Standing up to stigma, anxiety and herpes—all at once
Reprinted from "Recovery: Stigma and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (1), p. 23
I have social anxiety and genital herpes. It’s a doozy of a combination.
I am also a perfectionist. When I sat down to write this article, I was second-guessing everything I wrote. So, I decided to just do a free flow without stopping because I have been freaking out in my house all day trying to write the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph, and it must stop.
My aim for this article is to share my story in the hope that whoever reads it will feel less alone in the experience of being a human.
I will write first about my social anxiety so you can see how my experience with anxiety shaped my experience with herpes.
Often, when I’m talking to a friend, I feel extremely uncomfortable because my thoughts move along these lines: Does she know I feel like this? Is my eye contact too intense? What is wrong with me? Am I making this awkward? I am so insecure. I am so much less than … She can tell how insecure I am...
As you can no doubt tell, these thoughts do not make me feel good. When they occur, I am no longer present in the conversation with my friend. Instead, I am bashing myself, while she thinks I am listening.
I started having these thoughts in high school. I would often feel like I was being ridiculed by my friends when they joked around with me, but I never said anything to them about it. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of things. I also did not trust my own instincts and emotions. I didn’t understand that I had a right to feel the way I did.
Similar thoughts and feelings followed me after I left high school; I found it hard to be on a bus, talk to a cashier or eat in front of others because of my social anxiety. At university, I made amazing friends—many of whom are still friends today—but it was a challenge to spend time with them because I acted how I thought I should act—like a confident person with no insecurities! Inside, I felt very differently.
I never told my friends or family members when I was upset by their treatment of me. For example, if a friend made what I considered to be a hurtful comment, I would get a tight feeling in my chest, like bees were swarming in it, but I would act like I was totally fine. I never expressed my emotions aloud; instead, the little bully inside my head would examine the situation and always conclude, “You aren’t looking at the situation right!” Or, “If you say something, they will hate you and think you are too sensitive.”
How could I ever open up to anyone when I had a bully like that in my head? Why would I want to open up to people if I thought they would reject me if I told them how I felt?
These experiences all took their toll. Finally, I realized I needed to talk to someone. First, I opened up to my best friend and to my dad about how much anxiety I was experiencing. I also started seeing a counsellor, an amazing woman who has helped me a lot. Most importantly, these people validated my feelings.
I also realized I was literally not alone. I say “literally” because I used to think that, in actual fact, nobody else was going through any sort of struggle, ever. I was certain that I was the only one who didn’t have my life together.
I had no idea that finding out I have herpes would change the way I see other people and myself—for the better.
Shortly after my 23rd birthday, in 2016, after a routine pap test, my family doctor informed me that I have genital herpes. At the time, I knew nothing about herpes except for the stigma associated with the virus. I freaked out in his office. I remember him saying, “So … your blood test shows that you have antibodies for herpes simplex virus 2.” And I yelled, “I have herpes?!” A rush of shame ran through me. I started questioning my doctor about the future, and I started questioning myself about my life choices.
My doctor was actually really helpful and compassionate, but I remember being confused by his reaction. I was freaking out, and he was saying, “Listen, everyone has herpes; about one of every four people has the same strain as you.” I was just sitting there thinking, “Everyone?! What is this guy talking about? No one I know has herpes. How can he sit there and not think this is a big deal?” Even though I am lucky to have supportive family and friends, all the way home on the bus, I ruminated on the horrible future of shame and rejection I thought lay ahead of me in my dating and social life.
As you can imagine, what I feared most was telling potential lovers that I have herpes. I thought I would get rejected by all men and that I would never have a love life. I felt like an outcast—and in my experience, it is always the worst to feel like you are separated from your fellow human beings. But when I shared these fears with my parents, my father told me bluntly that any man who thought my diagnosis was a deal-breaker wasn’t worthy of me, and that helped a lot.
This gave me the courage to open up about my diagnosis to family, friends, co-workers and men in my dating world. As soon as I started opening up, I understood what my doctor meant by “Everyone has herpes.” The majority of the people I opened up to either had herpes themselves or knew somebody close to them who did. But I also found out something else: everyone I talked to was going through his or her own struggles and everyone felt insecure at times.
I realize now that everyone has a story: the human experience is a shared one. The stigma surrounding social anxiety and herpes made me feel like I had to keep both of them secret. But in being open about my “secrets,” I became closer than ever to the people in my life, and I have proof that I’m not alone. I hope this article can be proof for somebody else out there!
On the topic of living with herpes, I found articles by online blogger Ella Dawson really helpful: https://ellacydawson.wordpress.com
About the author
Sanaz completed her undergraduate degree in 2016 in Kelowna, and is currently living in Vancouver