An Eye for an Eye
“I’ll never be able to have sex again,” sobs 22 year old Ashley, her face, buried in her hands with her long brown hair falling forwards, her voice barely audible. “I don’t know how I could have been so stupid. I know better. I’m not some dumb freshman, for God’s sake. I know you don’t get drunk at a frat party and go have unprotected sex with some guy you’ve never met before. My life is over!” she wails.
It has been a month since Ashley confirmed that she has herpes. We have been dealing with nothing else since her diagnosis. She is understandably distraught, unable to move beyond the feeling that she has forever ruined her life.
I think about some of the patients who have, over the years, told me about having herpes: The 60 year old woman who felt forever dirtied and punished by God. The session with a man who began by saying he needed to tell me his “secret,” and was then for so evasive, that I became afraid he was going to tell me he had committed murder. The young woman who said she contracted herpes after she had been drugged and raped, only to tell me months later that she had fabricated that story to hide her shame. All tragic stories that forever cast a shadow over the person’s life. And now there is Ashley.
“I can’t believe I’ll never be able to have sex again. I’m only 22. I’ll never get married. Never have children.”
“Ashley, I’m by no means minimizing the pain and difficulty of having herpes, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have sex or get married or have children,” I say, trying to temper Ashley’s overwhelming feelings of despair.
“And risk doing to someone else what that asshole did to me! Never!!”
I think about the anger that almost invariably accompanies contracting herpes: the 60 year old who talked of being punished by God, my fantasy that my male patient might have committed murder, the young woman who fabricated a story of rape. Rage makes its way into the experience one way or another.
“I certainly understand your angry at that guy.”
“Yeah, I’m angry at him. Lot of good that will do me.”
“Well, it’s important that you’re aware of your anger, rather than being scared of it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re angry. You’d love to get back as this guy, but there’s really no way to do that. So you feel powerless and that makes you even more angry.”
“So, yeah, and what does all that mean?”
“You notice, Ashley, that you’re also getting angry with me, which is perfectly all right, but I think it’s an indication of how angry you feel and how easy it is to direct your anger at me or someone else.”
“You have nothing to apologize for. It’s just important that we look at what’s happening and try to understand it because I think it’s related to why you think you can never have sex again or get married or have children. I think you’re afraid – not consciously, of course – that your anger would spill over to a new partner, that perhaps you’d want to give him herpes, just as it was given to you.”
“No way” Ashley says, shaking her head emphatically, her hair flying from side to side. “I’d never, ever want to do that to someone else.”
“I know you’d consciously never WANT to harm someone else, but your unconscious desire for revenge is another matter. If you’re afraid of wanting to hurt, you might try to protect others from what you’re afraid is your dangerousness by depriving yourself of the pleasure of sex and marriage and children.”
“But how could I possibly have sex with someone and know I could harm him - especially if you’re saying I want to harm him?”
Although Ashley’s question might sound as though she’s still stuck, I hear some hope for she’s at least considering the possibility of having sex again. I reply, “It’s not that you’d want to harm a new partner, it’s that you might be afraid your anger could be expressed in that way. And the more we can deal with your anger here, the more you know about your anger, the less afraid you would be of expressing it unconsciously.”