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SEXUAL HEALTH

Cold Juice, Old Phones: The Tale of My First Herpes Outbreak

Published: JANUARY 19, 2022
Experiencing a herpes outbreak can be distressing and disorienting. But you'll get through it, just like I did. And you aren't dirty—or impure, or a slut, or any of those things you're telling yourself you are—for getting it. 

Apple juice, a rotary phone and a genital herpes outbreak—not necessarily in that order.

Part One: The Backstory

At the time of my first herpes outbreak, I had a boyfriend—my first real boyfriend—John.

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John was a full time deadhead, part-time construction worker (he helped his dad out on jobs when he wasn’t “on tour”) and most-of-the-time drug dealer. He was a super nice guy. In fact, he was the first guy I ever met who was fine with waiting to have sex. I'd had lots of one-night stands before meeting John—lots of guys who were happy to fuck me and then never call me again.

John was different. He was the first guy I asked to wait for sex; and he never rushed or pressured me. When we finally did have sex, he even knew enough to touch my clitoris. No guy had ever done that. For a deadhead drug dealer who barely graduated high school, he had a higher sex IQ than the guys I had met so far at college.

Read: How Toxic Masculinity Hurts Everyone’s Sex Lives

I remember being in his bedroom at his parent’s house, in bed, naked, while he teased my clitoris ever so gently and I giggled and giggled. The tickly feeling bubbled up inside of me until I couldn’t take anymore and would make him stop and pull him in close for a kiss.

John took me to get my first tattoo. He joked I should get his name. "It’s more permanent than marriage," he said. I decided to get a rainbow dragon instead.

How We Met

John and I met at a Grateful Dead show. It was in a large indoor arena in Philadelphia and I was dancing out in the hallway by myself, since my seat was way too high up in the bleachers. We started chatting. He was sweet. He said I was too cute to be so far from the stage. I agreed; but I had just assumed I had no other choice. John, a hardcore deadhead, took my hand and walked me with ease past all the crappy seats down to the floor—as if by magic and the sheer will of wanting to be there.

I think of that night as my first real date.

There on the main floor with all the other crazy deadheads, we danced and laughed and kissed and we both knew we had to see each other again. John wrote his name and number on an empty matchbook for me and he wrote my number on the inside of his forearm with a borrowed black sharpie pen. I remember he wrote it so big it stretched the entire length of his forearm—it was one of the only spots on his body that wasn’t already covered in tattoo ink. We made plans to get together for next week’s show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I had friends we could stay with in the city, so I felt safe making plans to spend the weekend with this guy I had just met.

And again at the next show, as if he wore angel wings, we easily floated to the best spot on the floor and had an amazing time, dancing and kissing and holding each other. I completely trusted him.

When It Hit Me

I began to experience the symptoms from first alleged herpes outbreak when I 19 years old and away at college.

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I was getting ready for a women’s rights protest, making signs in my dorm room and I started feeling sick—really sick. Earlier, I thought I might have a yeast infection because I had some itchiness in my vagina; but I didn't connect that and the sickness suddenly coming over me. So, I left my half-finished women’s empowerment sign on my bed and walked to the health center.

By the time I got there I was feeling even worse. I explained my symptoms and, after taking one look at my poor pussy, they declared it a first herpes outbreak, got me a gown and a bed and checked me in for an overnight stay.

I freaked out.

Part Two: The Suspicion, the Admission and the Shame

Back then, I didn’t know anything about herpes or how it was transmitted. All I knew was I needed a goddamn phone.

This was over 30 years ago—in a world before cell phones—and getting a phone in my little room at the campus health center was quite a challenge. Nobody else seemed as concerned as I was about my lack of a communication device.

I needed to know: was John cheating on me? Did he know he had something? How could he do this to me? Finally, a nurse responded to my pleas and put a black rotary phone I could make a long distance call on in my room. Luckily, John answered.

I asked him if he had been with anyone else—before I told him where I was or why. He told me he had just kissed someone else since we had been together. I told him how I was suffering. How I was in pain. He was compassionate. He felt terrible. I wanted to continue to trust him. I didn’t know if I could.

The funny thing was—or maybe it wasn't really funny at all—that not too long before, John had mentioned he had something going on with his penis. He even went to the doctor and they said he was fine.

Fine, my ass.

Read: Got an STI? Here's How, When and Why You Should Disclose That

So he probably had had an outbreak; but maybe it was gone by the time he went to the doctor. Since I was in college, and he lived a few hours away, we only saw each other some weekends—so it may have been most obvious when we were apart. And we used condoms. (But, as I later learned, herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact; and the virus may be shedding in the area outside of what a condom covers.)

How It Felt

My sickness progressed rapidly. The slightest touch to my genitals sent incredible pain waves throughout the area. It was impossible to get comfortable, impossible to wear clothing and most of all impossible to pee.

I stopped drinking because I wanted to do anything to avoid having to urinate. I sat in a sitz bath, crying, letting tiny drops of urine release. I couldn’t force myself—or rather let myself—the way you should just pull a Band-Aid off quickly and then offer soothing touch. I hesitated and tortured myself for hours holding in my urine.

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That night, in my little bed in the health center, I could hardly sleep. I began to feel delirious and, at some point, I realized I desperately needed something to drink. No one seemed to be around.

I got out of bed and found my way to the kitchen in the dark, opened the fridge and found some apple juice. I’ve never liked apple juice—not even as a kid. I only drank milk. But here I was, in my gown—exhausted, defeated, still confused about my boyfriend and his alleged fidelity, dealing with shame, embarrassment, likely a bit of dehydration and possibly low blood sugar.

I took the apple juice and began to drink.

Nothing ever tasted so cold, so sweet, so necessary. I don’t know how much I drank but I recall feeling quite sneaky about the whole thing. Of course, there was nothing wrong with me getting up and helping myself to some juice; but I felt as though I was taking something that needed to be doled out to me. I was a bad girl and I wasn’t meant to be standing in the hallway downing a half gallon of juice.

What I Told Myself

I thought about all those labels that I was hoping to shed now that I had one guy: easy, slut, whore. I was finally doing it the way you’re supposed to—make him wait, wear a no-entry sign, finally give in once he’s hooked. And voila: you have a boyfriend. And you’re no longer dirty. Except, now, "dirty" is exactly how I felt. And maybe I deserved to suffer.

Read: Healing from Purity Culture

Apple juice is what you give an innocent child, a good girl. Not a tainted 19-year-old slut.

Part Three: The Aftermath

I’ve never had another outbreak (knock on this keyboard). As far as I know, they never did a test on the sores—so I will never know for sure. But if it looks like herpes, and it feels like herpes, it was probably herpes.

Years later, I did an antibody test for herpes simplex virus (HSV) -1 and -2 and it showed positive only for HSV-1, which is most often associated with oral herpes. It can be passed to the genitals with oral sex, but it doesn’t prefer to live there, so that may explain why I never had another outbreak.

Read: What Going to a Play Party With HSV-2 Taught Me About STIs

I soon forgave John. He’d probably had it for a while. He eventually left me for the Grateful Dead anyway. Our lives were heading in different directions. I don’t know what became of him or where he went when Jerry died; and I don’t blame him for what I went through.

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Where I Am Now

I still don’t like apple juice. It was a one-night stand we had, that’s all. No complications, no hurt feelings. And rotary phones are clearly a thing of the past. Just imagine all of the texts that must get sent these days: “Have you been with anyone else?” “Tell me the truth.” “Did you at least use a condom?” “My test was positive.” “You should get tested.” “Fuck you.” “What does this mean?” “How could you?”

I now work as an STI educator for a large health center. Although I don’t share my personal experience with patients, it is easy for me to empathize when I’m counseling someone who has recently had a first genital herpes outbreak. I know how it can hurt.

At some point, although I missed that particular protest due to my illness, I finished my women’s empowerment sign. I later became a leader in campus feminist politics—so it got good use.

Read: Women's History Month: 17 Women Who've Helped Us Have Better Sex

I recovered once again from labeling myself as dirty and tainted, used and easy. I like sex. I always have. I’m not the marching-in-the-streets women’s rights activist I once was; but asserting myself as a woman who embraces her desires feels like activism.

One day society will catch up with me.


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Photo for Remi Newman
Remi Newman

Remi Newman, MA, is a sex educator, counselor and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of sexuality. She currently works as an STI educator and counselor in Northern California. She received her master’s degree in sex education from NYU and is a PhD student in the human sexuality program at CIIS in San Francisco.

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