I am shaking slightly as I thank my doctor for not being dismissive of me as I leave her room on a Friday morning at 8.15am. She has just referred me to a sexual health clinic.
‘What do you mean?’ She asks me.
I tell her that once before, I had a similar issue, and that the doctor was very rude to me, to the point that I didn’t get it investigated at the clinic, as I was advised, because I felt dirty and ashamed. Luckily it cleared up the next day. If I’m honest, I feel those things now, faced with a similar problem. But this time is different. For one, the symptoms are much worse. And, perhaps more importantly, this time, my doctor asks me to sit down again.
‘It’s more common than you’d think,’ she says, ‘ it’s like depression, people don’t talk about it, but it does happen. Everything is treatable. And I’m not saying that it is definitely a sexually transmitted disease. I just want to rule it out before I continue with other methods of treatment’.
She is calm, reassuring and respectful. But I still feel dirty. Ashamed.
When I get back home, I tell my mother that the doctor advised me to go to a clinic. That the doctor did not know what was wrong with me. That these tests are just to rule things out.
‘Did she say it was herpes?’
‘No. She said she did not know what it was.’
‘I promise I’ve always been safe.’
‘Then this clinic is a waste of time.’
‘She says I have to go. To rule things out. I’m in pain. I want it gone. Whatever it is.’
I promise I’m a good girl, mummy.
My mother helps me find the number to book an appointment. Then, I don’t know why, but she tells my father. He is angry with me. He’s never liked me much, so the reaction is expected, although I had hoped my mother would’ve had the common decency to keep my secret to herself. In the middle of Costa, one hour later, he shouts at me to get myself ‘checked immediately’ for no real reason; I certainly wasn’t broaching the topic round the coffee table. A few people turn in their seats to look at me. I feel more dirty. More ashamed. I visualise the conversation that will come if I am diagnosed with an STI, as now I can presume that my diagnosis will become family knowledge by the end of the day, whatever it may be. I feel yet more dirty. Yet more ashamed.
On the bus on the way to the hospital, I am scared. I haven’t been sexually active for a year. I have had 5 partners, 2 of whom were checked before I went anywhere near them and 3 of whom were virgins and were very clear with me that they hadn’t fooled around. Besides, they were 4-5 years ago. Surely something can’t sit in your system with zero symptoms for THAT long?! I’m reluctant to use Google to find out. Google will only tell me I have the worst case scenario, or that I have cancer. And I’m worried enough already.
I arrive an hour early for my appointment. There are 4 other women in the sexual health clinic waiting room. At first I look at them, wondering whether they look like they’re comfortable being here. Then I catch myself. I have no right to judge, and besides, I’m the scruffiest person here. I didn’t expect to go from the doctors straight to the hospital and have my hair scraped back and am wearing old trackies and trainers. I have my slipper socks on instead of actual socks. I also have a cold, so my face has definitely looked better. And now I’m worrying that they think I’m scruffy, so I’m a slut, so I belong here.
The thing is, if this is a sexually transmitted disease, I won’t know who, specifically, gave it to me. Apparently it doesn’t matter ‘when’ you were sexually active in terms of contracting these things. I have no diagnosis yet. I don’t know that this is an STI. But still, sat in the waiting room, I keep thinking, ‘Why me?’ I’ve never had a one night stand, never had sex outside of a relationship, and always *always* been bloody careful about things like that.
So, why me?
I know, this isn’t how the universe works.
But all I know right now is I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know anything.
I have half an hour until my appointment and I am in pain and scared.
The second the doctor lays eyes on me, she has a name for my ailment. An infected Bartholin cyst. It’s not an STI. It’s common. Treatable. Even if my one is a fairly severe case. She tries to scrape the ‘head’ off the infection whilst I’m lying down. It is excruciating. I have never known pain like it. I have an extremely high pain threshold but I find myself begging her.
‘Please stop, just for a second, please, I’m sorry, just stop, just for a second.’
I’m not bothered by needles, tattoos, piercings, not even by self-harm with various implements, but this tiny procedure reduces me to a wobbly blotchy nervous wreck. After the various pokes and swabs, the consultant comes to the top end of the chair I’m lying on, where my head is, and apologises to me for causing me pain. I assure her that I’m ‘not usually a wimp’.
“Bless you,” she says in reply.
After this, I go for a blood test where I end up fainting because the nurse cannot find a vein to inject into and I’m already feeling fragile. She goes to get me a glass of water when I ask her where I can find one after the blood test. She gives me time to gather my breath, the option of coming back another time to have the blood test done. She is kind and thoughtful. Eventually we work out that I need to be lying down so as to not pass out. She eventually finds a vein and I am free. They even give me free antibiotics, and they’re kind enough not to give me penicillin, which I’m intolerant to, even though they very obviously want to. (“When you say you’re intolerant…”). In short, they listen to my wishes. I feel listened to. Heard.
I was hesitant to write this. To talk about it so openly. It feels dirty and wrong to even admit that I visited a sexual health clinic. But I am most definitely not the only person I know who has used these services. And so this is a discussion that needs to be had, and something we should not be ashamed to talk candidly about.
After all this, the thing I hope I’ve highlighted here is the kindness of every NHS staff member I spoke to during this one eventful day. I left my house at 8am and didn’t get back home until 5.30, having spent 3 hours at the hospital. Everyone I spoke to, from the clinic receptionist to the consultant, treated me with respect and a refreshing air of normality. It was a far cry from my parent’s reactions, and my mother is an NHS employee herself, so we can’t simply place the credit on that great workforce, as brilliant an institution as it may be.
I think it’s natural for anyone to worry if they are referred to one of these clinics. I wrote the majority of this article on the Friday as it was happening. On the bus. In the waiting room. This part, I’m writing a week later, after finishing my antibiotics. I wanted to show my fear, my irrationality. Reading it back, I’m finding myself wanting to delete the more personal details. However, I shan’t do this, as what I want to show is the honesty of my feelings. I can only hope that I am not alone with where my thoughts went whilst I was unsure of my diagnosis. Perhaps I wouldn’t have shared this with you if I had been told I had an STI. We’ll never know, I suppose.
If you ever do find yourself in my situation, don’t be scared. I know, however, that that’s easy to say and harder to do. Remember that you never chose for this to happen, you are not to blame, and that you always have a right to be listened to and treated with respect. To be heard.