I Am Not Afraid Of Who I Am: Cultivating Power Through Vulnerability

I am always grateful for opportunities to share my story, and potentially open minds. A mix of old and new, here is what I shared with Salisbury students today. 

This is the kind of woman that makes me hope I never have a daughter. What a slut. You filthy, diseased whore. Mentally and physically ill. Kill yourself. I hope she tours the Middle East so I can read her memoirs from prison.
Since publicly disclosing my HSV-2 positive status, this is just a short list of the reactions I have received in response to my blog and various publications. What is most disheartening perhaps, is that before these comments were even typed, the majority of them ran through my head upon learning that I carried the virus.

That day in July 2015 will forever be engrained in my mind. It is similar to most stories you will read about people discovering that they have herpes. Lying on an examination table surrounded by a team of nurses who continued giving me hugs that I did not want, nor need, to receive. There is a sense of shock. A sense that this isn’t reality. And then, there is the moment when reality sets in. I remember crying to my father, asking him, who would ever want me? Now that I have this? Who would ever love me? Or try to? Who can see past this? Who can see me?  As the tears and questions subsided, the stigma of calling my body home to a sexually transmitted disease began to set in. 

Overwhelming confusion followed the course of the next week. Several days in limbo had passed when I finally received a phone call that my blood test was negative, and I did not have the herpes virus. A sudden wave of relief poured over me. The next day, I received a phone call with a conflicting story. My culture had returned positive for herpes, signaling a recent infection. It takes a significant amount of time to develop antibodies to the virus, so it would not appear in my blood for several months. Until then, I threw myself into researching everything I could about HSV-1 and 2. Twelve weeks after my initial diagnosis, I received the results of my latest blood test: “This test confirms patient has genital herpes, HSV-2 +.” I never realized how much it affected my self-esteem until I saw the paper reflecting proof that I carried the virus, officially. For months, I masked my pain with a temporary high: alcohol. More often than not, each time I took a sip would lead to memories that I would not later recall. I consider this as one of the darkest periods in my life.

I struggled for several months associating my name with herpes. I constantly compared myself to what society had told me this person was like, and I did not see a reflection of myself in her. I am the girl who wears her heart on her sleeve. I am the girl that is not emotionally capable of having a one-night stand. The individual who transmitted herpes to me was someone whom I trusted, and had known for several years.  I was the person that society told me is not the “type” to contract an STD. As it turns out, there is no "type."  Despite society’s definitions, here I am, testing positive for herpes. I have come to learn over the last year that I do not stand alone in my confusion or my story. 

I am certain that there is a greater purpose in my contracting the virus. I have career goals aligned with sexual health and education, so I firmly believe life is steering me on this course for a reason. The stigmatization of the herpes virus is more overblown than I originally thought. The looks and responses I have experienced from members of the medical community have been snide and judgmental. From nurses whom I have spoken with on the phone who asserted, "You should've worn a condom," to glances received after picking up my Valtrex prescription at the Target Pharmacy. Most people who have herpes, do not even know they are infected. This is commonly referred to as "The Silent Spread." Even if you use a condom, you can still contract and spread the herpes virus. The only way to prevent its contraction is to abstain from sexual contact. You have cold sores? You have herpes, too. There is no "lesser" version of the herpes virus. It is our terminology and misunderstanding that leads us to stigmatize herpes and those who carry it.  This is what I hope to see change during my lifetime, and is a great portion of why I am so open, willing, and eager to discuss my HSV-2+ status. 

After my relationship with the person whom I contracted herpes from came to an abrupt stop, I found the strength, confidence, and power in sharing my story. From that moment, I decided to cultivate my vulnerability to create positive change in the world around me. My journey, with the initial hope of impacting a small piece of the world, has turned into something much larger than that. Since publishing my inaugural blog post in December 2015, I have received nearly 30,000 views. I have been published on a variety of mediums, including Thought Catalog, Elite Daily, and The Feminist Wire. Most recently, I became a contributor to The Salisbury Flyer with my own bi-weekly, sexual health column. I am fortunate to have a voice and platform for sharing my story, although myself, and others in my line of work, face a significant amount of backlash and harassment. The negativity is countered by the emails I receive from men and women across the globe who identify with my story and they often bring me to tears. The lessons from my journey continue to reveal themselves to me in unexpected ways.

The most meaningful one I have encountered thus far has been normalcy. We see the facts and figures reported by the CDC of just how common herpes is, but it is difficult to believe. It is estimated that 776,000 people in the United States contract some form of the herpes virus annually, yet we are still left feeling so alone, so lost and worthless. We all encounter stigmas and stereotypes in our lives at some point. Whether it be a disease a loved one carries, our own mental health status, or something as simple as a career path, or outside interest. We take a risk each day in our presentation of who we are to the world, and others can choose to accept or deny our reality. Those questions and fear I held in regard to love and acceptance were answered sooner than I thought. I thought it would be impossible for someone to love and hold affection towards me. I was convinced that no one could or would want to see me in a sexual light. But I was proven wrong. Not only did I learn that I am still worthy of pleasure and respect, regardless of the virus I carry, but also, that disclosing my herpes status was no longer my biggest fear.

We all are afraid of something. I find that being oneself in a world constantly trying to tell you who to be is one of the most common ones. We hide behind social norms and tend to only share the positives on social media. We all have a story, and a part of ourselves that we are afraid to bring to light. I try to approach my life in a way that reminds me that we are all carrying different burdens, and some we are more comfortable sharing than others. Some eat away at us until the day we bid the earth farewell.

I am afraid of failure. I am afraid of having my heart broken again. I am afraid of living a passionless life. But one thing I do not fear is sharing my story with the world.    
Emily Depasse1 Comment