Let’s talk about cysts, baby!
I’m going to tell you about that time that I didn’t have herpes. It was a totally awesome and lazy diagnosis, because I was 24 and sexually active. The fact that I’d been sleeping exclusively with my recently ex-boyfriend for six years, and that he’d never had sex with anyone but me was totally irrelevant. I was in my twenties, and I’d been having sex since I was seventeen. Of course I’d picked up an STD. It couldn’t possibly be anything else, could it? It couldn’t have anything to do with all these cysts that had been recurring since I was thirteen. No – I was a sexual deviant, and I had to take my punishment: herpes.
I’ll set the scene for you: I’d just broken up with my boyfriend. I was living by myself for the first time in my life, which was initially really scary. I was really down – even though I’d been the one to leave, it still really sucked. And now, I had a vaginal cyst that had gone wrong; it was infected, and it was really painful. I couldn’t get an appointment with my doctor for a week, and I really couldn’t wait that long. I was working twelve hour shifts in a pub: no way could I run around for that many hours whilst feeling like my vagina was trying to kill me – “You’ve deprived me of regular sex, and I will have my revenge!” Thanks, vagina. It’s good to know whose side you’re on.
So I did what any incredibly uncomfortable woman would do: I went to the NHS walk in centre. A two hour wait would be less torturous than a week long wait for an appointment, surely? I should have waited for the appointment. I could have saved myself a lot of panic and despair.
I did actually get to see a doctor, which was surprising. Usually at this walk in centre you saw a nurse first, who would then decide if you actually needed to see a doctor. Now, at this stage in my life I was not massively comfortable with the vagina inspection. I’d yet to have my first smear, and dropping trou in front of a total stranger without the social armour of tequila was intimidating. There was a very brief consultation with the lady doctor, where I told her what the issue was; I had an infected cyst.
Her immediate response was “that sounds like herpes.”
I then explained again that I’d been getting these cysts since I was thirteen. It was not herpes. I explained again that I’d only ever had unprotected sex with one person (I know that condoms are not 100% effective against disease, but they sure do lower the possibility that you’ll get one) and that this person, my ex, had never slept with anyone else. I really didn’t see how a previously diagnosed issue with Bartholin cysts (read more about them here) had morphed in to herpes.
This was duly ignored, and there followed a very brief examination that lasted less than thirty seconds. The verdict was that I had herpes. A tad shell shocked, I asked how it could have happened. The answer was that it just does sometimes. I asked what I was supposed to do about it. The answer was that there was nothing that I could do. Was there a test that could confirm this diagnosis? There was, but she didn’t think that it was necessary as I clearly had herpes. There was some antiviral medication that I could take to calm this flare up down, but I was probably past the worst of it.
I fled. In tears. I’m not sure that I even did my jeans up properly before I actually ran away. I wailed down the phone to my mum. I googled herpes and found a really helpful website (here) that gave me all the answers that this doctor should have. She actually called me later that afternoon to invite me back in for a test. I said no – I would wait for an appointment with my own doctor. I never went back to that walk in centre. Incidentally, I got an emergency appointment with my own doctor two days later. He told me that it was definitely not herpes, but that he would do a full sexual health screen to reassure me. He said what I had was a Bartholin cyst which had got infected. I got some cream and instructions to not wear tights for a couple of weeks. This time, I didn’t leave in tears. And my all of my tests came back negative.
We live in a world where sexual liberation is reportedly ok. Sure, you can sleep with as many guys as you want, but you run the risk of being branded a slut. You can take responsibility for your sexual health, but you run the risk of major judgment from sexual health professionals. No one wants a disapproving stare aimed at their vagina when you’re just asking for help and clarity. I’m 28 now, and my last sexual health screening was 18 months ago (I haven’t had sex since. If you are having sex, then I suggest you have a more regular screen). The difference between taking responsibility for my sexual health at age 26 rather than at age 24 was incredible. I didn’t leave my doctor’s office with a diagnosis of herpes or clamydia, or feeling like I was about to be forced to wear a sandwich board that said “unclean”.
But really my question is why should two years image make such a difference? Is there an assumption that once you pass the ripe old age of 25 your hormones may settle enough for you to say, “hey, buddy – no glove, no love”? Why was the automatic assumption when I was twenty-four that if I were having any vagina issues, they must have been STD related? What was it about that time I had a miscarriage that just cried out for a diagnosis of chlamydia? Why was the information that I’d had cysts since I was thirteen and they sometimes get infected translated to herpes? I guess that at least with the chlamydia incident they actually tested me. Yep, I was clean. I was told that if the bleeding didn’t stop in the next couple of weeks that I would probably have to change my Pill.
Sexual health and shame should not go hand in hand. In fact they shouldn’t even talk to each other. They should not be best buddies. They should not be the mean girls of medicine. You should not be made to feel ashamed for taking responsibility for your sexual health, and there certainly shouldn’t be any jumped to diagnosis based solely on your age and the fact that you’ve had sex before. The only person who should have felt shame that day was that utter quack of a doctor.