Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar sensation, or what, for me, is a familiar sensation: a tingle in my upper lip. A slight, hair tickle itch. Fizzy, like I’ve rubbed my mouth with the skin of a habanero pepper. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light, unconcerned about burning my eyes with the sharp, sudden brightness. In the mirror, I saw the faint irritation lining a section of my lip about a quarter-inch long, barely noticeable. From experience, I knew it would erupt in the next few hours. A cold sore.
I’ve been getting them since I was a baby. At six months old, my mother rushed me to the hospital with a fever, the inside of my mouth covered in blisters. My gums were purple, the sores were everywhere. I was so pale and listless, she thought I might be dying.
I’m thirty now. I’ve had these outbreaks my entire life.
I have herpes.
More precisely, I have herpes simplex 1. There are two common strains of the virus, and both can cause oral and genital herpes, but herpes simplex 1 usually causes cold sores instead of genital sores. I’ve never had an outbreak of genital herpes, and from reading forums online about the virus, I should count myself among the lucky. Both forms are transmitted through direct contact, and sometimes that contact is sexual (and condoms don’t prevent transmission). Because I was so young at the time of my first outbreak, nobody knows how I got the virus. An infected playmate’s Sippy cup. A sloppy kiss from a relative. (Both an aunt and an uncle of mine get cold sores, and I’d be lying if I said I never suspected them.)
I’ve treated my cold sores with lysine. With Campho Phenique. With isopropyl alcohol. With hydrogen peroxide. With wet tea bags and dabs of honey. With Carmex, Blistex, and Vaseline. Lately, I spend twenty dollars on miniscule tubes of Abreva that get lost in my purse and only last a couple of days apiece. Worse yet, I think my sores are developing immunity to Abreva; it doesn’t work as well as it used to. I don’t know what I’ll try next, and I feel desperate about those choices already.
People in my online forums often admit to desperation. They’ll try anything, they say, punctuated by numerous exclamation points. Oil of oregano is the big fad right now. Also, hemp oil. Some take Valtrex, a prescription medication most often used to treat genital herpes, but which is said to help minimize or even prevent the oral kind. I’m thinking about trying it. My cousin’s wife just earned her license as a nurse practitioner, and she treats her cold sores with Valtrex. The side effects list is long and includes weight gain, but I’m hoping she’ll pass me some free samples. I’m hoping I don’t have to get it from the pharmacy myself. I live in a small city, and I never know whom I’ll run into. My husband thinks this is an exaggerated fear in modern medical times. But people still give me looks and, sometimes, a wide, mortifying berth.
Which is why I love my friend who just sent me this, found on someone’s Twitter feed:
woke up with a cold sore, here is an example of how i feelz:
At the herpes forums online, people commiserate with narrative. They’re about to meet their significant others’ families when they get one. They’re about to give a presentation at their company. “My skin is a walking disease,” someone posts. “They ruin my life,” posts another. Some people admit to canceling dates, even whole vacations. Some call in sick to work.
I teach at the local private college, and I’m tempted to cancel class when a cold sore flares up. Beneath the unforgiving fluorescent lights of the classroom, I try to dispense my knowledge of source integration and MLA citation, sure that my students are staring at my oozing wound. Sometimes, when the sores reach their later, dried-out stage, they crack and bleed while I’m lecturing, and I have to figure out a reason to turn around, write something on the white board, and slyly wipe my mouth with my sleeve. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought of just addressing it directly, pointing straight to my face and saying, “Let me tell you about my cold sore, guys…” Recounting the story of six-month-old me in the hospital. Passing out literature that explains I’m not a slut.
Because that’s the assumption we make when we see a woman with a cold sore. In high school, boys would see me in the hallways and ask whose dick I’d been sucking. Strangely, my blistered mouth didn’t turn them off. As soon as the sores healed, they’d ply me with liquor at parties and solicit me for blowjobs. After a while, I complied more often than not because it seemed easier to confirm their suspicions about me, easier than getting defensive, which would have earned me a whole different kind of ridicule. This is one way I learned how to give one thing so I wouldn’t be asked to give another. My mouth instead of my vagina. A trivial secret instead of an important one.
When I see a woman with a cold sore, I have to stifle the urge to approach her. To gently ask her where she’s at in her life. To tell her that whatever it is, it’s going to be okay, though I have no proof that it will, and furthermore I don’t generally believe that it will.
I can mark my life in cold sores. Major events, marred. I defended my graduate thesis with a particularly garish lesion on my lower lip, so large that part of it was really on my chin. When I stepped into the hallway so the committee could deliberate my academic fate, another professor saw me and pointed at my face. “You’re nervous,” he said, teasing. In the pictures from the bar where a group of us went to celebrate, I’m covering my mouth with a pint glass, pretending to toast my successful defense.
When my father died six months ago, I worried that I’d have a cold sore at his wake. All week leading up to it, I slathered on the Abreva and took two or three Benadryl at night, hoping to shake the nightmares of his heart attack that kept unspooling like scratched videotape, hoping to calm my skin and sleep the shock away. In the numbness thickly layered atop my sorrow, inaccessible in those first days, I turned vain. I couldn’t bear the idea of shaking people’s hands at the funeral home with a herpes outbreak; for my image-conscious father’s sake, I wanted to be elegant and composed, a daughter ready to manage an estate, a task with which I, an only child of divorced parents, had just been saddled. I went to Macy’s and bought a new printed dress with a high, demure neckline. I bravely put on eye makeup. All day long, I shook hands and comforted devastated others. I didn’t cry once. I was, in some circles, accused of being frigid.
The next morning, a massive sore bloomed on my lower lip. It was so big and ferocious, so persistent and unresponsive to the usual remedies, that I still have a shiny, red spot: my first cold sore scar.
The outbreaks haven’t stopped since.
For me, grief is dynamic, a prism of shifting light, full of complementary colors that pair the most unlikely of emotions and impulses. Euphoria and despondency. Acceptance and rage. Meaninglessness and purpose. It has changed the pitch of both my wailing and laughing. It contains too many truths to see at once, so many that I stumble into contradictions on a daily basis, the open doors of intellect leading to connected, but vastly different rooms. At my best, grief allows me curiosity. I’m interested in it. I stalk its permutations ferociously, a tiger in tall grass watching a herd of wildebeest, trying to isolate one for a meal.
Estate management, on the other hand, is a mostly linear process of single answers. Medical and credit card bills. Houses and businesses. Lawyers and accountants. Notaries and signatures. Things That Must Be Done In Order By a Certain Time. My phone, on average, rings twenty times a day with various 800 numbers. My husband and I have spent the entirety of our savings trying to offset the costs my father’s finances had no chance of covering.
Estate management doesn’t just exacerbate grief. It’s antithetical to grief.
At six months, I’ve basically run out the statute of limitations on openly grieving. Friends who lost parents before me warned it would go this way; the reservoir of love filled in the initial days and weeks would dry up in the ensuing months when everyone else had moved on and I hadn’t. A few weeks ago, we had friends over for dinner and split a few bottles of wine (I’ll take pretty much any excuse to split a few bottles of wine these days). One of our friends mentioned a family member with Stage Four breast cancer, commenting on how she didn’t look like she was going to die. How is that possible, the friend wanted to know. I went to the bedroom and gathered up some photos of my dad to show how normal he’d looked in the months before his diagnosis. Cancer is deceptive that way, I said. It can live underground a long time, like the cicadas about to explode from the earth this summer, in numbers exponentially multiplying like a cell duplicating itself in an organ.
It would have been fine if I’d stopped there. But I kept going back to the bedroom for more pictures. Here he is at about forty, I said, flipping through the photos like he was a newborn baby and not my dead father. This is us when I’m about five. Here we are at my high school graduation. Hey, do you guys mind if I smoke a cigarette? I usually never smoke, but I just, you know, feel like one tonight, I said, opening a window. I knew I was making our friends uncomfortable, but I was feeling too wild by that point to care.
All my life, my mother has told me to tone down the level of my feeling. To quit worrying so much. You’re going to make yourself sick, she’ll say. And sometimes: You’re going to get a cold sore.
Losing my father has left me defenseless against them. As soon as one subsides, another sprouts. But at this point I’m almost getting used to them. And in a culture that relies on platitudes and Kübler-Ross grieving patterns (more linear structure, more single answers) to explain away in shiny-bright language how death makes us appreciate life (because, the unspoken part goes, we’re all going to die and don’t know when), I’m almost grateful for them. Cold sores render my pain visible and cast me out of social mores. It’s like I do have leprosy, so scared are people by the realities I carry everywhere, even on my face, in broad daylight.
Sometimes I’m still too embarrassed to lift my head as I walk down the hallway at work, or down the street with my dog. Sometimes I still wish I could disappear. But it’s like I tell my students as I stand there, exposed before them under the harsh fluorescents: You’re writing on behalf of the groups to which you belong, and we don’t always choose these groups. We don’t always choose to be women or teachers, lovers or mourners. We don’t always choose what we represent of this big, big life.