Getting Personal:

When you hear the test term sexually transmitted disease (STD) or STD (sexually transmitted infection), what do you think of first? Grotesque pictures of HPV Tests and maimed genitalia displayed on a projector during yesteryear’s sex-ed class geared toward frightening you into abstinence? That scene from ” The Hangover” where Sid says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … except for herpes. That shit will come back with you”?

Whatever first comes to your mind is not likely to include your neighbour, professor, or best friend living with the HPV virus, having an incredible sex life, and otherwise prospering. That is, of course, unless you’re also living with an STD and you know better.

I am your neighbour, a professor at a community college. I am enjoying a wonderfully healthy sex life with a man who thinks the world of me. Despite having genital herpes for over 14 years and contracting HPV, scabies, and vaginitis, my STIs never hindered my relationships or happiness. Once I stopped allowing them to dictate my self-worth, I found freedom.

Embracing Stigma

At 16, our family STD doctor, with a lazy eye and thick glasses, diagnosed my genital herpes outbreak as the worst he’d seen. Devastated, embarrassment coursed through me. He handed me a prescription but provided no brochures, additional information, or resource references. There was no mention of the vast number of people living with an HPV infection everywhere. I was a pariah – a leper – even the doctor was disgusted by my condition.

For years, I accepted my HPV fate and considered myself as being punished for having been sexually active before marriage. As a high-schooler, I was called a slut or a whore and “friends” of mine forewarned men who took an interest in me that I would merely infect them, hurt them, and they should steer clear entirely. I maintained some of those friendships for a period, not knowing otherwise about STIs and those who contract them, thinking myself deserving of such treatment.

A Long Overdue Paradigm Shift

A few years ago, I began to see myself for who I was. I realised I was a beautiful, intelligent, and valuable individual. Despite contracting a long-term HPV infection, I achieved two honours degrees, got married, conquered my fear of heights by skydiving—not once but three times—and pursued my dreams by auditioning for “American Idol.”

While I’m not the next American Idol, I learned an invaluable lesson throughout that period of self-discovery: I am not deserving of poor treatment, cruel friendships, or snide remarks; the stigma placed upon those living with an STD is inaccurate, ignorant, and illogical. And I have the power to change that. We all do.

Understanding the Root Causes

To change the status quo, one must first understand where the misunderstandings and wrongful judgments originate. Rather than be angry at my doctor for leaving me with nothing more than a crass HPV diagnosis or at my childhood friends for mistreating our relationship, I am choosing to delve into why those perceptions persist.

Part of the problem came from within. I didn’t challenge what little I knew about STIs. I embraced negative opinions for years and was able to distinguish between the layman’s view of an STD. Also, I realised the reality behind the array of people who contract them. An STI does not define one’s character. They’re merely a reflection of an experience. This experience is as individually unique as the people who contract the STIs themselves.

Consequently, I’m not angry or frustrated by the time it took to find solace in my HPV infection. Rather, I have a holistic appreciation for the process one undergoes when diagnosed with any taboo condition (infection or otherwise). Not only have I taken great pains to find myself in a place of self-love and self-respect, but I want very much for others to have an opportunity to feel the same fortitude after their diagnosis as I do now and over a far shorter timetable.

Becoming an Advocate

Hence, I have become an advocate.

Due to the immense stigma behind contracting an STD, most people don’t speak openly about their experiences. However, as people, we learn best through community. Naturally, we are pack animals. We nurture our young for years beyond most other mammals. We develop complex relationships with others outside our family nucleus. It makes sense that we need others to help us overcome obstacles and boundaries. In this case, we are contracting an HPV Virus and living with one.

So, I’m willing to tell you how horrible my experience has been at times and how I’ve found incredible happiness, love, success, and rewarding relationships despite living with an STD, all in hopes you can move through the process with much more clarity, community, and understanding than I once endured.

Join me, and I welcome you.

Jenelle Marie is the founder and administrator of The STD Project, a website geared toward eradicating the stigma associated with having a sexually transmitted infection.

 

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