Herpes. What does the word bring up for you? Fear of catching it? Shame over having it? Relief that you don’t? A joke you heard recently? Or perhaps you’ve embraced such a diagnosis, shame-free. (Go, you! If you wish to get there, I promise, you can.)
The other day I chatted with Dr. Sheila Loanzon, an incredible human being and gynecologist who knows all about herpes, from personal and professional experience. Diagnosed at age 20 after having sex with her first real boyfriend, the then pre-med student was shocked to learn that the legions she’d discovered on her vulva derived from herpes simplex one, aka the “cold sore virus.”
She shares her personal journey in a powerful book, Yes, I Have Herpes: A Gynecologist’s Perspective In and Out of the Stirrups, which is full of useful takeaways, from common myths debunked to ways to practice self-care.
Catch our full chat on iTunes or below! We explored her own experience with herpes, myths about the virus, treatment options, ways to talk to your partner about the diagnosis and more. You’ll also hear Dr. Megan Fleming‘s thoughts for a listener who was just diagnosed, and fears telling her partner.
In the meantime, here are some of the universal takeaways we can all gain from her story:
Learning about your sexuality is vital.
Loanzon learned extremely little about sexuality in her youth. “I remember something vaguely, maybe in third and fourth grade, when you’re supposed to learn about sex,” she told me. “I just remember feeling red-faced and not really paying attention and trying not to look at my friends. I think that’s probably the culture of most people as they go through middle school—not really getting that strong sexual understanding, until they’re really faced with it.”
These limitations are unfortunate for many reasons, from a lack of understanding about STDs and general sexual health to cluelessness about pleasure. It also makes way for damaging myths, such as ‘you can’t get herpes from oral sex.’ Becoming our own advocates about our sexuality by learning all we can is empowering and important.
Moving past shame is doable and worthwhile.
And no, that’s not often easy. While the gynecologist and author now speaks openly about herpes, it took years and a series of relationships for Loanzon to fully embrace her diagnosis, and realize its profound impact on her life.
“Herpes comes with a whirlwind of emotions and stigma and things that you really have to process through,” she said. “It always ends up being in the comedic film, as the funny line that gets the really good laughs, and nobody corrects it.”
Early on, she struggled, as many people do, to present her full, authentic self to others.
“I really had wanted to keep it very superficial and present myself as a perfect person,” she said of one relationship. “I didn’t want to get into a space where I have a flaw.”
While talking with her life coach later on, Loanzon realized that shame around herpes was holding her back. Working through those feelings allowed her to move forward in myriad ways, leading eventually to her book and advocacy, a wonderful relationship with her current partner and, most importantly, comfort with herself.
That unique thing you’re embarrassed about? It could be your superpower.
‘There is a power in letting an experience change us,’ Loanzon writes in her book. When I asked her how herpes has changed her, she shared how the book came about. She was on a yoga trip with a group of women, all of whom were blonde and blue-eyed.
“I was the only Filapina, the only dark-skinned person there,” she said. “I remember doing my best to fit in, wanting to be part of the cool crowd, and really just trying to blend [in]. I finally had the realization that I am unique, and I have a story to tell. I have herpes and I don’t know other people that do, but I know there are underground cities of people just looking for an opportunity and a spokesperson, a point to be able to look at. I wanted to be that person. I’d love to be a person to share that this is a story that exists for a lot of us that brings a lot of shame and hiding, but we don’t have to.”
Imagine how all of our lives would feel if we embraced that which makes us unique. I know I’m not the only one, especially not the only woman, who occasionally feels like “too much”—too sensitive, too enthusiastic, too fill-in-the-blank. Here’s to taking Dr. Loanzon’s lead, knowing that the very things that make us feel different or obscure at times could very well be precisely what someone else (or many someones) need.