When Emily D., 26, walked into the doctor’s office in late 2015, she was convinced the painful, burning sensation happening in and around her vagina was the result of a new, lacy thong she had just purchased.
"The burning was not constant, but there was a stinging pain when anything rubbed against my vaginal opening," she says. "At some points of the day, it was a pulsating pain. But the more I thought about it, the more intense it became."
She consoled herself with this underwear belief, even suggesting to the doctor and nurses that it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—an STI. "I was quickly brought back to reality when the doctor stated that my lesions looked like herpes," she says.
According to World Health Organization, more than one million sexually transmitted infections are contracted every day. And though STIs (the more modern term of "STD") are predominantly spread through sexual contact, there aren’t always visible signs or indicators that you may have one.
Like in Catherine's* case. Unlike Emily, she wasn’t experiencing any symptoms that lead her to the doctor’s office. In fact, she only went to her local college clinic because her friend needed moral support. And yet, when her results came back, she tested positive for chlamydia.
“I was quickly brought back to reality when the doctor stated that my lesions looked like herpes.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Preventionstates that while young people account for half of new STI cases, only about 12 percent of millennials were tested in the last year. But is ignorance really bliss?
Here are Emily and Catherine's stories, plus five other women's experiences on how they found out they had an STI, what they felt when they received the news, and how they deal with it today.
What symptoms were you experiencing?
- “It started off as chaffing near my anus and vulva. The chaffing eventually evolved into blister clusters, then into really painful sores over the course of about a week. During this time, the lymph nodes in my groins got huge—like, golf ball size. I could see them bulging out of my skin if I looked down,” says Sidney*, who contracted herpes when she was 20.
- “I felt aches, itchiness, and tingles on the labia of my vagina—and what appeared to first look like a pimple,” says Be, who also contracted herpes when she was 18.
- “I went to the doctor for my annual check-up, and found out while I was there,” says Veronica*, who was 22 when she tested positive for chlamydia.
- “Funny enough, I was not experiencing any symptoms. It was after the guy I was sleeping with told me he had chlamydia that I headed straight to the doctor,” says Haley*, 24.
- “I noticed itching on one side of my labia, which seemed normal because yeast infections do happen. Then, I saw a speck of blood on the toilet paper after peeing. I knew it wasn't my period, and wiped again to see if it was just some weird anomaly. The speck of blood was still there, and it felt like it was coming from my perineum—like a tiny little cut on the surface. After about the third or fourth time it happened, I went to the doctor,” says KellyAnne, who contracted herpes at 23.
“I felt aches, itchiness, and tingles on the labia of my vagina—and what appeared to first look like a pimple.”
How did you feel when you were told you had an STI?
- “I didn't believe that I could have herpes because it felt like an infection you could only get from being stupid. I stayed in denial for a long time and dealt with my diagnosis the same way we struggle to handle grief—depression, isolation, and anxiety,” says KellyAnne.
- “I felt an enormous sense of guilt and overall disgust at myself. At the time, I was only 20 and had recently become sexually active at 18. Having grown up in a sheltered, religious environment, I couldn’t help but think, 'This is exactly what they said would happen.' Overall, I think it really stifled my sexuality and made me resent myself for exploring it in the first place,” says Sidney.
- “To be honest, I felt dirty. I had been having sex without condoms for years, and thought I was invincible until that moment. I just felt gross,” says Haley.
- “It was a heartbreaking moment for me. Society tends to label those with STIs as whores, disgusting, and the list could continue. None of these labels sat with who I knew myself to be, and it caused me to question my entire being and essence of self,” says Emily.
“I felt an enormous sense of guilt and overall
disgust at myself.”
How did you deal with the STI?
- “I got some antivirals to get that shit under control! Then it was lots of self-loathing. As far as I knew, my love life was over. I was terrified my reputation would be ruined if anyone found out. As I begun to heal physically, I also healed mentally and dug into research. The more research I did, the more I realized how common herpes is. It’s a skin condition, a viral infection,” says Sidney.
- “Not well. The pain of my primary outbreak was difficult enough, but the worst part about herpes was the stigma associated with it. I did not realize that I even internalized the stigma until I started to experience these self-judgments and internal questioning. I resorted to binge drinking. I dismissed therapy as an option because I thought that no one would understand me. This experience shaped my strong beliefs about internalized shame from STI stigma and its overlap with mental health,” says Emily.
- “The level of shame I experienced felt almost unbearable. I became very depressed and I didn't date for almost a year. I was angry at the guy and mad at myself for being so vulnerable with him,” says Be.
How has the STI affected your dating life and/or relationships?
- “Now that I know it can happen to me (when I once thought I was invincible), I use condoms every single time. Before this all happened, I was honestly more terrified of becoming pregnant than contracting an STI. Now, if there's no condom, there's no penetration—to prevent pregnancy and STIs,” says Haley.
- “It's pushed me to be more honest with partners and has brought to light a lot of what is missing from our conversations prior to engaging in partnered sexual activity—like sexual histories, consent, pleasure, and boundaries. These conversations really aren't happening as often as they should,” says Emily.
- “I’m in a relationship right now and I can honestly say it does not affect it at all. If I’m ever feeling a little off down there and want to play it safe, I just tell him we should postpone until another time—just like with UTIs, yeast infections, and other pesky vaginal issues,” says Sidney.
“It's pushed me to be more honest with partners.”
What would you tell someone who was just diagnosed with an STI and not sure what to do?
- “Don't immediately start Googling. Go straight to your doctor. Tell them even if you think you might have an STI. The worst thing that could come out of it is that you do. But at least you're in the right place to get it taken care of,” says Haley.
- “You're not alone. It's way more common that you think and there is nothing that you need to be ashamed of,” says Be.
- “STIs don’t make you a bad person. Once you remove the stigma from an STI and treat it like a medical issue, you realize there are treatments and solutions available, just like there are for the plethora of other diseases and infections. Once I took the emotion out of my STI, I was able to conquer it, move on, and not let it negatively impact my life,” says Sidney.
- “The social stigma is what has turned an incredibly popular skin condition into a nightmarish sex hell. For someone who has just been diagnosed with Herpes (or thinks they have it), all you have to do is get past the fear-based mindset society has given you. The rest is easy. Outbreaks? There are meds for that. Emotional scarring? Therapy,” says KellyAnne.
*Names have been changed.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.