Community As A Cure
I struggled through my genital HSV-2 (genital herpes) diagnosis subconsciously since 2012. I say subconsciously because it took a lot of experiences for me to accept that there was in fact a struggle I wasn’t consciously aware of.
Putting it into words as best I could, there was a feeling of loneliness I felt, despite how common herpes is, and being that at least one out of six people have it genitally as well. It felt like there wasn’t anyone else who was “like me”: HSV-positive.
Being on dating apps, going out to bars, being at social gatherings with friends, I felt so isolated because I was misunderstood . . . or not understood at all. Where friends would see me not “closing the deal” with potential partners because I was still in love with my ex, I in my mind was scared shitless of getting to the point with a woman to where I would need to disclose to her that I have herpes. These interactions often ended abruptly and awkwardly. We’d go from having a nice conversation, shared appetizers, cheers with shots/drinks to sudden endings where I just wouldn’t even bother asking for her number to continue the amazing interaction we just had.
Feeling so isolated and alone was by far the greatest symptom of my herpes infection. I’m lucky in that I’ve had very few physical expressions of the virus, however, the feeling of being alone even when in social settings was an even greater pain than any of those outbreaks were.
My emotional and mental symptoms were non-stop. I was always wondering if someone would find out I had herpes and if I’d put myself in position to have to tell someone I had herpes. Those constant reminders of being met with stigma really did bother me and I didn’t know how to deal with them, partly because I distracted myself from being physically alone as much as possible. I neglected the deeper parts of myself (spiritual, mental, emotional) by constantly staying surrounded by people so that I wasn’t alone. This meant a lot of social gatherings, which included food, alcohol, and some recreational drugs. Was that the best thing though? How useful was this to me?
The distractions were cool until I’d be home at the end of the night with my worst fear, isolation. Being alone with that so many times and having to confront it, I just didn’t have the tools. Seeking out community was one of the useful tools I had at my disposal but didn’t know it at the time. I just didn’t want to feel like I was the only person living with herpes anymore. I Googled, found that there was in fact a dating site for “people like me” and I never felt so seen since my diagnosis. I enjoyed the attention, the safe space to express myself without the hindrance of fear. I found myself not only dating and having enjoyable sex again, but really discovering how important those deeper parts of myself were that were being neglected. I was free to express my thoughts, emotions and become in touch with my spirit openly and not one person judged me for who I was in this community. My fear of being found out was gone. I was cured from the most painful symptom of herpes, isolation.
Then I had to constantly re-enter the real world, away from the online community that granted me the freedom to express myself, back to all my friends who’ve known me for years and felt like such strangers to me. My true self, hidden from the real world, was constantly fighting to be expressed. I was compelled – addicted even – to that community of people online who accepted me as I was. The only difference between these strangers and my friends at this time was that I felt more deeply connected and free to be myself around people who knew I had herpes, while the people I called friends felt like more strangers.
I felt frustrated in the real world. I was more understood by online strangers than I was by my real-life friends and they had no way of knowing this. I got frustrated at how wrong they were in their assumptions of it being that my dating life sucked because I wasn’t over my ex. I finally just let it out. “Listen, I am over my ex, I just have herpes.” Saying this to one of my friends released so much weight from me that I didn’t know was there. Then, I was met by a love and acceptance I didn’t know was there. This friend did not meet me with the disgust I had been expecting, and that stuck with me.
This community that offered me temporary relief from my emotional pain wasn’t just on the internet, it was all around me. I just needed to bring community Courtney into the real world. I also came to understand that the feeling of isolation was something I should stop trying to avoid: being alone gave me an opportunity to engage in deep self-reflection. It was only through this self-reflection that I discovered my choice in how to respond to my diagnosis and how my life would progress. The community of support all around me was found after the clarity that came from self-reflection. I had something to challenge my beliefs about myself and herpes against, and that couldn’t have happened if I wasn’t willing to reflect on who I was.
I was cured by a balance of community and self-reflection where I for so long viewed isolation as a negative and abused community as a distraction. I thank Emily Depasse for helping me bring this experience into words to help someone who may be in the space I was once in. Our discussion about community expanded our perspectives and the conversation can be found on the Bonus Episode: Community Cure with Emily Depasse on the podcast, Something Positive for Positive People.
Isolation itself does not have to be a bad thing. Partnered with damaging behaviors, it can be, but when you partner isolation with self-reflection, it results in productive and positive behaviors. Setting the intention of feeling your emotions will not only help you grow as a human, you’ll find the world around you reflecting that in all communities you’re involved with. Self-reflect and see how the world around you mirrors back to who you are.
Courtney W. Brame is the Founder of Something Positive for Positive People, a hub of sexual health resources to navigate the challenges of a new sexually transmitted infection/disease. Resources primarily consist of the real experiences from people living with HSV (herpes), HIV, HPV and AIDS.