I am 20 and had just started seeing someone before the Covid-19 lockdown hit. We had been having an amazing time; although we are from different counties and go to different universities, we had been seeing each other every weekend for a month or two before lockdown started.
We chose to make things official at the time, and kept in touch every day. Last week, I went to the doctor and discovered I have picked up HSV2. I hadn’t developed any symptoms before now, and he has never shown any symptoms before.
I had a few casual things with other people a while before I met him, so I don't know where I picked it up. I am struggling a lot with this diagnosis, which I'll have for life, and feel like a fool for not being more careful.
I was very upset when I told him, which I had to do over the phone. A few days after I'd told him, we called and he broke up with me, explaining that it wasn't my fault, but for the last few weeks he'd not been feeling great about the prospect of not seeing me for another two months due to lockdown, and that he'd prefer to be single at the moment. He told me that in no way at all was it related to my diagnosis, but of course it's made me wonder. When I'd given him the news he'd been shocked but it didn't seem to bother him to the point of breaking up with me.
We haven't spoken since as I thought it better to give him space and give myself some time too. I am incredibly upset; although we hadn't been together long, I was very optimistic about how well things had been going. I am looking for advice on how to cope with this. I really want to ask him to meet me and talk about this properly when circumstances allow it.
The first thing I want you to do is breathe, and say out loud “I have done nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of.” Because you don’t. Look around you: the current state of the world is direct proof that viruses and illnesses can infect good people, and that catching a virus is not a source of shame but sheer misfortune.
All kinds of illnesses and bugs and infections and diseases happen to all kinds of people in every walk of life, in a variety of different and occasionally random ways, and sexually-transmitted infections (STI) are no different. An STI is just another illness. An unfortunate condition that deserves sympathy, not judgment. The only reason STIs carry stigma is that our society still carries a huge amount of shame regarding sex, still views it as something “dirty” or immoral, and therefore asserts that if you catch a disease or infection from sex, this is your moral comeuppance for doing something wrong.
This is nonsense. You had sex – like the vast majority of adults in the world do – and you caught a very common STI. It’s unfortunate and unlucky. But you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and you will be fine.
HSV2 is a strand of the viral infection herpes simplex. HSV1 is mainly transmitted by oral-to-oral contact causing oral herpes (“cold sores”), but it can also be transmitted sexually. HSV2 is almost exclusively sexually transmitted. These infections are lifelong, remaining dormant in the body with occasional flare-ups where the virus is reactivated. With HSV1, flare-ups include cold sores; with HSV2, you can have genital sores. Flare-ups often become less frequent and less uncomfortable over time. There can, in rare cases, be complications with HSV; in immunocompromised people and pregnant people, symptoms can be more severe and there can be added risks, in the same way that many viruses have higher risks for immunocompromised and pregnant people.
But despite its bizarre prevalence in pop culture jokes, herpes is relatively harmless. Flare-ups are a pain, just like cold sores are a pain. But you can ask your doctor for anti-viral medication that will help lessen the frequency and severity of outbreaks, and reduce the possibility of transmitting the virus to partners.
And you can remember that you are in plentiful company. Approximately 10 per cent of Irish people have HSV2, while 70-80 per cent of Irish people have HSV1. It’s everywhere. And look, the world is still rotating, there are no herpes-only colonies and people are still having sex. Look up support threads online if you want more reassurance – you are far from alone.
Of course, like everything, you still want to be careful and protect everyone as much as you can. So first of all, if at all possible, reach out to your previous sexual partners and give them a heads-up to get tested.
Infections can be asymptomatic so they mightn’t realise if they caught it from you – or gave it to you. And realise when you’re ready to sleep with someone again and you tell them, without shame or guilt or fear, that you have herpes and it’s not a big deal but here’s some information so you can both be careful, that you’ve just been given an amazing litmus test for new partners.
Decent people will react with compassion and respect, not judgment. There may be people who decide they don’t want to risk catching it, and that’s fine too. People are allowed to protect themselves – but you always deserve to be treated respectfully.
Finally, to this man. It sounds like he wasn’t judgmental and is probably very grateful that you were honest and told him so he could get himself tested if he needs to. So take him at his word.
You’re both very young, you entered a brand-new relationship right before lockdown, when it’s very hard to sustain momentum and connection – the most committed, utterly-in-love couples are struggling right now. It’s a weird time. You would also be facing some distance even when lockdown is over. There are very real obstacles there that this man could understandably not be ready to grapple with, even if he likes you. Remember again that this isn’t a judgment on you, merely circumstance.
Of course you can ask him for a coffee when lockdown ends, to either see if he’s willing to try again, or just to end with a friendly, in-person chat. No matter what happens, you are young, you have a lifetime of meeting wonderful people ahead of you. Be kind to yourself.