'I Have Monkeypox, This Is What It's Really Like'

When I hung up the phone on Friday, June 17, my immediate thought was: "Well, this throws a wrench in my plans."

I had been told by a friend that I'd likely been exposed to monkeypox. I was shocked. But after reading it would take me at least two weeks to recover, my main concern was the fun I'd be missing out on. I was due to fly to New York to host some events for the city's LGBT Pride March. Plus, the July 4th weekend was coming up. I wasn't concerned with the pain or the symptoms yet. I think I was overconfident, or underestimated how severe it could be.

I first heard about monkeypox in April or May of 2022, specifically the outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. But I wasn't worried. It just seemed like this vague idea that existed somewhere out there. Maybe it was a minor concern, but I didn't know anyone who had it, so it didn't really feel like it affected me.

I suspect I didn't take the idea of monkeypox as seriously as COVID-19, because it seemed less transmissible and it didn't appear that as many people were being affected. My own experience of the pandemic was brutal. Luckily when I got the virus in March 2020, my case was pretty mild, but I was living in New York City as it became the epicentre of the pandemic and March through to June 2020 was tough. I was alone in my apartment for months.

Matt Ford
Matt Ford, 30, lives in Los Angeles and contracted Monkeypox in June. Matt Ford

Then, in March 2022, I moved to Los Angeles. By mid-June, I'd been feeling lethargic for a day or two when, on June 17, I began to notice skin lesions. The same day, I received a call from an acquaintance telling me it was likely he had the disease.

He said he and a few people we knew in LA had tell-tale signs of the virus and were already in contact with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). They were just waiting to confirm their diagnosis.

While we were on the phone I actually checked myself and noticed some lesions I hadn't seen before, so it became pretty clear at that point I probably had it. I'd been feeling more tired than usual, but it wasn't until Saturday, June 18, that I started to feel really bad. I developed intense flu-like symptoms which ramped up over the following five days. I had a fever, cough, sore throat, full-body chills and night sweats.

On the same day, the CDPH called and recommended I stay home to isolate, which I was planning to do anyway. I had a televisit appointment with my doctor's office to schedule a test for the following Monday.

The CDPH confirmed I had monkeypox on Friday, June 25, a week after I realized I may have been exposed to the infection. So, I now believe I contracted the monkeypox virus through skin-on-skin contact with an infected person in LA.

I was issued a court order to stay at home. It didn't detail a date when I can leave my house, but means I have to stay in isolation until each of my lesions have fallen off, with fresh skin underneath.

Shortly after it was confirmed I had the infection, my flu-like symptoms eased up. But I began developing more and more skin lesions. Initially, they had only appeared on my torso and more sensitive areas. They were minimal, I had fewer than five. They weren't that intense or irritable. However that changed as more started to appear.

I began to notice lesions on my shoulders, my legs, my hands and my feet. Three appeared on my face. They start out small and once they get bigger, they become itchy and irritable. Then, you have to wait for them to burst, scab over and eventually fall off.

The lesions in sensitive areas were severely painful. It was a constant, dull, sore pain with frequent harsh jabs if I moved the wrong way or irritated them.

It got so bad that I wasn't able to sleep through the night, so I had to be prescribed narcotic pain killers. Even after 50mg of Tramadol, plus the maximum dose of paracetamol and ibuprofen that I could take concurrently, and ointments to try and ease more painful lesions, it was just enough for me to go to sleep. It definitely didn't negate all of the pain.

There were multiple days where it was so painful or I was just so out of it from lack of sleep that I wasn't able to work. That persisted until the very end of June, when some lesions began to heal and scab over.

Now, it's a waiting game. When all my spots fully scab over and fall off I won't have to isolate anymore—but being alone is becoming more and more difficult. On Friday July 1, things felt really tough, it was two weeks since I learned I had been exposed to the virus and I was still isolating. It's a much longer game than COVID-19 in terms of isolation, and quarantine can drive you crazy.

At the end of June; I made a TikTok video about the disease because I felt I had an obligation to try and warn people. The most painful part of my infection coincided with Pride Month and because this disease is mainly impacting queer men, I was really concerned.

I may be one of the first Americans to speak publicly about monkeypox, but I am by no means the first person to get it. After speaking out on social media, swathes of people from the U.S. and globally, who are suffering quietly with this condition, came forward to tell me about their own experiences.

I think there is a common perception, primarily in queer men, that this infection is only sexually transmitted. People seem embarrassed to say they have it. I've also had strangers trying to dig into the specifics of my situation, asking questions about my sex life. I think that's invasive, I don't owe you that.

So I can see why people wouldn't want to speak out about it. I was on the fence at the beginning, because there is a sense of shame that can creep in or a sense of stigma. There are internet trolls who have called monkeypox a "gay disease" and used it as a target or opportunity to put others down.

In my case, the reaction online was overwhelmingly positive. Of course, social media can be terrible and more than a few people have been really cruel. I've had some really homophobic comments and messages. It was hard managing trolls who saw someone suffering and took that opportunity to make it worse. Then there were some people who thought I was lying, or there was a conspiracy theory, or that I had contracted monkeypox as a result of taking the COVID-19 vaccine. I didn't really engage much with any of that.

I don't think the monkeypox virus will be the next COVID-19. It's just so different. Yes there are a lot of different ways it can spread, in theory, but the predominant thing we're seeing in this outbreak is through direct skin-to-skin contact. That typically means kissing, sex, or touching a lesion. COVID-19 transmits much more easily.

If I were to predict what might happen with monkeypox, I would say that it's likely going to be miserable for a lot of people, but I do not think it's going to cause the same damage as COVID-19, or stop society. I could be wrong, but I hope I'm not.

Matt Ford, 30, is an actor, writer and video producer who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York. You can follow him on social media at @jmatthiasford

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Monica Greep.