One week ago, I stood by as my boyfriend buried his best friend of twenty years. I buried my friend of almost two. Friendships that had not yet reached their expiration. Friendships that weren’t supposed to end this way. Addiction.
After losing a friend to addiction, it’s difficult for me to make sense of wanting to drink anytime soon. Over the past year, I experimented with multiple periods of sobriety. I embarked on the journey through Dry January, and even continued beyond it. I began to feel what living sober meant, as if, since my first drink, I somehow lost that sense of life along the way.
Alcohol. Defined as a substance I used as a mask to face the world with my newly condemned identity. I would argue that I used alcohol as a coping mechanism even before that diagnosis, but society’s continued approval, encouragement, and promotion of binge-drinking behaviors constituted its normalcy. It still does.
Herpes is not just a viral diagnosis. Feelings of fear, self-hatred, inadequacy, sadness, and grief all filled my mind at one point or another. Enough to manifest themselves through my mask. The thought of therapy crossed my mind, but I concluded that it was a waste of time. No one would understand me. People will judge me. They won’t know or understand what I’m going through—how could they?
Part of this anxiety was rational. Therapists might not understand what you’re going through. And there may be initial, internal judgments—we are human. While my graduate program advises not to “yuck someone’s yum,” it also acknowledges the human condition and feelings and thoughts that may arise in the presence of the unfamiliar, and how best to prepare oneself.
While I appreciate community efforts to destigmatize herpes, I am also disheartened by the oversight made on the relationship between herpes and mental health. I am not (yet) a mental health professional. I am a sex and relationship therapist-in-training in a combined MSW/MEd graduate program, but am in no way qualified or equipped to navigate someone through a herpes diagnosis at this time. I can only offer words of personal experience and resources that provide comfort in times of distress. Over the past several years, I have been offered monetary funds in exchange for guiding individuals through their herpes diagnoses—all of which I have politely declined. Making a profit off individuals healing process is unethical, inconsiderate to mental health professionals’ credentials and training, and is doing a disservice to those hoping for a solution to one problem that ultimately may be the root of others.
Herpes is a mental health issue. There are no shortcuts to healing. There are layers. There are emotions. There are stigmas and stereotypes. There may be pre-existing, clinical diagnoses and intersections with anxiety, depression, and trauma. There are multi-faceted systems in place. Offering a safe space to those who struggle is a beautiful and necessary presence to provide, but treating those who struggle with a diagnosis should be left to qualified professionals who are equipped to navigate mental health and trauma.
My career path to sex therapy began before my herpes diagnosis, but this journey gave my life’s mission new meaning. As does my friend’s passing. I am 31 days into my most recent period of sobriety, and it doesn’t feel like something that I want to end anytime soon.
This week offered me an opportunity into how the world views addiction. Eye rolls. Abruptly ending conversations. Perpetuating stereotypes of worthlessness and faulted-ness. In these moments, it is especially important to realize that coping mechanisms do not always present themselves as alcohol or drug abuse; We can be addicted to the mundane. Work, social media, exercise, food, people—the list continues. Addiction can kill us—all of us. Some deaths end a life too soon, others lose out on the quality time and the freedom of truly living.
In memory one of my most compassionate and loving friends, Elliot. Someone who breathed in more depth and emotion than most. Someone who wanted to share his love enough to move the world. Elliot, you are forever a “real one” in my eyes.