I stared at the doctor unblinkingly. It was a mistake—I had to have heard her wrong. Even as the thought flitted through my mind, I knew I hadn’t.
It didn’t look like a textbook case of genital warts. I’d only noticed a few small, persistent bumps that refused to go away. Even when my Pap smear came back abnormal and the clinic informed me that I may very well have contracted HPV, it didn’t occur to me that I had the strain that also caused those bumps. I felt dirty and ashamed. Though the outbreak didn’t look like anything much, I felt the specific heaviness that goes along with the STI stigma that is socially widespread in the United States. How could I tell anyone?
I’d not slept with that many partners. My relationships were most often long and monogamous. I did not think of myself as a likely candidate to have any type of sexual issue. Because of all this, my knowledge of HPV (and other STIs) was little to none.
As I learned more about it, I was surprised. Before my diagnosis, I’d had no idea that HPV was so common and widespread. It can stay dormant in the body for years and never present any symptoms. I could’ve contracted it from any one of my partners. If I hadn’t displayed the outbreak of bumps or had an abnormal Pap smear, I might’ve never known I had it at all. When I haltingly revealed my news to a brashly honest friend of mine, her response was,
“Oh, no big deal – I had those when I was 19. They go away. Everyone gets HPV.”
I was shocked by her cavalier attitude, but it also made me feel slightly relieved. Maybe it really wasn’t a big deal. Still, despite everything I’d read about its widespread prevalence, despite learning that my immune system would clear the virus from my body eventually, I had no idea how to break the news to a romantic partner without feeling disgusting.
I’d just begun dating someone new, fairly soon after a tumultuous breakup. We hadn’t slept together yet, but I was wrestling some complicated feelings regarding my previous boyfriend. My new problem made everything else feel overwhelmingly unmanageable. I decided that I had to talk to my ex about what I’d learned. I would wait and figure out what to tell this new guy later. It wasn’t a pressing issue so I pushed that particular stress away for the moment.
My self-esteem was already floundering and the feeling that I was somehow tainted only made it worse. I called my ex to discuss what I’d learned. I figured it was the right thing to do, as he was the last person I’d slept with prior to the knowledge. My heart in my throat, I blurted everything out awkwardly. I didn’t know how to approach it any better. There was silence, and my stomach churned. Then he responded.
“Are you okay?”
That was my undoing. That moment of kindness, that concern for me instead of an angry reaction, was the catalyst for the drama of several months thereafter. I didn’t tell the man I’d begun dating. I couldn’t. I felt horrible about myself as it was. Instead, I made excuses for not getting more physically intimate with him. I used any and every reason I could think of not to go further. Meanwhile, I began spending time with my ex again in secret.
I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or stop crying. I developed a facial tic from the stress of hiding my condition and the fact that I was dating two people who didn’t know about each other. I couldn’t stop seeing my former boyfriend, he was the only one who knew the truth and he still treated me normally. I became addicted to spending time with him. It allowed me to forget everything for a while.
I’m not proud of the way I behaved during this time period. I hurt a very decent man, who eventually found me out and stopped seeing me. We weren’t officially a couple, but I knew that it would hurt him if he learned that I was dating another guy behind his back. I didn’t exactly lie to him about my HPV, but I definitely omitted the truth.
I do believe that if there was not such a heavy stigma around STIs and the idea of having HPV, especially genital warts, I would’ve had an easier time coming clean and telling everyone the truth. I could’ve avoided so much pain, stress, and shame. I didn’t want anyone to know. If we took the embarrassment out of the conversation so that everyone who struggles with HPV or any other STI could feel okay about it, the world would be a happier place. We must spread facts and eliminate the harmful myths that shroud sexual infections in shame and secrecy.