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January 29, 2021

Dating with Herpes: Disclosure, Stigma & Healing

Episode 198

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Courtney Brame founded Something Positive for Positive People after his own herpes diagnosis and through his non-profit and podcast, he shares real stories and resources for people with positive STI diagnoses. He joins us to discuss shame, stigma, dating, suicide prevention and more including:

  • How he felt when he was first diagnosed
  • How he navigated the dating world post-diagnosis
  • How people respond when he shares his positive status
  • How to disclose to a new partner
  • How herpes serves as a compass for the body and self-care
  • The costs of herpes jokes
  • How we can reduce the shame and stigma
  • How to build a support system after a diagnosis

Check out the Something Positive for Positive People Podcast. Follow Courtney on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.

This podcast has been sponsored by Let’sGetChecked. Use code DRJESS to save at checkout!

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Rough Transcript:

This is a computer-generated rough transcript, so please excuse any typos. This podcast is an informational conversation and is not a substitute for medical, health or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the services of an appropriate professional should you have individual questions or concerns.

EPISODE 198: Dating with Herpes: Disclosure, Stigma & Healing

(00:05):

You’re listening to the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast. Sex and relationship advice you can use tonight.

Brandon (0:18):

Welcome to the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast, I’m your co host Brandon Ware here with my always lovely other half, Dr Jess.

Dr. Jess (0:26):

Feeling somewhat lovely this morning. I feel like we’re getting into our 2021 groove. And you know if we go back to the Dionne Roberts podcast on rest, I’ve been getting more rest and sleep than I ever have in my life. I think I’m growing. I think I’m an inch taller.

Brandon (0:41):

I’m gonna attribute it in all seriousness to shutting my phone off earlier, making that commitment. And I’ve been trying to stick to it in 2021. I mean we’re only a short time into that, but having that alarm set on my phone or whatever the setting is, to shut off my phone, is really I think helping me sleep.

Dr. Jess (01:01):

So we’re getting more sleep, but my sleeps are a little bit tormented. I feel like my body is still adjusting to this whole eight hours plus sleep, like I think my body was more used to five and now it’s like after five hours, even though we’re going to bed earlier, I’m waking up. But I think it’s getting us into a groove. I don’t know it feels good in the body.

Brandon (01:21):

I agree. It feels good. Almost embarrassed to admit how early we have gone to bed some nights

Dr. Jess (01:25):

Don’t tell the people.

Brandon (01:27):

We used to have dinner later.

Dr. Jess (01:29):

We used to go to remember, we used to make fun of the people who went to the club before eleven when we were young?

Brandon (01:35):

You’re going to the club at at ten thirty, eleven? What’s wrong with you?

Dr. Jess (01:40):

Now, we’re fast asleep, fourth cycle of REM. I don’t know how that works, so don’t quote me on that. Today, we are going to be chatting with an old friend of the podcast who is really doing incredible work in this field via his nonprofit organization, “Something Positive for Positive People”. And so he helps to provide therapy and support to folks who are diagnosed with herpes, and other STIs. And through his podcast, he shares his own story of diagnosis and the stories of other people who are diagnosed. And if you tune in or follow Courtney, his name’s Courtney Brame, on instagram, you’ll quickly learn that, you know really like the worst symptom of herpes and STI diagnosis is really the stigma and the shame. Because he shares and he receives countless messages from people who are devastated, and believe that you know their lives and dating lives are over after a herpes diagnosis. And with permission he shares these stories of folks who contemplate suicide, who believe that they they are now unworthy of love or happiness, people who stay in miserable and even abusive relationships because they don’t think they can ever date again. And these are really powerful stories.

Brandon (03:00):

I don’t think I realized that there was such a strong association between a herpes diagnosis and suicide. So when he brought that to light, I was amazed at the work that he’s doing, so incredible and he is literally saving lives.

Dr. Jess (03:16):

Yeah we talk about sex ed saving lives and sometimes we have to you know, explain that connection. But in Courtney’s work, it’s really, really clear. So I’m just thankful that Courtney Brame is joining us once again, and his work actually ties in perfectly with our sponsor, “Let’s Get Checked”, because they offer at home STI testing, you collect on your own, mail it in, access the result securely online. And testing of course is an essential part of safer sex, because for many STIs, the most common symptom is no symptom at all. So maybe there’s folks out there who need the reminder go get yourself tested, and if you’d rather do it from home, go to http://www.letsgetchecked.com and use code DRJESS to save, and to let them know that you learned about it here. And so without further ado, let’s invite Courtney to join us. Welcome back Courtney. How’re you doing?

Courtney Brame (04:07):

I am doing almost like guiltily well, despite how things going. For a lot of people at this point right now, there is a lot of overwhelm on my end in a positive way. So just this past week, was two weeks ago well “Something Positive for Positive People” now is a nonprofit organization. And I met with my board about me paying myself a salary in being able to partner with organizations to raise more money so that we can extend the services that we provide, which we’re providing mental health related services for people who have experienced a sexual trauma. That’s what I want to eventually be able to say, but right now for where we are, I’m basically paying for people with herpes to get therapy if they needed. So where we are right now, I got that approved. And now, I’m in conversations with some sexual health related organizations about partnering with them on their grant applications and getting funding. So things suddenly got very real for me.

Dr. Jess (05:18):

That’s great. Congratulations.

Brandon (05:20):

Yeah, congrats.

Dr. Jess (05:21):

Congrats on some much needed support. Because with a herpes diagnosis, oftentimes your medical practitioner will focus on the physical side but not necessarily the mental health side.

Courtney Brame (05:31):

Yeah, and one of the things that I’ve learned throughout just doing this work and recording the podcasts and all of the different conversations I’ve had with people, not only with HSV, but also have HIV or who’ve experienced a clamydia, gonorrhea, Syphilis diagnosis, is that there is a direct connection between sexual health and mental health. And I think that intersection is really were stigma resides. And until that gets addressed from that perspective, like I think there’s an over-emphasis on the fact that someone has an STI, being just like oh, “this is sex related,” when it’s also so mental related. And then that part is completely goes unnoticed oftentimes, like when someone’s being given a diagnosis.

Dr. Jess (06:24):

Well, let’s back up just a moment, for folks who haven’t listened to your podcast yet, but I know they will, can you tell us your story and why you started “Something Positive for Positive People”?

Courtney Brame (06:34):

I will keep this as brief as possible, because it’s such a long story, but the most important things are that I’ve been positive for genital HSV-2, which is the virus that causes herpes outbreaks, for about eight years now. And for the first four to five years of my diagnosis, I just kind of was doing things the way that I knew to do them. Which just meant, take care of my body, manage my stress, and just keeping my immune system up as best I could. It was year four, five into my diagnosis that I began to come across different communities of people with herpes. And this is in various social platforms as well as dating websites. And once I got there, like I was excited to be there because there were so many other people who were living with this. When you get your diagnosis, despite what the statistics say, you’re the only person that you know who has the virus, unless someone has opened up to you in the past, or in less someone opens up to you recently after your experience. You know, for many of us we’re the only person that we know. And so I got into these communities, and I start socializing, I’m dating and life is great for me. But here and there I would find that there was someone who expressed wanting to end their life after their diagnosis. So suicide ideation, even suicide attempts. And after seeing that a few times, it wasn’t just like a one off thing it was pretty common, and so I began to reach out to these people and go, “Hey you know it’s not that bad.” And this is probably the worst thing you can say to someone who is having suicide ideation. So what I started to do was a lot of these people didn’t look like me, they didn’t have my life experiences so to speak. So for instance like me saying that to a younger white woman or an older hispanic man or someone of a different ethnicity or age range or geographical location, didn’t really carry the same weight as it would from someone may have looked like them or had like similar cultural background. So I began just recording conversations with people that perhaps we otherwise wouldn’t hear from, these are people who are okay with their diagnosis. I mean there are good days and bad days, due to the stigma, but these are people who we would probably never hear from about their experiences, who were willing to just converse with me on a recorded platform, for me to send to these people directly. And after a while, to give you an idea, like there’s so many people that this was happening for, that I got overwhelmed with just sending emails and butchering the email address, having to resend, making sure they got it and all of that. So I decided to put all of these recordings up into one place which turned into the “Something Positive for Positive People” podcast platform.

Dr. Jess (09:30):

I love it. And now you’re also offering mental health support. And I’ve heard you say so many times that the worst symptom with herpes is the stigma itself. Why do you think there is such an intense stigma around herpes and STIs more generally? And how has it shifted over you know, your last eight years of experience?

Courtney Brame (09:50):

To answer that question, I would say well, I want to make sure to preface this with for many people, the stigma has seemed to be more worse than the physical symptoms are. And as far as how prevalent the stigma is, there are so many different layers of it. Like I think that one layer is from within the community of people who have HSV, like, I said you know when I found out I had it I was the only person I knew who had it for years. And then I came into contact with all of these different support groups, communities and resources, that are so challenging to find because of the shame and people not wanting to put their identities out there or risk being found out. So that in itself is one of the symptoms of stigma. Like just having, support being so challenging to find. I think that when a person is delivered their diagnosis from whatever healthcare provider they’re receiving it from, that is another layer. Because what happens is the way that a person is delivered their diagnosis often determines whether or not or how a person chooses to disclose. So if your healthcare provider is meeting you judgment, stigma, and they’re making these assumptions on you as someone who might have only had sex one time with one person, and then ended up testing positive for herpes, you’re gonna begin to have that projected on you and internalized, that now you’re gross, now you’re the kind of person who sleeps with everybody. And this is going to be the perception of you as you move forward. And that isn’t the case. And then there’s also the media of course, where we see the jokes and hear the jokes. And even now like there’s this campaign against Donald Trump saying “STD: Stop the Donald. Stop the spread of infection.” And that in itself is another one of those stigmatized things that just kinda goes unnoticed, because the priority in that is the presidential campaign and not necessarily on the mental effects of someone who’s affected by STIs, and what they may be experiencing. So because we don’t really have the reality of the experiences of people who are living with herpes, I don’t think that there’s really any call for change, like it’s not necessary or a priority, so therefore it’s like watching something as if it isn’t an issue. But to the people who are affected by this, it is in fact an issue, it’s just the stigma is also keeping us collectively in the cycle of suffering, in the not wanting to alleviate the suffering, because of the risk of people knowing what we’re suffering with, if that makes sense. And then I could go into more detail, but those are typically like the main three, the media, the people who are in fact affected by it, and then the source of our diagnosis. Those three areas are where I believe that the stigma is the most prevalent. And to answer your question about how it’s changed over time, what I’m noticing is that with a lot of the younger people that I speak with and interview, they’re dealing with this a lot better than some of the older individuals that I have conversed with. You know, some of the older people have like this idea of, “I’m taking this to the grave, I’m never gonna tell a soul, I’m only going to date other people with herpes.” And the younger people are like, “I’m not gonna let this define me.” They seem more empowered. I just interviewed someone who was diagnosed at age seventeen and she’s twenty one years old now, and she said her friends and her friends around her even in high school, when someone she disclosed to tried to out her, and tell the school “hey you know, she has herpes, blah, blah, blah,” her friends were able to stand up for her because they knew and they were like, “Hey why are you trying to bully our friend? Like that’s not cool.” And I think more of those kinds of experiences need to be shared so that people understand, “Oh this is an option. This is a way for me to operate and navigate the stigma. I don’t have to live in shame about this. I can utilize my support system and then be able to, you see how someone else’s being loved and cared for, despite expressing that they do in fact have herpes and they’re not being treated any differently for it.

Dr. Jess (14:20):

You know, that’s interesting. Do you think that having kind of allies around you is important, having people who will stand up? And you know when we think about all the different ways in which people are stigmatized and also marginalized, we’re at a point where there is pressure to speak up, even if it doesn’t affect you, and so I wonder if we’re at a moment where the same is happening around the stigma of STIs?

Courtney Brame (14:47):

Yes, yes. I am seeing that. And I was just thinking back and reflecting on like when I was in elementary, middle school. Like for instance, it wasn’t cool to be gay. Gay people got bullied. Gay people were made fun of, and there was like an interesting transition point between like middle school and high school, where there were people who would stand up for their gay friends even if they weren’t around. So let’s say someone called something gay, or they made fun of some one or something based on what they were attracted to, or how they presented themselves, or expressed gender identity. You know while I didn’t have the language for this in high school, I do recall seeing that these communities, the members of the LGBT community in my high school, were stood up for. They were cared for. And looking back now, I understand the terms like “in the closet” you know? Imagine holding this thing into yourself for so long and then finally being able to open up to your friend and say, “hey, here’s how I feel,” and then being met with nothing but love and support and ally ship? I see that as a direct parallel of where stigmatized individuals who are experiencing a positive STI diagnosis, and like navigating challenges with the stigma, people can draw from that experience of the LGBT community from when I was in elementary to high school and even to like now. Even if someone like for myself, I can’t think of any gay male friends that I have who are openly gay, but like for the people who come around me and may say like slanders or talk about someone who is, you can easily say, “Hey man that’s not cool.” And even myself being an ally, I’m able to step up and express ally ship in that way, to just help and support the people who I understand what they’re going through. But we can’t understand what someone else is going through if we’re not being communicated with about it. So there’s also the layer of being a safe space, or offering a brave space for people to share such a vulnerable bit of information about themselves.

Dr. Jess (17:08):

I think there’s a piece around cultivating a safe space regardless of whether or not you know someone’s diagnosis. So we know that number one, many people don’t know that they have a positive diagnosis, because many people are asymptomatic. We know as you just said, that the community in and of itself, the positive people, continue to shroud their own diagnosis in shame and secrecy. And so when we hear a joke about STI’s, when we share a meme like you described about “Stopping the Donald,” what we aren’t thinking about is the fact that there are positive people within our communities, there are positive friends on our feed. And so I think that what you said about, “Hey that’s not cool,” that might just be the language that we need to say like, “I understand the sentiment. I too want to “Stop the Donald.” But this also further stigmatizes people who have a positive diagnosis.” And I know that’s not always an easy conversation. I’ve been thinking about race. And I’m thinking about how I’ve always said to you Brandon that it’s not just about standing up when people are around, it’s about standing up to the little things, when people make racial, racist, micro-aggressions in private. And you know there doesn’t have to be a person of colour there for you to say, “yeah, that’s not cool with me, that’s not gonna fly.” And similarly, it’s interesting, I wonder if we can also speak up around not just the stigma of STI’s, but it’s sexual stigma altogether. There are all these different stigmas we attached to sex. And then it brings me to the intersection of race and sexual stigma. And I don’t think that we’ve ever talked about this Courtney, but is your experience, do you see it as different as a black man?

Courtney Brame (18:50):

The hard part about that is that I don’t really have any experiences to compare it to. Historically black men, at least in my life, have never really been open about their sexuality outside of the number of partners that we might have had. I’ve played sports since I was twelve years old, through college, that’s kind of been the extent of it. So there’s not really been conversations in this space of sex positivity and sex education. I’m learning about consent, and I’m learning that sex education in itself is much more broad than just “here’s how you don’t get in a STD.” And it just trickles down, and so many other layers, that I don’t really see experiences that parallel my own. There’s not really many role models for me navigating this space. So as far as like comparing my experiences, the only thing that I would say that I have to compare it to, would be like so many white women being in the space of sex education and how they talk about these aspects of sex education, and they’re saying that there is in fact like some racial elements that play a role there. But for for me like I just really haven’t known any different or had  any experiences that sort of align with what is being said on social media. But then again also, you know social media, it’s not really real life.

Dr. Jess (20:20):

So what about your dating experience? So your positive diagnosis came eight years ago, but you could have been symptomatic long before that. What was it like dating for you when you were first diagnosed?

Courtney Brame (20:31):

I tried to revert back into my old relationships with the people that I’ve already told. So one of my partners actually, she had assumed she had it because we had been sexually active for so long unprotected, and come to find out later she’d gotten tested and tested negative for HSV. So that was also like an interesting observation as well, that someone who has herpes can have sex with someone who doesn’t have herpes and be unprotected and not give them herpes. So that opens up a whole different conversation right there. But after that relationship ended, there was a period of me just being in and out of that relationship. And then one of the first people that I disclosed to outside of that, we ended up being together for a while. And one of her close relatives ended up actually having genital HSV-2. So when I disclosed to her, you know she kinda already had some information about it and she was ready and willing to move forward. After that relationship ended I think was when I really became single. So about three or four years into my diagnosis was when I really became single. And dating was hard. Like I would say I mindlessly navigated the dating space, where I would even reject myself prior to giving someone the opportunity to even give me a chance, because I was so hell bent on not wanting to tell people, “hey I have herpes,” right? So the shame around having to disclose my STI status was enough to keep me kinda stuck. And there were moments where I was braver and I would disclose and things were okay. And once I had those experiences to call from, I was able to move forward and like, “oh I can in fact, like I can do this. I can disclose, I can date on regular sites like everyday people. I can meet people in real life.” And I would still do that. But there are also times where I would completely self sabotage interactions just by like you know, not closing the deal so to speak out. Like if I’m out, way back in the dinosaur ages I guess it seems like now, when we could socialize and go to bars, and the conversation with someone and we’d be talking and things would be good, and then like I just end the interaction. Like, “all right nice talking to you.” Leave no phone number, no snapchat, no kind of way of getting back in contact with this person. And that was sort of what my pattern was as I moved forward. But I will say like once I got involved in like the HSV communities and found dating sites with people with herpes, that changed. It was almost like that one thing was really what was holding me back from expressing myself and being able to be like flirty and funny and myself really. So I had, I like to say like, I was in love for a lot of weekends. Because that’s kind of what it turned into, like you meet people. And the trouble with that is not a lot of people are close, so I met people in New York, Minnesota, in Texas and California. So I did a little bit of traveling so to speak over those time periods. And after like doing that for a while, I began to notice something. And this, while it’s relevant dating, it’s also relevant in real life. I noticed that I liked myself a lot more as someone who the people around me knew that I had herpes. So we’ve got these complete strangers online, and there’s like support groups and forums and things like that, and I’m so social in these settings. And then I get around people who’ve known me my whole life and I’m treating them like I should be treating these complete strangers, and it was like the roles were just reversed. And when I realized that the only thing that was different was the fact that these strangers knew that I had herpes, and these people who’ve known me for at least half my life don’t know, and I’m being very reserved and sheltered around them. So I had a very important decision to make when I hit the crossroads of having to start, you know opening up and began to disclose to at least my close friends so that they could be supported me. And in doing so, no one really like, no one shamed me or anything like that. No one was mean, no one was judgy, at least not to my face, and not to a point where anyone was able to get it back to me. So I felt like I had a damn good support system and a damn good circle of friends around me in order to have been met with such love and support. So just bringing that all to a complete close, like dating was a roller coaster for me until I began to get more comfortable around my diagnosis. I say more comfortable because — like as we were talking before the podcast — I’ve just been seeing a therapist over the last five months and learned that there were some things that needed to be dealt with surrounding my diagnosis. So I’ll stop there and like if you got anything you want to add before we go into that, let me know.

Dr. Jess (25:52):

I find this all really helpful, like the idea that you learn to like yourself by opening up, by not hiding. And there is such a burden in secrecy right, and it’s of course shrouded in shame. So I want to ask you, how do you build a support system? How do you disclose to people. And just your method, I know that not everybody will use your approach.

Courtney Brame (26:18):

As far as building a support system, I think that it’s already there. I didn’t realize it was until I started to utilize it and reach out. I didn’t actually go and pull someone new in, exclusively for the sake of disclosing to them that I have herpes. The people who were around me, who were like genuinely concerned, like, “hey man, why are you always on your phone?” Or like while I’m indulged in online platforms, like chatting with people and things like that. “Why aren’t you here, why aren’t you present?” These were people who care about me, asking me to be with them in times where we were physically in the same presence, but I’m somewhere else energetically. So that in itself gave me the opportunity to just easily transition into, “all right man, here’s what’s going on with me. I found out I have herpes and I’m bummed about it. Like I don’t even get outbreaks, but I have to tell people this, and it’s embarrassing,” you know? To just say how you really feel about it, in a place or to a person that has already been there with you like, they’ve probably already seen you struggle and suffer. Like some of the people that I told initially where my teammates. And we’ve got some embarrassing ass stories together, from just playing sports, so when I’m telling them this they were like, “Oh damn that’s it dude? You know well I had clamydia one time, or two times, a chronic clamydia even, or so and so has herpes. I hooked up with this person and they had herpes,” you’d be surprised what comes out when you just reach out to what’s already there around you. And I think that people have a sense of who they can and cannot tell certain things. But you don’t really know that until you try. So perhaps even trying to share something, you can even make up a story and say, “this embarrassing ass thing happened to me, and this is how I felt about it,” and just kind of see what a person’s response is. And if they’re responding well to this thing that you can easily pull back from like “I’m just kidding. I just wanted to see what you say,” then you know whether or not you’re herpes diagnosis is something safe for you to share with them. And then as far as like, did you just want to know about disclosing to your support system, or also dating?

Dr. Jess (28:41):

Everyone. I’m thinking, so when you do share your positive status with someone you’re dating, how do you want them to respond? What’s language that feels good for you?

Courtney Brame (28:51):

I find that there are three responses. Only three. There is “yes” as in acceptance, tell me more, I wanna learn more. There is flat out “no”. And then there’s “me too”. So you’ve got a 33.3, with the line over the three on the other side of the decimal, percent chance of being rejected. So that 66.6, with that line over the six, chance of getting the desired outcome. I’ve made a mistake throughout my time here calling disclosures successful because you move forward and have sex with somebody. I think that the nature of success in the disclosure needs to be, even the initiation of conversation around your sexual health status, and being able to set these boundaries in place, it’d be like, “Hey look, when’s the last time you were tested? What were you were tested for? Do you know?” and then being able to also offer that as well. I disclosed to one of my most recent partners, and I’ve output it online dating profile and she saw that and I still initiated the conversation when we in person. will be burned person. And I let her know,.= “Hey you here. this is how it goes. I have genital herpes, had it for about eight years. Now here’s what it means for me. It means that I could potentially give it to you. I’ve not had outbreaks. I’ve banished my stress, I manage my diet, I exercise to keep my immune system up to where it minimizes my chances of having an outbreak.” And so I’m telling her all of this, and then I ask her, “well when was the last time you were tested?.” And then she goes, “well first thanks for telling me, I have herpes too, and I was tested.” And she gave me the date that she was last tested and what she was tested for. And even me being someone who’s been open about this at least for four years now, and having this public platform, like still get a little bit of anxiety around disclosing because you generally don’t know how a person’s going to respond. So best case scenario you hear “I also have it,” second best is “tell me more,” and then the thing we fear the most, that’s least likely to happen, is for a person to call us disgusting and all these other names, block us, and tell everybody that they know that we have herpes. And this almost never happens.

Dr. Jess (31:12):

Right, so this is really about managing expectations and fears. And of course our greatest fear in every realm of life is unlikely to occur. Now, I’m sure you’ve also heard stories of people being very hurt and of people treating one another really terribly. And then also, there’s this piece that that I thinks so important, that so many people don’t know their status. So you happen to know your status because you’ve been tested. But you know, not only do you know your status, you also talked about managing the symptoms. So there is a term, I don’t know if you use the term “prodrome.” And I’m wondering if you can kind of just explain that to people.

Courtney Brame (31:52):

I myself do not use it, but I’ve seen it lately. And I think that it’s like, “I feel like an outbreak is coming,” that’s the kind of context that I see in it. So for me, what I’ve noticed is there’s a sensation of, I don’t know if you’ve ever had like an itch, a mosquito bite or something like crawling on you. There is a sensation that you get after you scratch and itch, temporarily. And it’s like a relief type sensation. If I feel that in my genital region, I know perhaps an outbreak is coming on, so I should take medication, I should refrain from having sex, at least you know using my genitals, with a partner, and those are just kind of what the precautions are. What I’ve learned is that herpes is really good road map or compass for you to take care of yourself, making you take care of yourself because it’s like okay, I’ll even give you this example. I was under a very stressful situation, when I felt that I was going to get fired from a job. I got fired from my job. I had an outbreak. There was another time where I was going to go housesit for someone, and I was doing all the prep, and like budgeting for it and everything, and I had lots of anxiety, and I felt that sensation as well. And it was like okay, I need to say no. And I was like, “hey, I’m not gonna house it for you. Like I’m not gonna be able to do it,” and I felt such a relief like just on a mental level, and I notice that those symptoms went away. So like high stress situations are triggers for me, when I’m not doing anything about them. And I wanna make sure to say that, because like even now with hosting “Something Positive for Positive People” and doing what I’m doing for the nonprofit, this is a hard, stressful situation. But I’m doing something with the stress. So as long as that energy, to me, at least is moving, than that is what it means for me to manage stress. So I’m still putting myself under stressful situations even in working out, yoga, these are stressful situations on the body. But I’m moving it, like I’m making sure to do something with it. And a lot of times what I’ve experienced talking to the people, when they get really stressed out and bummed out about their diagnosis, there is often something underneath that that just isn’t moving. There’s no progression towards anything and they just like get heavy and heavier and heavier and more and more down about the fact that they have herpes and all of the things that really came with it.

Dr. Jess (34:31):

You know. I know you’re an athlete. You just brought up something about herpes being a good compass for taking care of yourself. Not just your body, but your mind and you’re whole person. Have you found that since your positive diagnosis you’re able to recognize stress better in your body and attenuate its effects, or reduce the triggers?

Courtney Brame (34:53):

This makes me think about an interesting story. So there was a time in college where I thought I did have herpes, is before I actually had it. So I go in and I go to get tested, and you know as a college athlete, you’re working out regularly. You’ve got practice. You’ve got games. And you’re constantly eating, constantly moving. So I get tested and the results come back negative. What I noticed on my test, was that it said it was an “anybody” test. So if you test above the number one for instance, than you are positive for HSV. One or two, whichever one was listed. If you test under that number, than you’re considered negative. What I did notice was that there was a presence of antibodies in my system. But it wasn’t enough for me to have tested positive. So I don’t know if it was repeated exposure, or with time that this was able to get to a point where it was positive. So perhaps I was in early stages of it. I have no clue. But two years later is when I stopped playing sports, I’m lazy, I’m living with my grandmother who’s cooking all these fried foods and getting take out all the time. And I said, “you know what, F this, I’m never working out again.” Because like working out and running and all those things were punishments for me. So lo and behold, I get an outbreak one day, and you know I look up and I’m like all right, well where am I at? I’m like two hundred and seventy pounds at this point. Not doing any sort of physical activity and — bam. Outbreak. So what I learned from that is okay shit, maybe I did have this for a while. And the fact that I was so active was something that kept it at bay, it was something that kept my numbers under what it would have been in order for me to test positive. Or maybe that wasn’t the case, we’ll never know. But that was just an interesting observation for me. So yes it did in fact change the way I did things. Because I was like, I never want to experience this again. I never wanna see my genitals look the way that they did when I had that first outbreak. I don’t wanna feel that discomfort. And I don’t want that like reminder of those initial feelings that I had. And I know that it could still come up. It could still happen. But I know that I’m doing everything I can to at the very least minimize the possibility of it being a recurring thing.

Dr. Jess (37:20):

And I’m not, I don’t want to suggest “oh here’s the silver lining,” But I wanna clarify, you talk about something positive, and you talk about all the positive things for positive people, but also you’re realistic about it. Do you find that you take better care of yourself overall since the diagnosis? Is that a positive outcome?

Courtney Brame (37:40):

Way better care of myself. Yes. Like I’m learning all things in moderation, so I tried this vegetarian at home shit, and that did not work out well for me, like I did it for a long time, but even when I go out to eat, I’m not gonna limit my options right? So I find that, I just ate out more. And I would eat even, probably even more shitty, to fill myself up at home. So I’d eat rice and veggies, and just be like, “oh right. I guess we’re going to have dessert.” Whereas when I eat meat at home, I may not even want dessert. So as of yesterday actually I started incorporating meat back at home. And I’m just cooking a lot more of my own foods. So that’s the change that I made, but I think also like some people are just designed to eat meat, so I might be one of those people. And yeah, it made me at the very least look at options as far as taking better care of myself. And not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally too. So having this diagnosis really also highlighted the fact that I had this boundarylessness to me. And I can point out a million situations where I’ve just not had boundaries with people in my life, and found myself in a situation where it was an undesired situation. And throughout the process of getting to that point, I just didn’t have any boundaries there. So you know when I woke up one day it was like, “oh shit I don’t have boundaries,” I learned the importance of being able to say “no,” and also be able to say “yes” to the things that I absolutely want to say “yes” to. And being able to manage and set expectations as well, as like you said, that’s been another thing as well. So through heavy consistent sexual health conversations with partners, that’s also helped with other areas of life, being able to do that with other relationships, with friends, with family members, with yeah potential partners, but also business partners and at work, and working with people, just strangers, and setting the expectations. Not only for how you’re going to treat people but also how you’re gonna allow yourself to be treated.

Dr. Jess (39:51):

I like that you talk about the positive sides for you personally, also outside of the dating and relationship realm, because obviously a STI diagnosis affects all these different areas of your life. Now before we let you go, I want to ask you just to leave us with some insight on what each of us, what listeners, what Brandon and I, what therapists, what health practitioners, what can we do to reduce the shame and stigma around herpes and other STI’s. What can we do today or tomorrow?

Courtney Brame (40:26):

First, just recognize that we all do know someone who’s living with an STI, who’s had an STI, and that the sex piece should not be exclusively what’s focused on. We should focus on the mental piece so that we can see, “oh, there’s an entire person here.” So developing allies, having ally ship from the people around us is what’s most necessary at this point in time. I praise sex educators because not only do you have to do a lot of teaching, but you have to do a lot of un-teaching. Like a lot of the learned things that the people, that the masses have, really don’t apply in this space anymore. And not only that but you also have to let people know, “hey sex education is not just sex. It’s also consent. It’s also relationship management. It’s also body autonomy and knowing your body parts and your anatomy.” And all of these different pieces that go into it. So y’all doing the work of the divine really. So I wanna make sure to give you all my praises, in regards to that. And then as far as healthcare professionals go, you know taking it back to the sex and mental health piece, people who receive a herpes diagnosis, like the way that your STD prevention or intervention efforts come off that person, are gonna directly impact whether or not that person goes on and gives someone the informed consent that they need in order to move forward, or they just choose not to say anything at all. So it’s very important that our healthcare providers are able to be equipped with the tools they need in order to see this from a mental health perspective as well. The CDC actually, the CDC does not recommend testing for HSV, because it shows no behavior change. And I think that something to really highlight as well is that, yeah perhaps it doesn’t show any behavior change, but it highlights a behavior that perhaps needs to be evaluated, and perhaps be evaluated with a mental health provider. Someone else I was speaking to — and I’ll wrap this up here — yesterday actually, she opened up to me. We interviewed on previous episode, the “F Boy” podcast episode right, I forget what number it is so if you search, that’s the one it is. And we talked specifically about one relationship that she had where she received her diagnosis, but there were pieces of that that parallel previous relationships, where abuse took place and gas lighting. And these were things that she didn’t recognize until herpes brought all of this to the surface. And it was like, while she was dwelling on the fact that she has herpes, there were these underlying things. And once she began to explore the herpes diagnosis, she was like, “oh my god, I have a pattern of having abusive partners and not having my “no” be heard.” And this was something that was just eye opening for her. This is something that happens on a regular basis for people, and it takes for them to be willing to pursue the healing, for them to the look at these things and do the work that’s required in order to heal. This is what we can uncover from our herpes diagnosis. And for many of us, it just starts with our first points of contact when we open up to someone about what it is that we’re going through.

Dr. Jess (43:58):

That makes so much sense. So I want to really thank you for your time, your perspective and encourage people to head on over to “Something Positive for Positive People,” available on all podcast platforms and look either to support, and listen, and learn I. I know many sex educators and folks working in the helping professions are listening, and I learned so much from you and so much from your guests. You talk about so many different things. And what I’m finding most interesting, is that intersection of sexual health and mental health. And the way stigma, it exists at or around that intersection. So thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it.

Courtney Brame (44:38):

Thank you, I appreciate you for extending your platform for this conversation. So I’m appreciative, love the podcast, thank you for what you’re doing, you and Brandon. Thank you both. And Kelly, shout out to you.

Dr. Jess (44:52):

Kelly is producing behind the scenes. Thank you. And thank you to you for listening. Thanks to. “Let’s Get Checked” for their ongoing support. Please share, subscribe, and review, wherever you get your podcast, so more folks can dive deeper into these important discussions on sexuality and we can continue to destigmatize all these discussions around sex. I mean this is about pleasure and fulfilment yes, but it’s also about enriching, and as Courtney is doing, saving lives. And we know that sex ed can do just that, especially for folks in communities who are forced to the margin, so let’s keep spreading the good word. So take care of yourselves folks today, and thanks again for being here.

(45:38):

You’re listening to the Sex With Dr. Jess podcast. Improve your sex life, improve your life.