It’s common knowledge that herpes outbreaks tend to occur during periods of stress. You could say it's a physical expression of the shame that we carry inside.
“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” — Rumi
It’s a common reaction to look away from herpes, to wish it goes away soon so you can get back to your life. But what happens when we look at herpes as a metaphor? Let’s imagine that it’s trying to tell us something. What if it’s a sign that we might not be looking deep enough?
By its very nature, if herpes and shame go hand in hand, then it is the shame we need to look at. If herpes creates anger or sadness or numbness, then we start there. Of course, to be clear, herpes doesn’t actually “create” any of these feelings, even though it might seem to be the culprit; it's the trigger that brings them back up; it makes them more immediate, more real so that we must pay attention. Denial only goes so far before we simply must pay attention to something deeper, something beneath the surface. So, if herpes brings emotion bubbling up, then herpes is like an emotional shovel, burrowing down inside to pull up feelings that we haven’t yet confronted. And actually feeling these feelings — even the shittiest of the shitty — is the doorway into self-acceptance. As this natural process continues, a sneaky suspicion of “Hey, I am actually okay” will start to take hold.
We tend to identify herpes as being the culprit when it comes to our negative self-perceptions. With herpes, we convince ourselves that we are undesirable, dirty, undeserving of love and happiness. Herpes is like a magnifying glass, amplifying our self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. (And sometimes it feels more like it's shouting with a megaphone in your ear!) There is a part of each of us that feels undeserving of goodness in our lives. Welcome to humanity. We tend to doubt our gifts by listening to that little devil on our shoulder … but it’s also in us to see our gifts and live them, regardless of the obstacles that seem to be in our way. As Randy Pausch says in the Last Lecture, “The obstacles are there to see how badly you really want [your goals].”
Consider this quote from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach:
Over the years, I’ve come to see my [painful] experience … as a window into how much I had betrayed myself. In the face of [the experience], my habitual defensive strategies crumbled, and I hit bottom. While I was plunged into excruciating pain, it served to reveal the pain of unworthiness I had been living with for years. Fear of being a flawed person lay at the root of my trance, and I had sacrificed many moments over the years in trying to prove my worth. I inhabited a self-made prison that stopped me from living fully.”
And this one from Joseph Campbell:
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
If we can see the thread that joins all of these thoughts together, we see our shared humanity together. You aren't some unique sad soul suffering with herpes. You are a human being who is going through your own experience of the inherent suffering that comes with being a human. Here, we get a big hit of how to make peace with herpes: by developing a better relationship to ourselves and our own feelings. What cave are you afraid to enter? How might you be inhabiting a self-made prison that is stopping you from living fully? Let yourself live.
So what is herpes really?
Aside from the clinical explanation of it, what is herpes really? When I first got herpes, I asked myself this deeper question numerous times, wanting to know "Why me, why herpes? Anything but herpes! When will a herpes cure be found so I can be saved?" One of the ways I would focus my questions in the healthy range was to look for ways that getting herpes has changed me for the better (it certainly forced me to reconsider some of my previous unfair judgments — both about myself and others). In other words, the question became how I saw getting herpes as a positive force in my life ...
So what WAS herpes in my life? At first, when I contracted herpes, I would hear people say the well-worn phrase “everything happens for a reason” and feel my blood boil, thinking to myself, “You have no idea. Definitely not THIS thing.” From my perspective, I had the only thing that couldn't be used as a learning lesson and definitely not a tool for growth.
But I slowly began to see that the suffering I put myself through slammed me to that “rock bottom” place we hear so much about. I heard about this place first through my father’s experience as an alcoholic with AA. You have to hit rock bottom before you can have true change from the bottom up, this time building from a firm foundation. Hitting rock bottom for me meant that everything I had identified with as my “self” either shattered or wasn’t working anymore for me. One that was screaming the loudest were my negative beliefs around herpes — my own beliefs were now blocking me from my current happiness. So to be free, it meant starting to build myself back up, to be a phoenix rising from the ashes of my own past stories that were no longer serving me. I had such negative engrained beliefs in me that they seemed to BE me … but they were all just beliefs … and here's the thing: our beliefs can change.
And what does herpes represent in my life now? Herpes was the instigator for me to re-evaluate what is true for me. It was (and continues to be) the spark that allowed me to feel so deeply that cavern of pain inside that I thought I would never climb out of. And that cavern that held the pain now holds love and gratitude. Feeling so deeply was the key, even though it meant being okay with the sadness and heartache that felt like it could swallow me up. It meant surrendering to life as it is. That surrender was what began the transformation. And yes, the transformation continues. All of us continue in this constant evolution of self-transformation. But let’s make sure that we’re blossoming toward the positive instead of the other way around.
Being authentic with herpes teaches that opening up around something as supposedly shaming as herpes can actually have opposite of the anticipated effect: appreciation, trust and connection instead of disgust, mistrust or rejection. Then that same opening and authenticity can apply to all aspects of your persona. It shows that sharing in such a raw way can connect you to someone else, through trust and authenticity. It ultimately shows us that heartfelt vulnerability truly does equal connection.