Alarm bells buzz as I reach for my glasses on the nightstand, and somehow manage to unroll myself from tangled sheets. I slowly shuffle myself downstairs to brew my first cup of coffee. Somewhere between my first and second cup, I take my daily vitamins and medications. Omega-3, Multi-Vitamin, Super-B Complex, Valtrex. Valtrex, an oblong blue pill that stands out from the rest, and shapes a meaningful part of my identity.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I walked out of a Patient First mourning the woman I once was. I climbed into the passenger side of my Dad's truck and cried on my his shoulder asking him, "Who will ever love me?" Since that moment, I've come to realize that a lot of people hold significant amounts of love for me, including myself (something that wasn't always present). On the flip side of the support given by family, friends, and strangers, is the reality of how weighted the stigma of carrying a sexually transmitted infection (STI) really is.
No matter how many CDC statistics or "real life" experiences that myself and others who share in this educational pursuit present to the world, there are going to be those who don't get it, choose not to get it, and never will support it. I have felt shame online, but for the first time experienced it in person at the Lush Spa in Philadelphia.
After I take that not-so-little blue pill in the morning, you'll most likely find me hitting the gym, or on the pier for a yoga session. Coaches and yoga instructors have never had a problem touching me. There has never been hesitation, or lack of love in adjustments given to improve a posture or encourage the engagement of different muscle groups in my body.
Friends and family members have never held back hugs, in fact, they hold me tighter. Sexual intimacy has improved, thanks to a partner with open ears and an understanding heart. There has never been a moment where I have felt "disgusting" or "unworthy" of pleasure in bed in that relationship because of the virus I carry. There is still meaningful touch, there is still pleasure and I'm more comfortable with expressing my sexual desires, needs, and emotions because of that honesty. My sexuality is so well-nurtured in this environment that I often forget I even carry the herpes virus. I just feel like me.
From a young age, many of us learn to differentiate "good" from "bad" touch. When I was first diagnosed with herpes, I remember dragging myself to the gym, and the simple brush of a shoulder by a fitness instructor was enough to bring me to tears. No, it was not an inherently 'bad' touch, but I was sensitive due to a negative experience that happened in my life. So many people are unaware of the invisible boundaries that exist due to the past weights we carry. As much as there is a healing power in touch, there is one that can ruin an entire day. This power of touch is one of the main reasons I sought my RYT 200 certification, to provide that love and care that others have shown me. To offer a safe space and sense of healing, if others are open to receiving it.
The overwhelming sense of judgement that I felt from across the table at Lush Spa Philadelphia when I disclosed my medications was enough for me to determine that it was not a safe space. When disclosing to medical professionals and even my bikini waxer, no one has inquired further about Valtrex or herpes. I am open with my diagnosis, and usually, there are no further questions, nor should there be. In my research, I found a helpful guide entitled, "Basic Pharmacology for Massage Therapists." A brief description of Valtrex, an anti-viral, can be found on page 44. Although accurate, I do not feel that this guide gives enough background for navigating real-life scenarios like the one I encountered. Collectively, we need to do better.
I am not pushing this issue for free spa treatments, or Lush products. What I am advocating for is further education and understanding in the spa and beauty industry about sexual health, stigmas, and the value in creating a safe space. Lush presents itself as a holistic organization in support of "fresh" and "organic" products that have an "honest meaning beyond marketing." Additionally, Lush gives back through a variety of means (charity pots, limited edition products, etc.) to "advocate for the environment, animals and people in need." This company presents itself to the public as one who cares about its customers.
The support received from Lush Cosmetics North America has been honest and receptive to my comments and concerns, however, the as-promised response from Lush Philadelphia is so far, non-existent. As a company that appears to be so dedicated to the value of natural products and supportive of the good of the world around us, I am a bit disappointed in the way this situation was handled. I've made a list of reasons in my head as to why Lush's promise was left unfulfilled: The manager hasn't had a chance to talk with the masseuse. I'm at the bottom of the manager's 'to-do' list, especially after a return from vacation. The manager doesn't know what to say, or how to respond. Or maybe Lush is just hoping I fade away. If I were in the manager's shoes, I'm not sure I would know what to say, either, except maybe, "I'm sorry."
On it's Charitable Giving page, Lush claims that it focuses "...on campaigning and education efforts to make societal change." Although I have been assured multiple times through Lush's Twitter that my situation is being taken seriously, actions are beginning to speak louder than words. I can only hope that my correspondence and writing efforts hold true with Lush's mission. I've spent two years fighting this stigma in my own mind, and in the world around me, and it's not something I plan to back away from.
I pour my coffee just like everyone else. I say "shit" one too many times when I realize that I'm late for work. I may take one more pill in the morning than some, but that one blue pill is not the standard for who I am and how I should be treated.