Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Shuvani Sanyal, MD
Full disclosure: The title of this post should probably read, ‘What I allowed stigma to take from me while living with an STD,’ but something about that seems a bit less poignant. So, humor me, for a moment, as I embrace the mellow-dramatic today. 🙂
Anyhow. I was sitting on the couch a couple of weeks ago – potatoing myself, if you will – and catching up on episodes of HBO’s Girls, Season 2. I love that show. Does anyone else watch it and feel as supremely validated by their depiction of 20-somethings’ experiences as I do? It’s purely brilliant, I tell you. Beautiful and brilliant.
The last episode I watched (Season 2, Episode 4 – ending in Hannah and Jessa, best-friends crying over men in the bathtub) hit a nerve and left me with that big gulp of pressure – you know, the one that forms in your chest and begs you to release a few tears, while your resolve tugs anxiously from the back, saying, ‘just keep it together; you’re stronger than this, and you’re over that.’
The thing is, I don’t think I am over it yet.
Almost. But not quite.
Living with Stigma
What I feel like I’ve lost while living with an STD and attempting to navigate a degradation of self-worth and respect amidst an onslaught of contempt and cruelty is friendships. Friendships with girls.
I’ve never struggled to find a male companion – you could say, I’m a serial monogamist – and among the myriad of men I’ve dated, not one has ever thought much about my living with an STD. A rich sex life or a meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex? Neither of those things were ever out of reach.
Friendships, however – the kind of friendships where you can sit in a bathtub with one another crying about your relationship while snot bubbles get thrown your way, somewhat nonplussed about the absurdity of it all – I’ve missed those. Friendships where I didn’t seek out the loneliest, the least obtrusive individual to befriend, since I knew they’d remain friends with me, free from judgement about my choices, my past, or my dreams, because, well, they didn’t really have anyone else. Friendships I didn’t maintain only in fear they’d tell the world about my skeleton – my most shameful secret – if I chose to part ways. Friends who would hug you, not chastise you, for drunkenly crying over your first love on a bathroom floor. Friends who wouldn’t be jealous or spiteful, because I was prettier, skinnier, more successful, or could attract more male attention. Friends who didn’t warn my new partners about me, telling them I’d just hurt them or infect them and to watch out, friends who wanted to hear about my life, friends who didn’t tell me I talked too much or sang too loud, friends who didn’t spin lies about me…
Truth Be Told
I believed I was ‘getting what I deserved.’
In hind-sight, I realize that, for years, I kept myself at an arm’s length of almost all women. I actually had handfuls of female friends who I regularly spent time with. I was an epic butterfly, if you will, crafting a social occasion out of nothing and for no reason, like it was my job.
Trouble was, very few of those people knew me intimately. When I got divorced, those same women were shocked, appalled even. They couldn’t understand why I’d leave a seemingly perfect marriage, and they certainly never knew I was unhappy. It that wasn’t their fault. I had designed it that way.
If I didn’t let them in, they couldn’t hurt me. They also couldn’t help me.
I Allowed This to Happen
The worst part of this story, I think, is not that I experienced some extreme cases of ‘mean girls’ – unfortunately, most people go through that kind of thing at one point or another, because, girls can be really cruel and catty to one another.
The worst part is that, in reality, my STD and the stigma associated with STDs, in general, didn’t take anything from me at all.
I allowed my STD, what people thought about STDs and those who have them, and my shame and guilt for having an STD stop me from cultivating relationships worth maintaining. I let fear erode my ability to trust and seek enriching relationships with women – the kind of relationships everyone deserves – and I replaced them with superficial, self-serving friends.
I allowed my insecurities to breed more insecurities, and I allowed those insecurities to dictate my friendships.
Woe Is Me No More
Quite frankly, I’m over it. I’m done surrounding myself with less than stellar folks.
I’m a beautiful, good person, and a wonderful friend. And unless you intend to treat me as such, there’s the door.
I wish you well, but I am no longer going to be a doormat. You (both my STD and those who’ve used it against me) are no longer going to stop me from opening my heart to good women and letting them in.
I am also not going to wallow.
I should emphasize, I’m sharing this not because I want you to feel sorry for me, or sadness, or anything along those lines. Those experiences helped me build character. So, in some ways, I am thankful; but despite finding myself in a happy place now, I don’t wish that process on anyone. Instead, I write this, because I want you to maintain your self-worth and confidence as I wish I would have done years ago.
Moving Forward Confidently
I now have a few of those really fantastic friends; one or two have always been there, and a couple of others I’ve met along the way. I’m so thankful for them, their love, and I am no longer afraid to tell them and show them how much I care. I’m going to continue nurturing those authentic friendships, and I’ll embrace new ones as well.
If you can empathize with this friendship epiphany I’m having, for lack of a better description, I welcome you to consider a similar outlook right now – as opposed to years from now.
I read day in and day out how an STD diagnosis breaks people, leaves them without support, and makes them feel as if they don’t deserve quality relationships.
And while I’ll always respond to each and every one of your messages with the same thorough, novel-esque detail I do now, I don’t want to hear that you’re trash or that you don’t deserve to be treated kindly, with respect, and as a valuable individual. So, I’m going to continue to remind you otherwise over and over again, because that’s what friends do for one another.
We can be supportive friends together.
I’m not putting up with anything less from anyone anymore and neither should you. 🙂
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Have you struggled with insincere friendships? Are you worried about telling a friend you have an STD, or have you been blessed with a great and supportive friendship? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!