I Have Herpes

Having an STD can be scary. Do you know what is even scarier? The stigma that comes along with it.

Actually, I don’t. But what was your first thought? Did your opinion of me change? I ask, because this is a very real situation that many have to face on a daily basis. Let’s talk about stigma.

Let me start with a quick story that happened to me. About 30 years ago I was working as a crisis counselor for the HIV/AIDS communities. And while many of my clients had multiple health issues and co-occurring disorders, it seemed like so many people wanted to know what it was like working with someone with AIDS? While it is true that I entered the AIDS era at a time {late 80’s early 90’s} when we were still learning about the modes of transmission and pathology, there was a stigma attached to it that scared, upset and downright pissed some people off. I can recall at one AIDS march in Washington DC, there was a church group there screaming the most vile things to us as we peaceful marched. I think it was then that I realized just how powerful the stigma was.

But one day, my good friend asked if we could grab lunch together. Being always up for a meal, I accepted their invitation. I could tell something was weighing heavy on their mind. After we got our table they said they had something that they really needed to tell me. I was bracing for the worse. It was at that time they disclosed that they had Herpes. Without hesitation my response was… “And”? They said “That’s it.” That they just needed me to know. I exhaled feeling relived. I wasn’t sure where they were coming from? They explained that they had been carrying for some time now, and they were afraid of being judged. All I could think and say was “You know I have been an HIV/AIDS counselor for a decade. What makes you think I would judge you”?

The thing that surprised me the most, is just how small they felt. The fact that the population that I was serving was {at the time} considered to be the outcast like the addictions population, shocked me that they thought Herpes would cause judgement on my side. It did not. It did however open my eyes to the stigma and judgement people who share these diseases feel on a day to day basis.

We are a culture of blame, pointing the finger and shame. We don’t look at someone with cancer and cast judgement. Nor do we when someone has Epilepsy. But when it comes to addictions, STD’s and even obesity, it seems that opinions change. It is almost like these people do not deserve compassion.

A few years back I was part of a group venture that was to provide Methadone to addicts in their environment. It was a mobile Methadone center. I was being interviewed by one of the local papers and I was asked being the staff chaplain, “What was my plan to convert these people?” My first thought was “These people?”. I simply bit my tongue and said “I’m not here to convert them. I am here to love them.” I am not sure why we feel the need to convert, shame or judge people who are in need of help.

I think the take away from my experiences is that people get sick. Some by chance, and as some would say by choice. Bad things happen. And at times, horrific things happen. Stigma and judgment play no part in healing or changing behaviors for the good. When I think back when my friend was scared to tell me about Herpes, despite knowing what I did for a living, made it real for me. Being sick is scary. Being sick and being judged, is downright terrifying.

We can do better. We must do better. Mental health, addictions, obesity or AIDS, we have the power to create an environment that fosters healing. Because at no time in my 30 plus years of mental health work have I ever witnessed someone making healthy changes due to judgement. Acceptance, education and compassion pave the path to change, health and recovery.



Source by Vance Larson