I’m in the 2nd grade: a new kid in a new country, shy, scared, and thinking about love. This was a worthwhile distraction, my 7-year-old subconscious must have thought, from actually feeling the full anxiety of that moment. As I looked around the classroom, my young brain went to work: hmm, who do I have a crush on here? (Not much has changed, I wryly realize as I write that.)
I decided that I liked funny boys. It happened during group time, when we’d arrange four desks into new clusters, tasked to an assignment that felt very important and a little bit stressful. One day, I was in a group with a boy named Kit. He was kind and unassuming and undoubtedly the class clown. His humor diluted my anxiety right away and I easily fell in love with his comfortable grin. I have the clearest memory of him sitting across from me, holding a sheet of paper folded into a classic 80’s fortune teller. He was playing with it in a ridiculous way and creating laughs in me that took me outside of my nervous mind and into the deeper presence of joy. I was floored that someone could open me up in such a way that superseded the shyness that I was so accustomed to. It was as if I could relax and be my real self now, in this new classroom of all places, with Kit! When he got up to go to the bathroom, I turned to my friend and said, “Wow. I like him.”
Of course she told him as soon as he returned (WTF, Rachel?!), but my mortification was quickly eased by the bright smile on his face as he said that he liked me too. Can you imagine, reader?! The heat on my cheeks and accompanying elation was the first of many a new sensation I would know and crave. And so my addiction to love began. He was my first boyfriend.
As I went home that day, I felt a thrill that I could barely contain. That feeling still happens today in those moments of early love and requited affection, when an entire new world seems to open inside, containing you both, and all you want to do is smile in sunlight and write poetry about it. We were “boyfriend-girlfriend” for a year until I moved, and I was that weird seven-year-old who came home on Valentine’s Day with a delicate pewter vase, engraved with a rose, from my goofy, adorable seven-year-old boyfriend. The other girls weren’t really doing this. But I had found love. I felt special.
This pattern followed me for the rest of my childhood and into adulthood. I loved love and smugly considered myself a hopeless romantic. Despite always having close friends, partnership remained a primary focus that would often shape my actions and choices, and society only helped to enable this obsession. Finding love and being loved was where I derived value and a sense of safety. I was an introverted, sensitive, third culture kid who craved connection but moved from one country to another every few years, never quite knowing what home was. Once I’d finally find a sense of belonging and ease, it was time to move again. I remember sobbing on plane rides as I read goodbye notes from my friends (and boyfriends, of course), feeling like my entire world had just ended and hating that I couldn’t do anything about it. Most of all, I hated that I’d have to start all over again, from scratch.
The anxious little new girl who was scared of life remained inside me, and though it would take me decades to admit it, I certainly didn’t love her. So I had to outsource it. And if I found someone who could make me feel at ease, like Kit did that day in class, then maybe I could unhook myself from the anxiety — and be my real self! That’s all I really wanted. My soul was so tired from hiding and playing small.
The special kind of intimacy that a partnership seemed to offer felt like my ticket out of the fear train that dominated my thoughts and behavior. Perhaps if I found someone who could fully see and love me, unmasked, then maybe I wouldn’t be so exhausted and scared anymore. I would have relief and freedom, even if only with that person. I dreamt of finding someone who could know, understand, and hold space for all of my parts — a really difficult task, considering I hadn’t even been able to see or hold space for all of this myself yet.
I can hardly recall being single for more than six months at a time during my teenage and early adulthood years. Love was my drug. At times I jumped from one relationship or love interest to another, strategizing so that I wouldn’t have to suffer through the heartbreak of being alone again. Each time a relationship didn’t work out, I picked up the pieces of my knowing heart, fumbling to put it back together and promising I’d do it all right the next time, but that was part of the problem. I kept looking up and outside — on to the next feeling and person, regardless of who they were — instead of down and inside, at my actual heart who, in retrospect, was really very wise, and likely shaking its head at me, waiting for me to wake up. But the little girl in me didn’t realize there was anything inside that could help. So I kept hoping for someone better, something more real, someone who would finally get me and save me from this life and its accompanying fear, malaise, and loneliness.
I pursued and was pursued, dating a spectrum of wildly different personalities and sensitivities, but I was often unsatisfied in love. I betrayed myself over and over as I twisted myself into all of these new lives and personas — the eternal new girl, a chameleon, so adaptable. My relationships were often centered around the other person and how I fit into their life, even though what I actually wanted — to fully be myself, to be really known, and to love, be loved, and experience life together from that authentic space — was the opposite of what I was creating with my partners. And as all who know this territory know so well, I hurt people and I got hurt, time and again.
That’s how I came to the conclusion that I was being punished.
I’m in my gynecologist’s office: 30 years old, legs spread in that room as usual, but it wasn’t my annual exam. I lay back in raw, embarrassing pain, confused and staring at the ceiling in horror as my doctor said, “Oh honey, this looks a lot like herpes.”
IMPOSSIBLE! I kept echoing inside, each syllable sounding a slow, hollow bell at the pit of my stomach.
I was in a new relationship at the time — one of those opportune ones that had recently swept me up in a rebound moment, as they often did, as I usually let them. But there was no way he could have given me herpes, I naively thought, remembering how impressed I’d been when he brought up safe sex practices, and how the words felt like enough for me to trust him. How could this happen…why didn’t I… but then how come he said… there were so many questions as I settled into a fun-packed month of denial and shame.
When the positive test results came back, I started losing nights in herpes research (because honestly, I knew nothing about it), and I couldn’t help but think that it had just been a matter of time given my history and how common of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) it is. Yep, I thought, this is what I get. I’m being punished for being so love-crazy, for rushing into another relationship, for trusting people blindly, for not using a condom, for hurting my exes, for being a bad friend — and don’t forget about being a bad sister and a bad daughter and a bad, stupid, ugly woman.
Friends, this was my dark time. But the worst part about getting herpes wasn’t really the herpes.
Important side note: Once you learn about genital herpes, it’s quite shocking and, frankly, ridiculous how stigmatized it is in our society. It is simply a skin condition: for those with symptoms, an outbreak shows up as cold sores in the genital area that typically go away after a few days. They vary in frequency and intensity from person to person — from painful to some discomfort to a mild itch, and occurring once a year, a few times a year, or hardly ever. As time goes on, the frequency of outbreaks often diminishes. Most people with genital herpes are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, which accounts for why many people have it without even knowing it.
The worst part about the herpes was that it kept me in that relationship, which became extremely abusive, for much longer than I probably would’ve stayed. I was good at moving on, after all, especially when my warped standards were not met — you know, for The Best Most Intimate Love That Understands and Sees Me Fully and Will Save Me From Fear and Fix The Sad Parts Inside My Heart. Ha! This guy was definitely not meeting those standards. But now that I had herpes, I felt stuck with him. Who would want me now? Dating was already something that challenged my anxious self, and now it felt certainly out of the question. How was I supposed to date with an STI? On top of all my other insecurities, now I had this stigmatized thing called herpes. So I stayed with the mean guy, and I tried to make it work.
A year later, life kicked herpes to the curb when one of my sisters died unexpectedly. In a twisted thankful way, this adversity woke me up enough to finally eject the abuser out of my life. Dating and being single with herpes didn’t matter so much to me anymore. Not coincidentally, once I left him, my frequent outbreaks (which are often caused by stress) stopped entirely. This was despite the fact that I was still under the stress of grieving my sister’s shocking death and going through a breakup that had some frightening and honest should-I-call-the-cops moments. But the outbreaks finally stopped! After months of struggling through an unhealthy relationship and constant doctor visits over outbreaks that never seemed to end, arguing with pharmacists about antivirals with tears in my eyes, fibbing to my boss about why I needed to telework — I finally saw how my body had been crying out with those little sores, pleading with me to get us out of something that was crushing my light and was much larger than an STI.
And now that I was free, despite a grieving, broken and bruised heart, my body could finally exhale. So when the outbreaks suddenly stopped, that in itself was an important lesson in listening to and believing my body and its stress response. Today, I’m happy to report that I can’t even remember the last time I had an outbreak. Whenever I do feel one coming on, I see it as my body’s signal of stress and I can step back and even approach that with a sense of gratitude — something I never would have imagined possible in those early days after my diagnosis.
After my sister died, I took a couple much-needed years off of romance. When I decided to dive back in, it was mostly through herpes dating sites. I met a few wonderful people this way, and some equally not-so-wonderful people, but that’s besides the point. The point is that we have relationships with ourselves that are just as real as the relationships we have with other people. And the message that I was sending to myself during this time was that I wasn’t good enough for the regular dating apps.
The thought of having to disclose herpes to someone I liked was terrifying, and I thought so little of myself that I was convinced that most people would leave me once they found out. I had already tried telling one guy I’d been seeing for several weeks, and he promptly ghosted me after the disclosure. Why bother risking that level of rejection? The herpes dating app felt safe in that way, but each time I updated my profile, I was deliberately turning my back on my heart — and on myself — bit by bit. In my fear of being rejected by others, I was rejecting myself and hiding again, this time with a specialized dating app.
A couple relationships and years of therapy later, I had deleted the herpes apps and found myself smack dab in the middle of a spiritual quest for self-love. Like I said, that heart of mine was actually very wise and wasn’t about to let me escape this journey. I remember seeing the quote, “Every cell in your body is eavesdropping on your thoughts,” and feeling the truth of that statement in my bones. And although I had a long way to go, I committed to taking more responsibility for those thoughts that my cells were eavesdropping on.
My sense of self-love felt artificial in the beginning. It was more of a longing for something I didn’t even know how to identify. I now realize that I was just planting the seed with my intention, because that is the first step, and nothing about this work is fast or linear. I started by identifying Gigi — the name I give to my inner critic (you know, the really judgmental part of me who was calling me stupid and ugly a few paragraphs ago). I began the process of getting to know her and all the other parts inside of me. By this point, I had released a lot of my herpes shame and often forgot I had it — in a moment of bravery, I even shared it in a storytelling workshop. The 30-year-old me in her gynecologist’s office would NEVER have believed that kind of courage was possible for us! Sometimes I pretend I can time travel and beam her some love and words of comfort: just hang on sweet heart, you’re going to be okay — more than okay.
I also noticed something important when I started talking about the herpes. More often than not, people responded with, “I have it too!” Or they’d share a story of someone close — usually many someones — who also had it. This made me realize that genital herpes is ridiculously common, and that there was important work to be done in normalizing and reducing the stigma around this silly skin condition. But I wasn’t quite there yet.
While traveling one summer, I befriended a kind, smart man, and when our friendship morphed into intimacy, I found myself needing to disclose to him one night. Having to tell someone new about my herpes always feels like the first time all over again — heart racing, fear of rejection, defenses and explanations ready to fire. We had been cuddling after a long event-packed day, and the silence that followed my disclosure felt like a heavy, hollow drum, waiting to be struck. “Thank you for telling me,” he had said, and then: silence.
Around this time, I had become more passionate about mindfulness and self-care, having completed several courses, retreats, and meditating regularly with a community. A sense of purpose had been bubbling up inside of me with this work. Actually, it was more like an explosion — I knew at my core that my life’s work would be intricately connected to mindfulness and inner exploration. As I lay there in silence, waiting for him to say something — anything, please! — I recalled a practice one of my meditation teachers had shared for handling difficult, overwhelming emotions.
In the exercise, you locate the place in your body that you feel the difficult emotion most. Then, you imagine there’s a window open right in front of that spot (that night, it was my chest), and all of this beautiful, clean air is coming in, flowing through the window and into and through that part of the body as if it is porous, like pumice stone. The air was going through my heart, out the back, and then returning through the chest and figurative window as I continued to intentionally breathe, each time filtering and cleansing the difficult emotion a bit more. With practice, you’ll notice the emotion start to shift in the body, as the intensity comes and goes in waves of varying size. Over time you may start to feel more expansive, like you can handle the waves of the emotion — like you’re actually the entire ocean. Nothing lasts forever, and being able to sit with difficult emotions and watch them morph within the body was a breakthrough for me in itself.
So as I lay in the hotel room bed, staring at another ceiling, with my new romantic friend lying next to me in silence, processing the information I had just given him, I was terrified. But I had tools now, and I put one to use. The imaginary window in front of my chest opened, and I was just breathing through it, eyes to the sky. After several minutes that felt like hours, my friend, who I didn’t realize had been staring at me, probably perplexed, quietly said, “You look so calm right now.”
I turned my head, finally able to look him in the eye since my disclosure, and laughed at the irony of his statement. I told him about the simple mindfulness practice I was literally doing at that moment to try to calm myself. I was so excited that he could see and feel the change in my presence, so much so that I didn’t care about the herpes disclosure anymore. I began animatedly telling him about my mindfulness journey — how it had been a saving grace for me that year, and what I was learning, and how it was helping me in deep and subtle ways, like right now. My friend’s face lit up when I finished, mirroring mine, and he said something sweet and poetic about how beautiful it was to see me talk about my passion, and how he could see me teaching this one day, and how inspiring it all was. Ah, yes. This was it. I felt seen. I felt love. I couldn’t have asked for a better herpes disclosure moment. And for those who are wondering, it ended in some steamy intimacy that’s up there on My Top Ten Sex Moments (Another important side note: having herpes does not mean the end of your sex/dating life! The rate of transmission is quite low, and it’s brought even lower by using a condom and/or taking suppressive antiviral meds regularly.)
Fast forward to 2020. Two weeks into the Coronavirus pandemic, I found myself in the throes of an abrupt breakup. We had only known each other for six months, but I had fallen hard, as you know I tend to do, and the ending hurt. And though I was not a stranger to heartbreak, this time everything was different. This time the world was upside down. It was the early days of lockdown and I was alone in my apartment without the usual distractions to soothe my broken heart, all the while also coping with the news and the uncertainty, the virus and the deaths, the fear and confusion, the friends and family arguing over safety and… yeah, you know the drill.
But here’s where my self-love quest took off like a rocket ship, landing me on a whole new piece of ground that I didn’t even know existed. It began organically, with a transformation in my self-talk. As I sat in the shock of the breakup one evening, I heard myself say out loud, “Okay… It’s just you and me, kid. And we can NOT afford to collapse over this one, because the world is falling apart right now and you’re alone and probably will be for a long time… But I got you. And you got this. We got this! It’s going to be okay.” And then something funny happened. Now, this wasn’t the first time I had tried talking to myself, so it’s not like that in itself was the magic. But it was the first time I realized that I whole heartedly believed the voice.
My years of mindfulness practice, alongside courses in positive psychology and deep work with a therapist had been increasing my ability to recognize the observer within and witness my inner dialogue from a new space. This new space allowed me to listen to the inner voices and get to know all of those parts inside with a sense of curiosity — the good, the bad, the ugly — and also the wise, caring soul who had always been there, and was ready to step up. In the words shared by Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within us.”
It was just a breakup, not annihilation, but something about going through another one of these at 37 years old, and now alone during an unprecedented, difficult global time, inspired so much self-compassion for that lifelong yearning I’d had for love, and for the scared little girl inside, that even my inner critic Gigi was silent. In fact, she was listening too. And so I kept talking. Out loud. To myself. And I continued to do this for weeks. Until it became my new way of being.
My self-talk practice during those early weeks helped me develop a relationship with myself that finally felt real and loving. I spoke to myself all day long and just as I would to a dear friend — to my most favorite friend — and over time, I became exactly that. When Gigi would pop up with her own critical words, I stepped in gently and spoke back to her, sometimes laughing incredulously at how unkind she could be, but understanding that she was just scared, and befriending her too. In the beauty of synchronicity, I had also signed up for a mindful self-compassion course that began shortly after the breakup. This helped me develop and practice that more loving relationship with myself through deceivingly simple tools that held great power and transformation.
As it all started to stick, I was delightfully surprised to discover an incredible new capacity for joy and humor that opened up inside of me. It showed up in small, meaningful ways. I began catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, for example, and feeling startled by an outpouring of love and an ability to deeply see my own inner and outer beauty. I laughed at myself when I dropped things, made messes and mistakes, or did something embarrassing, and sometimes even Gigi would laugh along, instead of her usual judgment. I kept thinking this must be a phase, some mania of some sort, but then the joy never went away. I found myself enjoying my own company in a novel way and was amazed at how content I could feel, even in my solitude and heartbreak and amidst the continuing chaotic status of the world.
By holding space for my feelings of brokenness and really letting myself feel the sorrow, I also tapped into a deeper sorrow, which was the sorrow of this human existence, the sorrow that touches us all. It was not just mine; we were all hurting in our own complex ways, all doing the best we could, and the tenderness that this inspired for humanity allowed me to break through to that deeper capacity for joy and compassion. As my self-love grew, I distinctly noticed that my patience, love, and warmth toward others was expanding as well.
The solitude that the months of lockdown provided had also given me some space from my anxiety, which was often triggered by dynamics around people pleasing. I began approaching this, too, with more curiosity and understanding. I had never had a good relationship to my anxiety. I kept it hidden and it was the thing I hated most about myself. Once I fell in love with myself, however, I was able to see my anxiety in the deeper context of my childhood and life experiences. I was able to connect that sorrow to the sorrows of common humanity and the varying levels of trauma that touch us all. I welcomed an attitude of tenderness while processing all of the years I had betrayed myself looking for others to save me, blindly putting them on pedestals instead of honoring myself and the wisdom within. The love that my friend had mirrored to me in his eyes that night in the hotel room was now something that I could mirror to myself. It felt as though I saw myself through the eyes of a lover now, and that lover was me. And she saved me.
© 2020 Alma Ortman. All Rights Reserved.