Spicy Chicken Wings Gave Me Herpes?

            It’s hard to forget the day you get the phone call you’ve been dreading all weekend. This was two years ago. It’s especially hard to forget when you’re out in public at a bar-q-que restaurant during lunch hour. I was sitting with my friend and her three-year-old son, debating if it was too early for a beer. And then my phone began to vibrate on the table. The illuminated screen forced me out of my seat to find a more secluded section so I could pick up. My hands were shaking and I lost any control I may have had over the rest of my body.
            I already knew what she was going to tell me anyway. I might as well have an order of spicy chicken wings to go along with my diagnosis. It didn’t occur to me until after I hung up the phone what had just happened. Not only did I just order spicy hot wings guaranteed to leave a near burning sensation in my mouth, but my doctor told me that I did, in fact, have herpes.
            When I sat back down the waitress told me I looked like I could use a beer. I told her to go ahead and bring two. I wasn’t sure what the next step was. I was sure by the time I finished at least one of the beers I would wake up as someone else. But then I realized, oh shit, I have to make another call.
            I had never made a phone call like this before. I never thought I would have to. But I was there, in the early afternoon, standing in the parking lot of the restaurant. Grasping for air. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been standing so close to the smoker. When he answered I could tell he was driving. Was this the kind of information someone should be hearing while operating a moving vehicle? Only one way to find out!
            I felt it was necessary for me to mention that I wasn’t pregnant. No, nothing like that. My hands still shaking, pacing and watching traffic. Somehow I managed to use my salty lips to blurt it out, push it from the bottom of my throat. I was surprised to hear his voice still on the line, apologetic and sincere. Confused. We would have to talk about this in person.
            He and I talked throughout the rest of the week. Somehow I managed to google this affliction only once. I panicked. I was still in denial and couldn’t bring myself to throw myself down the rabbit hole that some refer to as the Internet.  Meanwhile, he had done what I couldn’t do. Somehow it felt easier hearing it from him. That dating wasn’t over. I’ve had vitiligo since I was nine years old and now this. How was this not un-dateable?
            Eventually, I found out that I was in this alone. Weeks after the fact, his test results came back negative. He was no longer a part of this. I was officially disgusting. Unlovable. Un-dateable. This was obviously my fault.
            I had to find a way to get outside of my head. I decided a good way to do this was by watching television. My plan to avoid reality by engaging in hours of mind numbing escapism quickly fell through when I realized how much Hollywood loves herpes jokes.  It was as if I had just purchased a new car and now I was seeing it everywhere.
            I immediately felt weighed down by the cheap laughs expected from these jokes. I couldn’t even get through the blanketed comfort of The Office without a joke about something most people don’t know they even have. Even thirty-second previews for the new episodes of television shows found a way to sneak in a punch.
            I had to keep telling myself that these jokes had nothing to do with me. That the writers were just lazy and unoriginal. But I felt myself sink deeper and deeper into the couch.
            But what if none of this had happened? Would I still be silently suffering over the idiotic incidents of Michael Scott if my test had come back negative? Would I give these jokes a second thought if I had not felt personally attacked? No, I wouldn’t. But I didn’t just get herpes. I gained perspective.
            Popular culture is the reason we think something like having herpes is funny. We put an unhealthy amount of trust in the televised characters we rely on. We have become so saturated with information that the lines often become blurred. The problem is that a lot of this information is not being used or absorbed correctly. What we are watching on our screens has more of an effect over us than what we would like to admit.
            It’s taken almost two years, but I can laugh about it now. I laugh because the stigmatization of herpes is laughable. I laugh because nobody wants to talk about it, but there are commercials all day long for men experiencing erectile dysfunction. I’m supposed to think I’m unlovable and disgusting even though I may never experience another outbreak? Even though, statistically, one out of six people have it? Even though I am a human being? Because the networks decided I could be the butt of a prime time joke?
            The good news is I no longer think I am disgusting. I won’t let something this trivial define who I am. That’s just not the way for anyone to live their life. I realized the more I talked about it the less it seemed to matter. It was all in my head, unless I saw it on TV. But trying to equate your life through the ideals of Hollywood caricatures is basically a form of emotional kamikaze. As Lindy West reminds us in her book “Shrill,” we often forget how hard it is just to be a human being. As for me, I’ve finally learned how to stop worrying and love Me. Herpes and all.



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