Meet Herpes, My Guardian Angel

Having herpes is like having a guardian angel, one who does the wise thing for you, when desire won’t.

Some months ago, I got caught up in a zeitgeisty dinner conversation with a group of artists and writers. The leading question was: Were people still doing it on the first date, or were they waiting awhile? The gist of the answers was that our contemporaries had become more conservative about sexual encounters. Like a baleful beggar at a feast, I commented that the new restraint probably had something to do with sexually-transmitted disease.

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The conversation immediately turned to the subject of herpes–the new leprosy, the late twentieth century’s most celebrated non-life-threatening disease. Because I have herpes, my interest–and my discomfort–were acute. (Nothing like finding out what people really think about your kind when they don’t know what kind you are.) Everyone by now has heard the herpes jokes: What’s the difference between love and herpes? Herpes lasts forever. What’s the cure for herpes? Extra-strength Tylenol; a leap from the bridge. Are celibacy or suicide the two basic options for the herpes victim? Well, it depends on who you read, and who you’re with, and what vantage point you take. Time magazine’s sensational herpes cover story of a few years ago was a convincing argument for the end-it-all approach.

Over the decade that I’ve had herpes, my attitudes have traveled from isolation and despair to resignation and gratitude, with a few shades of indifference between. When my spiritual condition is fair, and my mystic acceptance quotient high, I refer to my complaint as Saint Herpes; the virus protects me from a lot of amorous pratfalls that my waking ego is willing to take. (Not that there’s anything wrong with falling in love and doing all the beautiful and dumb things that eras commands, but the wear and tear does smart.) Even if this is a masterpiece of rationalization, it seems preferable to pathetic self-pity, an attitude that also afflicts this herpes person from time to time. When you have a lemon, make lemonade: I consider the attractions of chastity, a practice quite different from the one that brought me to this pass.

I knowingly, voluntarily exposed myself to herpes a few years before the hullabaloo, before the disease became a social fetish and scarlet letter conferring instant pariah-dom. So, because I didn’t want not to sleep with this person, who had done the decent thing and informed me of the risk, I got herpes. Less was known about it then, and far less was said. Fewer people had it, but the epidemic was getting underway. That was a time when I slept with people for love and fun, for the sake of sleeping with them; slept with them for the joy of sex itself, or for lack of enough gumption to say no. I was in my twenties, it was the seventies, and abundant sexual encounter seemed like my birthright.

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And today, as far as I’m concerned, that is still a fair belief. You make love or you don’t, you connect with your partner or you don’t. Sex is special, sex has overarching power, and sex is free. Every good thing has drawbacks, though, and so does the enthusiastic exercise of sexual freedom. Reality is that the more partners you have, the greater the possibility that you will contract a sexually-transmitted disease, and/or get your heart broken, and/or learn an incredible amount of good and intimate truth in your lovemaking, the kind of truth that is only revealed in sex. No blame. Sexually-transmitted disease is a possible consequence, not a punishment. Living is full of consequences, and it binds us to change. So this is no repentant sinner talking, no moral majoritarian argument against free love, no case for herpes as an agent of divine retribution for extramarital sex. Mindful or mindless, caring or careless, the mode of sex makes no difference to evolution or eternity: It always has meaning.

When the disease showed up, I was dismayed, but only briefly. I couldn’t appreciate then that herpes would some day become a factor in changing me from one kind of person into another.

For years, my herpes and I were safely out of public commerce in the confines of sequential monogamy with two fellow herpes victims. (The fact that in each case we had the disease in common was coincidence–it wasn’t even something we thought to discuss.) It was no big issue in either relationship. In one, it mandated periods of abstinence; that was a strain, but not the one that sundered the tie. It precluded the possibility of sexually reconciling differences, of achieving the cloture that lovemaking can bring. Herpes between friends is not nothing, but the decision to risk it is behind you, and the experience of the disease has its container of intimacy: You don’t have to go it alone. The advantage of herpetic monogamy is that you can get past the obsession with the disease and into knowing and delighting in the presence of another human as person, not vector. Within a relationship or out, the worst thing about herpes is that there are times when you want to make love but can’t. Desire goes ungratified (as it often does in the uninfected).

Relationships tend to pass. It falls to most of us to leave the safety of monogamy for the terrors of dating, if only for a short time on the rebound. It was when my last monogamous relationship ended that herpes emerged to add to those terrors and to start reordering my life.

On my mad dash to the first available bed, my long-dormant herpes kicked up, like nemesis, a virus with perfect timing. I began to feel vague inklings of herpes (the “pro-drome”) hours before the possibility of lovemaking became clear. Uncertain moral actor that I am, I almost didn’t tell the man. I wasn’t sure whether those vague twinges could infect anyone else (medical opinion is divided on that point). Besides, I was sex-crazed by that post-parting fear that I would never know love again. Fortunately, superego whupped libido, and God made me speak up. Instead of winning the man’s ardor with my late-breaking honesty, I was forced to cope with his honest aversion to contracting herpes. We cried about it together. He hoped we could be friends; if mere friends would be too much of a strain on my makeup, well then, so be it in sadness. (Thus the disease effects a role reversal: The gentleman pleading, “Can’t we just be friends?”) I had nothing to lose, so we became friends. Friends with a constant taint of anger and resentment on my part. Whatever else that turning point in the relationship signaled, that nice fellow’s sensible withstanding of my allures registered as rejection. At once I was stripped of the power of sexual sorcery. It was a heavy blow to the pride.

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Having herpes does tend to make one undesirable (except, perhaps, to a fellow-sufferer). After I had reckoned with this new reality, I had to begin to place my faith in my intrinsic worth, quite apart from gender and relationship. Identity can deepen in crisis. Part of the herpes educational program was discovering that there is life after rejection.

The Physical Aspect of Herpes Has Been Uneventful

For all the dread that herpes occasions, the physical experience of it has been uneventful–not painful; mine never has been the nightmare version of the disease that strikes fear into the free hearts of so many swinging singles. If it weren’t for other people, herpes would be far less annoying than acne. My experience of herpes, apparently, is typical. Painful recurrences are exceptional. Herpes is a major health hazard only in neonates and the immunosuppressed.

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A disease is a personal relationship. Herpes is different things to different people, I guess because of the way viruses operate. A virus infection is a form of possession. Viruses are near-invisible colonizers, subcellular entities with an elegant survival strategy of invasion and takeover, a fiendish mimicry of DNA. Viruses are everywhere–they pass through filters, maybe even through condoms. Once the herpes virus comes on board, it’s a lifetime companion, one which may retire quietly into the nervous system after its initial appearance never to be heard from again. Or, it may be like my friend St. Herpes, a bawdy crazy jester that drops down for a chat every time I get homy, or whenever there’s a man around, just to see whether I’m paying attention.

Herpes is thought-provoking and thought-provoked. I am convinced that the fact that herpes’ stronghold is in the nervous system is what makes it so mutable. Stress activates herpes and herpes activates stress. Trying not to think about it is like trying not to think about your tongue. Even people without herpes know that what goes on in your mind can arouse distinct, uncontrollable feelings in the genitals. And so it is with herpes. It becomes an integral part of you.

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What makes herpes such an existential curse, no matter how unobtrusive it may be in a given individual, is its communicability. Even in the absence of symptoms, there is no guarantee that the virus won’t be transmitted. Such transmission is highly unlikely, and condoms can render it even less likely, but there can be no certainty. Consequently the new herpes etiquette demands that you always inform your prospective partner that you have herpes, so as to leave them to conjure with the risks. The psychological discomfort of those moments, the strenuous effort to play fair and tell the truth and care for the other while detaching from hopes and expectations, far exceeds any physical pain that genital sores can deliver.

Herpes has shown me how selfish I can be; it has engendered a sexual greed so intense that I could just about convince myself that the symptoms I felt weren’t real and so get it on without delivering the warning and risking the rejection. The subtlest symptoms, the “prodrome,” may or may not lead to an outbreak of sores. The sores are highly contagious, the prodrome, just possibly. Responsibility would seem to demand forthright presentation of the worst-case scenario. However, responsibility gets harder to come by when you’re beginning to wonder whether you’ll ever get laid again. The prodrome, I says to myself, could conceivably be hypochondria. Even a medical lab couldn’t say for 100 percent sure whether the virus was actually “shedding.” The only way to achieve certainty in the situation would be to refrain from intercourse. But sex had become a fixation for me, so I did the unspeakable a few times and slept with people during what might have been a prodrome without advising them. (In both cases, though, these partners had long before been apprised of herpes as a party to our affairs.)

In neither instance has the disease been contracted so far, but that yearned-after sexual connection was, for me, attenuated by anxiety and inner guilt. Later, one romance was demolished by herpesphobia when my partner confronted me, having developed some symptoms (but not of herpes, as it turned out). His imagination was worse afflicted than his body and he was angry with me. Then I was angry with him. He’d been warned –somewhat–and the risk was now his responsibility. Another lover got some mysterious sores in his mouth and coolly decided that he was not falling in love with me after all. He informed me, by mail, that pleasant as our company was, the anxiety was not worth it. Only after the hurt and dismay at such partings subside can one ask would it, could it have come out any differently without herpes as a factor? How important was it, actually?

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Guilt thrives in the moist atmosphere of sex and anguish grows where there is a void of shared beliefs. Herpes, I am concluding, is just a situation-heightener, throwing into sharp relief the human stuff we’re made of–we prove to be hungry, needy, frightened, compromising, and sly.

My Sexual Encounters Became Problematic

As my sexual encounters became problematic and rare, I began to crave sex in the abstract, a disembodied sex, a commodity: sex for its own sake. Only now it wasn’t so easy to come by. Distant contemplation bred molecular appreciation of the sex drive. I began to feel it in my bones, in the cells of my body, in my chromosomes and midbrain. I became the egg’s enormity of wait and spherical receptiveness. I wanted the enlivening presence of millions of madly traveling, take-a-chance, go-for-it potentiators. I missed the scramble of sex, the wonder of finding one body inside another, with currents of life coursing past boundaries of self. I began to perceive sex as a raw force by which our clever, thoughtfully-crafted selves are driven like robot cars to sudden collision, with Mother Nature cackling at the evolutionary controls. It takes the power and lure of sex to breach persona and ego, and make monkeys out of the experts on healthy, sensible love. This transcendent understanding of sex was a gift from St. Herpes. Away from sex, I pondered its holiness, the perfection of surrender it offers, and earthly version of the perfection that lies beyond opposites and distinctions. Irony compounded irony. If my body wasn’t getting any, my mind surely was.

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A little obsession goes a long way, though, and it became a mistake to think of sex outside its personal context. As a result of scarcity, I developed what my friend Sarah diagnosed as “penis-vision,” a tendency to regard all men, even and especially slick and greasy characters whizzing past on the freeway in their big cars, as potential lovers.

The irony is that adapting to herpes demands a temperate, considered sexual ethic from a person who wouldn’t have contracted herpes in the first place if she had had a temperate, considered sexual ethic. Herpes and other of life’s learning experiences have convinced me that irony is a hallmark of the good God’s handiwork. Being hit with the cream pie of fate is a clear sign that the lesson was necessary. I don’t believe in abstinence or privation as goods in and of themselves, but learning to live with them has been beneficial to me.

The problem is, as the writer Anne Herbert wryly observed, “It’s hard to live ultimately.” Philosophizing was swell, but it didn’t alter the reality that herpes murders romance. Sure, it’s possible to abuse romance, just like a drug. Nevertheless, even when the killing of a romance may be a mercy, euthanasia is still a death. Blind, flying, spontaneous leaps into the sack are a thing of the past. Every tentative embrace calls for a Miranda reading: You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to consult a physician. I have herpes. Here’s some free medical literature. Can you read it in that candlelight?

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It’s just plain heartbreaking to have to wrestle the cherubs of infatuation down to the plane of intellect. Having to consider, at the very beginning of an affair, whether that affair is likely to be worth catching an incurable nuisance of a disease is miserable. Yet one must make that impossible decision before the sweet poetic fulfillment of mutual fascination can be found in a lover’s arms. It takes an insanely romantic temperament to make such an affirmative imaginative leap. And because of the fragility of relationships, most of today’s possible partners are battle-scarred veterans, so emotionally flayed and slow-healing that they doubt that any good thing between the sexes is either possible or worth daring, herpes or no. The thought of the disease just compounds the dread of emotional pain. I share that dread. Yet I know that the elaborate, unconscious craziness that proliferates in avoidance is worse than pain itself, more confusing. Pain has the decency to ask a simple question. Fear just pretends to have an answer.

An Agent of Natural Selection

So herpes becomes an agent of natural selection, weeding the faint hearts out of the available universe of lovers. It gives ample reason for turning back, a handy focus for all the doubts and hesitations that smite the smitten. For the man with a deeper interest (or his own case of herpes), the disease provides a point to ponder. Even in the most amorous affair, there’s a lot more communicating and negotiating per day than there is lovemaking, so partners might as well broach and resolve a complicated situation beforehand, just for practice.

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Because of its habitation in the nerves, and by extension, the emotions, herpes has a quality of being compensatory, or moral, or asked-for. It’s difficult (and not altogether truthful) to objectify and isolate the disease as not-me. Yet it’s necessary to talk about it rationally without being defined by it, in spite of the fact that the disease reflects one’s inner life. Herpes shows me how I treat myself, how I enjoy the adrenal glamour of stress. When I’m hectically caught up in my own importance, I’m vulnerable to an outbreak. So I have to be humble enough to sleep. There are limits to what I can or will do to fend with my herpes, but it always brings me back into awareness of my body –it makes me mindful of what I’m consuming, it notifies me when I’m defying my natural limits, and it actualizes the penalties of living in the head, or paying exclusive attention to the chatter of waking consciousness. Meditation, they say, may alleviate herpes.

In the midst of all the high seriousness of the herpes uproar, it’s been commented that this is mainly a worry of the affluent, the kind of physical complaint that only becomes noticeable in a context of prosperity, good health, and sexual freedom. Although in my own life accepting the conditions the disease imposes has taken a long deep while, I know that herpes is also trivia, just a twist of fate that sets things in motion.

Having herpes is having a guardian angel, one who does the wise thing for you that desire won’t let you see. Having herpes is being a princess in a tower in the midst of a forest of thorns, a princess awaiting a prince who’ll risk his flesh for love. Sometimes, enervated by hot, dashed hopes, I come to my senses and awaken alone, relieved to be unencumbered. I light a mental thank-offering to St. Herpes, the exasperating.

The paring away of my conquests and love affairs has been a blessing in heavy disguise. In the wide spaces between brief melodramas, I’ve come to revel in my solitude. Herpes has taught me to live by myself. Partly from resignation and partly from the pleasure of my own company, I see myself coming to cherish the small solid pleasures of my daily round, with no mate to chagrin my morning prayers.

The big project before us always is self-knowing and self-forgetting, opening the higher lines of communication. Herpes is the dragon at the gate, securing my privacy and mocking my lust. It turns out that we need each other, the virus and I. I’ve thought about it long and hard, and I’ve concluded that herpes is God’s way to make a point about sex with honor. These days, I don’t want my body writing checks that my soul can’t cash.

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Stark honesty is so rare in any subject that when it surfaces it’ll slay whatever dragon is around. From her new home in Minnesota, Stephanie Mills, former editor of this magazine, confronts the dragon of herpes, with eloquent pen. She says, “Writing this essay worked like a rain dance. No sooner had I resigned myself to the satisfactions of chastity than the men who were more interested in ‘us’ than they were fearful of herpes entered my life and love began to bud again. Last spring, my solitude found its guardian for good. The nuptials were in June.”