How My Fear of STD's Almost Ruined My Life
When people hear that you wrote a book about sex, they assume it's about fetishes, BDSM classes, and raunchy boning, and yes, while that's a part of it, the book was mostly about facing my tremendous fear, shame, and insecurity around sex and sexuality. Here's an excerpt from my new book, The Coitus Chronicles, I wanted to share it here because I think this chapter is important....
“You should go see a therapist,” Lindsay said gently.
“Are you kidding me? C’mon. It’s funny. I don't need to see a therapist to talk about sex. It's totally normal. I'm totally normal.”
This had quickly turned into a goddamned intervention and I wasn’t having it. Lindsay had recently started seeing a therapist and was convinced that it was a cure-all for everything.
Mary chimed in, “How do I say this kindly, you haven't had sex in almost five years and it seems like maybe you have an irrational fear of STDs.”
“No, I don't. I think it's perfectly rational and even smart to be concerned about sexual health. Anyone would agree with me,” I said.
Lindsay paused, carefully choosing her words. “We've been friends for fifteen years. And I've noticed that in the last five, you're a little more concerned than most people about STDs. You're not cautious, you're fearful and it’s affecting your relationships. You’re amazing. You deserve to be loved, but there's something inside of you preventing that from happening. Listen, sometimes it's useful to talk to someone about the stuff that's going on in your brain,” she said.
I sat silently for a second and thought about what they were saying. Two days later, I called Dr. Rachel D’Souza, a sex therapist based in NYC
For years people had tried to psychoanalyze me, trying to figure out why I was in a dry spell. Lindsay and Mary had tried to lovingly armchair evaluate me as long as we’d been roommates. I’d get annoyed because, in my mind, I was totally fine.
I wasn’t totally fine though. Lindsay was right, there was some stuff that needed to be addressed, not by well-intentioned friends but by an actual therapist. I began therapy after the Ben incident because I knew that I hadn’t totally behaved like a rational human being. If I wanted to fall in love or have sex ever again, I had to deal with my emotional baggage instead of pretending it didn’t exist.
During our first Skype video session, Dr. D’Souza asked me about my childhood, past partners, and the dry spell. We covered a lot of ground before I brought up my fear of STDs and what happened with Ben. I told her the entire story including the gargling of hydrogen peroxide.She listened intently, her mouth curling into a soft smile.
“That's a quick leap to make. ‘You are naked, I am naked, therefore I will get an STD.’ It sounds like you're having irrational thoughts.”
I laughed, No shit, that’s why I was talking to a therapist. I wouldn't have called her if my thoughts were peachy keen and totally normal.
“Where do you think this fear came from?” she asked.
I knew exactly where it had come from.
I had been diagnosed with HPV when I was twenty and still a virgin. My gynecologist left a message on my voicemail saying that I had HPV and it was super common.
Also, I had genital warts.
I had listened to the message in the front seat of my car in the Target parking lot as my whole body went numb. I had genital warts. My whole life, all I had ever heard was that people with STDs were “dirty” and that meant that you were “promiscuous.” There I was, a twenty-year old virgin with genital warts.
“What happened after you found out?” Dr. D’Souza asked.
What happened was that I lost my fucking mind.
Because I was young, and the healthcare industry didn't know enough about HPV at the time, I took on horrible beliefs about what that meant for my future. I convinced myself that no one would ever love me because my body was now a vessel for a transferable infection that no one wanted. I had several friends with herpes and most of them were in happy relationships. They knew that it wasn’t a big deal, not really, and had made peace with themselves. I couldn’t.
I did awful things that I read about on the internet to my body in an attempt to find a “treatment,” like soaking tampons in apple cider vinegar and placing them inside my vagina. The more it burned, the more I convinced myself it was working
I confessed this all to Dr. D’Souza with immense shame— that I had caused myself to suffer so much—and also anger. I was angry at my doctor for leaving a fucking message on my voicemail. I was angry at the healthcare industry for spreading unnecessary fear about HPV , a virus that usually becomes undetectable. My voice was cracking the entire time, tears dripping down my face...
...two years after my original diagnosis, I made an appointment with a new gynecologist to have my genital warts frozen off. During those two years I avoided dating. I’d go on first dates and call things off before I had to tell the truth. As I drove to the gynecologist, I prayed on the way that somehow, by some miracle, this had all been a bad dream. When I arrived, the waiting room was full of glowing pregnant women. The receptionist asked why I was there and when I said, “genital warts” my face turned red. Afterward, I avoided looking at any of the pregnant women. My shame was eating me alive.
By the time my gyno called me back, I was just grateful to escape the waiting room.While I lay there, dressed in a thin paper gown, my legs spread open, the gynecologist examined me for several minutes before speaking. I assumed her silence meant it was bad.
After a few minutes she said, “What genital warts?”
I looked at her, confused, certain that I had heard her wrong.
“Honey, you don't have genital warts.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She said it again, “You don’t have genital warts.”
“Wha…are…are... you sure?” I asked.
“I am 100 percent sure. Maybe you had genital warts at some point in time, but you don't now. Genital warts are caused by the Human Papillomavirus or HPV, and luckily, it’s a virus that usually works its way out of your body in a few years. We’re still learning about it but in most cases, both the HPV and the genital warts clear up on their own. I'll do a test for HPV but I'm willing to bet it's going to come back negative.”
Genital warts go away?!
I had been carrying this around for two fucking years. I let it dictate my self-worth. I let it dictate who I believed would love me and who I thought I deserved, which was no one. Still naked and shivering from the cold of the speculum, I began to cry deep sobs of relief. As predicted, the test came back negative. I was tested six times during the next three years by four different doctors. They always came back negative for HPV with no signs of genital warts.
Finally, one of my gynecologists said, “Weren't you tested five months ago?”
“You can never be too sure,” I replied.
She told me the guidelines had changed and the annual pap smear and HPV test was now recommended every three years. Studies had found that a positive HPV diagnosis was causing too much psychological damage to young women and, in most people, HPV was transient.
Or in other words, people were losing their fucking minds over an HPV diagnosis that would become undetectable. I stared at her for a second, incredulous.
“I was one of those people,” I said.
I was angry, again, at the fucking healthcare industry. I was angry at myself for allowing my own diagnosis to grow and expand so deeply into my personal narrative.
That anger returned when I was talking to Dr. D’Souza.
She listened intently, letting me tell the story in its entirety.When I was finished, she said, “That's very traumatic. I'm sorry you had to go through that. No wonder you're afraid.”
I appreciated her empathy. It was traumatic, and I hadn't dealt with it, so it was creeping back into my life almost a-motherfucking-decade later.
“Wanting to be safe is rational and responsible. Feeling deep fear around STDs, using tampons with vinegar, and rejecting partners who have been tested, is irrational. Do you see the difference? It’s the same logic as this, ‘If I go to gym, I will be healthier.’ That’s a rational thought. ‘If I don’t go to the gym, I will be unhealthy and die.’ That’s an irrational thought.”
It was hard to figure out where the line was. For years, I had convinced myself that I was being cautious and that was smart. If I was going to evolve as a person, I had to be honest with myself that my fear was crippling me. I listened as she gave me a strategy to combat my fears. It involved a series of questions to get to the bottom of whether the thought was rational or not and then using logic to calm myself. It seemed almost too simple.
I'm not sure what I was expecting but I wanted to be “cured” of my fear around STDs. I wanted to get off Skype and immediately be better. “Hello world! It’s me Olive, totally fixed and ready for sex.” That's not how therapy or life works so I wrote down Dr. D’Souza’s questions skeptically and studiously. We had a few more Skype sessions and I started to realize how far down the rabbit hole I’d gone.
Back when I had been diagnosed with HPV the internet knew nothing about it except that it “was a virus that lasted forever,” which obviously turned out to be false. A decade later, an internet search revealed other women who had done similar things to their bodies. Women who had had parts of their labia removed. Women who had ended relationships or sworn off dating.
When I read these stories, I found strength in knowing how alone we’d all felt.
I also started forgiving myself for the things I had done was I was young and scared.
I promised that I was never, ever going to treat my body like that again.
Dr. D’Souza and I knew that talking about it could only go so far though.
I needed to test her strategies in action. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long. Ben, the sexy Brit, came back to town...