I figured that if anyone had an issue with hot latex sex with me because of My Herpes, then they didn’t like me, the whole person. I wouldn’t want to hang out with such a shallow sob.

It turns out the disclosure didn’t cause any problems, and no one ran away. That I know of. Since those who were squicked by it didn’t appear again, I didn’t really think about those people. There were others that were interested in me, and didn’t run away, and they kept my attention.

With each occasion of disclosure, I felt stronger, smarter, sexier — and just fine.

If I hadn’t contracted herpes in college I think I would have engaged in a lot of stupid, unsafe sex. (As it was, I got to explore a lot of fabulously fun stupid safer sex.)

In the end, had I not had to confront directly the realities of having herpes, it’s statistically extremely likely that I would have contracted far more serious sexually transmitted conditions.

Let’s be serious, I’d be… Dead.

Who knows from what disease or related dangers, but my risk factors would have been so much greater.

I am happy to be alive — and happy to have met people who found me hot as a whole package.

Herpes is most contagious right before an outbreak and continues to be transmittable through the outbreak. You may or may not know when you’re in a pre-outbreak stage. Some people feel a tingling feeling, others don’t.

If you want to know more about the real facts on herpes, here’s a great info web site:

One stat reads that 1 out of 4 sexually active urban adults have herpes. That 1 person could be you and you don’t even know it.

While not everyone with herpes experiences recurrences, people with recurrent herpes usually have particular triggers or sets of triggers. These will very from person to person.

Obviously, my college boyfriend was triggered by my first exposure to bright sunlight.

Others are triggers by nuts, chocolate, stress, etc.

You have to observe and get familiar with your own patterns.

My triggers turned out to be a combination of sleep deprivation + negative emotional stress + lowered immune system. So when I have an outbreak I take that as my body’s alert system to get some sleep, remember the blessings in my life, pop some vitamin C with Valacyclovir, and take care of myself. My Herpes behave as my personal stress watch-bugs.

Herpes is a pain and a hassle — but with support and education, I managed to turn it into an advantage. It’s helped me to enjoy better health and engage in a more considerate and joyously erotic life.

Yes, weirdly, My Herpes saved my life.

Originally appeared in Carnal Nation web zine, September 2009, reposted on Midori’s Medium blog: