‘Getting Herpes Was A Blessing’: A Spotlight On Alexandra Harbushka
Alexandra Harbushka was twenty-eight years old when she got the phone call that would change everything. “I was floored,” said Alexandra. “One of the most resounding thoughts that ran through my mind was: But…I’m not the kind of person who gets genital herpes.”
By the standards of a society that places immense stigma on sexually active women and especially those who have STIs, Alexandra had “done everything right.” She was in a long-term, monogamous relationship and only had sex with men she was formally dating. None of those things turned out to matter. She still got exposed to the virus.
She was at work when she received the news. While she tried to hold it together the best she could, one coworker noticed that she looked off. “He asked me if I was ok,” Alexandra explained. “And that was all it took. I burst into tears and told him what happened. He was very sweet about it – telling me he was supportive whether I needed time off or a breakfast burrito or whatever.”
Alexandra’s boyfriend did not take it so well. He called her a slut and threw her out of his house. “Which was ironic,” added Alexandra, “since he was the one who infected me.” The two eventually reconciled and continued dating for another two years.
Alexandra described the two years following her diagnosis as a perpetual state of being an “Eeyore” with a raincloud following her everywhere she went. Unhealthy habits such as over-exercising and extreme dieting – coping mechanisms she had prior to diagnosis – spiraled out of control. “I was in debt, struggling at work, and feeling isolated because only a few people knew that I had herpes.”
One of the few people who knew in those early years was her former college roommate. “I remember her saying to me, ‘You can let this change you, or you can change the world.’ Because I was so stuck, I forgot about that for a long time.”
Slowly, Alexandra began to turn her life around. This began with small, seemingly surface-level changes: swapping out her all-black wardrobe for clothing with bright colors, using pink Himalayan sea salt when cooking meals, and trying to have positive interactions whenever possible. “I realized that because I was so negative, that was the energy I was attracting,” Alexandra recalled.
One day, while reading Romeo and Juliet over lunch, Alexandra became furious. “I was reading it and I thought to myself, yeah, right! This is so unrealistic! Nobody meets, falls in love, gets married, and willingly dies for each other in FOUR DAYS! In real life, the guy gives you HERPES!” Alexandra stepped back from that moment and realized that she was still not okay.
“I was nearing thirty at that point. I knew I wanted to move out of my parent’s house, get out of debt, get married eventually…there were so many things I wanted to do, but I had to take power over my situation first. If I kept viewing myself as a victim of herpes, there would always be this excuse. I decided that wasn’t going to be me anymore.”
Alexandra dumped her then-boyfriend and started dating again. Her philosophy: say yes to everyone, even when she wasn’t sure where the relationship would go. She went to dinners, yoga classes, trips to farmers markets, and met a lot of great men along the way. Not everyone knew she had herpes. “My stance on disclosure is that you only need to reveal your status once you want to take a step that puts the other person at risk,” explained Alexandra. For her, that meant when she and a partner wanted to have intercourse.
“I think people often conflate dating with sex,” said Alexandra. “But to me, dating is just dating. You don’t necessarily have to have sex in order to date. Sometimes sex clouds your view of somebody. Or sometimes, you become attracted to someone you wouldn’t have considered, after getting to know them on a deeper level.”
Alexandra recalled having the conversation jumpstarted one evening on a date with someone she had really begun to like. “We were talking and suddenly the conversation took a turn and went to the subject of STIs. “I remember thinking to myself: this is your moment. If you don’t bring it up now, it’ll be so awkward later!” So, she told him. Later that evening she got a text from him saying that he appreciated her honesty and that her disclosure didn’t change anything for him. They stayed together for three years.
Today, Alexandra has succeeded reaching the goals she set for herself at 29: she got financially stable, moved out on her own, and got married. Remember her understanding coworker? Four years ago, they started dating, and tied the knot last year. “Since so much time had passed between my diagnosis and us getting together, I said to him, ‘Do you remember that I have herpes?’ He laughed and said he did remember, but that he loved me and everything about me, which includes herpes.”
In 2017, Alexandra was preparing to speak at Podfest on the subject of self-love. She ran her speech by her husband who told her it was okay. “He said, ‘this isn’t great, but it sounds like it could be anyone’s story. Why don’t you use this as an opportunity to finally tell yours?’” So, for the first time, in front of an audience of hundreds, Alexandra publicly spoke about having herpes. People looked up from their phones, some people cried, and many people approached her afterward and told her that they too had herpes, or another STI.
Telling her story inspired her to create Life With Herpes, an online community that provides support and resources to those struggling with a herpes diagnosis. Among other offerings, Life With Herpes offers a video series on YouTube that addresses such topics as disclosure, how to have safe sex, and how to manage outbreaks.
Ultimately, Alexandra views her herpes as a blessing. “It forced me to really take a look at my life,” said Alexandra. “I had to make an active choice to be empowered and go after what I wanted. Being diagnosed and the turbulence that followed revealed unhealthy patterns that had always been there, but this time I had no choice but to address them. To survive in a world that stigmatizes people like me, I had to learn to love myself all the more. I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been. Now I’m trying to help others who are going through the same struggles I dealt with. If I can help even one person realize that having herpes doesn’t mean their life is over, it’s worth it.”