What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I haven’t been on a first date in six months. Not a very long time by anyone’s standards, but I’m not sure I see another one on the horizon any time soon. 2012 was pretty rough on me, and -- specifically -- on all of my ladyparts.
I am not the world’s healthiest health writer, but lest you think I brought this all on myself, know this: I use condoms. I have demanded to see a man’s STD panel with my own eyes before I graced him with my pubic presence. I’m not an irresponsible woman, but even if I were, I wouldn’t deserve this in addition to my butt problemz, which by now you know are numerous.
It started innocently enough in late October 2011: My annual PAP came back irregular. HPV, the human papilloma virus.
“It’s probably nothing,” my doctor said. “Almost everyone has it.”
She had me come back in for a colposcopy: a biopsy of the cervix, two snips down at the bottom and one “all up ins.” The biopsy confirmed I had HPV. I was scheduled for another PAP every three months, until I got three clean in a row. I walked out, a little crampy and a little bummed out.
“No big deal,” I kept repeating to myself. “Everyone has it.” I was single and not so interested in mingling, really, until I knew everything was cleared up.
Fast-forward to late January, when I noticed I had some weird bump-action going on toward the butt-side of my labia. It looked kind of rashy, but it didn’t really itch or hurt much. I called the doctor’s office.
“It’s probably nothing,” the receptionist said, booking my appointment for a month later. When I finally got into the stirrups, my doctor did one of those air-sucks through her teeth.
“This isn’t good,” she said. “But it doesn’t look like warts.”
I came back for yet another biopsy, this one kind of like the kind you’d have for skin cancer. But on my bits. Not fun. I cried, more from nerves than actual pain.
A week later my doctor called: The bumps were precancerous. I needed to go to a gynecological oncologist. I thanked her, hung up and cried again, because cancer is a scary word.
Going to the gyno-oncologist was scary, but the doctor herself was amazing (and if anyone in the DC area is looking for a good specialist, Dr. Chernofsky at Sibley Hospital is IT). She was warm, funny and patient. She took the time to explain I had both cervical and vulval intraepithelial neoplasia, or CIN and VIN. Basically, precancerous cells, which, left untreated, gave me a 15% chance of getting cancer for real.
She put me on a treatment of Imiquimod, a cream I slathered on my bathing suit area three nights a week for 12 weeks. Essentially, it burns your flesh off. It’s miserable. My doctor called me “brave” for completing it. By June, I thought my vagina was in the clear. It was time, I decided, to start dating.
So I went online, as many of us are wont to do. I met a pretty cool DC dude, a government-by-day, writer-by-night man with a nice beard and a house full of pets. We saw each other a bit, and got to know each other, BIBLICALLY. It wasn’t a huge deal but it was nice.
We were spending Labor Day weekend apart (him on a dudes’ weekend, me at a lake with friends), and I was not feeling so hot, basically sickly and also dealing with what I assumed was some razor burn aggravated by my tendency to bike as a major means of transportation. Vacation would allow me to rest up, maybe read a book in a raft and drink Natty Boh for lunch.
Instead, I spent two miserable, sleepless nights with searing crotch pain before I went to the emergency room, where I cried alone in an exam room for an hour before a brusque doctor came in, took one look at my business center, said, “You have herpes,” and got up to leave.
“How?” I asked. “When?”
“Two to four weeks ago,” the doctor said. “I didn’t have any sex then!” I wailed. “I have a new boyfriend! What am I supposed to tell him?” The doctor shrugged and told me to wait for a nurse to bring me paperwork. Vacation, ruined. Love life, possibly destroyed.
I holed up in sweats and a huge fleece blanket for the remainder of what was supposed to be my drunken beach weekend. I was hugely irritable and feverish. If I could have been voted out of that house, I’m sure it would have happened, but there are bears afoot in western Maryland and my friends are compassionate people.
A follow-up at my regular gynecologist’s office confirmed herpes simplex virus type 1: the cold sore kind of herpes, but below the belt. This doctor was the complete opposite of the ER doc. She was kind, and almost a little blasé about it. “Literally 90% of the population has it. There shouldn’t be such a stigma.”
And when I asked her about the Immaculate Inoculation two-to-four weeks ago, she literally laughed out loud. “You could have gotten it a week ago or a year ago,” she said. “But a week ago is more likely.” She worked with me about how to tell the new dude.
Having that conversation for the first time was made a lot easier when he made the first move. “I just heard from this girl I was seeing earlier this year,” he said. “She just got diagnosed with HSV-1. She thinks I might have it, too. It’s freaking me out and I wouldn’t be much company right now.”
“BRING CELEBRATION BEERS!” I told him. “Never again will you have to worry about passing it on to me, because that has already happened.”
Honestly? I was relieved. I liked this dude and didn’t want him to break it off because I was a diseased woman. Knowing the source of the outbreak was more satisfying than watching the end of “Contagion." Even more comforting, we seemed to be getting closer. Until we weren’t, and dude did the slow fade. Weak.
So, since then, I haven’t really been “out there,” as they say. I hopped back online for a quick sec but got messaged by men who *put actions in asterisks,* Livejournal-style. So I shut it down. And for the last several months, I’ve been an army of one again.
It hasn’t been terrible, but it has been a little lonely. We’ve had a rough year, my vagina and I. We’ve taken some beatings -- not the fun kind.
Even my doctor, after she declared me pre-cancer-free (“Beautiful, pink and plump, like God created all healthy tissue!” she announced. “Lady, you just wrote the title to my autobiography,” I countered), agreed that it hasn’t been the easiest year.
So I’ve been taking time for myself. The mantra has been, “No dates until I’m 28,” which you KNOW is a great idea because it rhymes. But 28 is two weeks away, and I’m not sure I want to hop out there so fast.
See, this hiatus has been kind of nice. I’ve been trying to focus on self-care. Some of that is doing stuff I like or always wanted to do: planning vacations, reading a lot, participating in karaoke lab with my ladyfriends. I’ve redecorated my apartment. I got a cat, which was the greatest thing I could have possibly done for my mental health.
I went to a therapist, too, to try to sort through the stress of the last year. But as soon as I got to the pre-cancer part of the story, she looked pointedly at me and asked, “So let’s talk about why you’re ashamed of your genitals.” Nooooooooo. Let’s not. Because I’m not.
Am I a little disappointed in their general workings lately? I am. Am I kind of fed up with worrying about them constantly? Oh, definitely. But I’m not ashamed. I was in “The Vagina Monologues,” for chrissakes.
That doesn’t mean that other people aren’t ashamed for me, though. When I told my mom (WHAT? I thought I was dying of cancer and I’m from the Midwest. Of course I called my mom), she described me as “my daughter with TWO STDs!” Well, yeah, Mom. When you put it that way.
With friends, it hasn’t been so bad. HPV scares are super common -- more than 50% of people will have it at some point in their lives, and 50% of women with VIN have a recurrence, and some still get full-blown cancer. So we’ve talked about it, amongst the ladies. Nobody else has had the precancerous bits, thank goodness. Nobody else has ‘fessed up to herpes BUT I KNOW SOME OF YOU HAVE IT, side eye.
Even online, there are some amazing essays about what it’s like to live with HPV and HSV. But the bulk of them are written anonymously, which kind of defeats the purpose of ending stigma, you know? Obviously, I prefer the essays that come with a byline, but those are few and far between.
So, I guess part of my healing process is sharing the information, even though that means you’ll be able to Google my name and herpes will come up. It’s scary and also really cathartic. Maybe it will help other people who are just going through it. And I think it’ll serve as a weeding-out system.
Plus, once it’s out there, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be, too. Because honestly, I would like to find someone, and I’m not really a date-around kind of lady. I don’t think my crotch should discount me from TRU LUV 4EVA.
What would you do in my shoes? What have you done if you’ve been there already? And any suggestions for telling potential suitors who have clearly never heard of the Internet?
Lindsey is mostly posting pictures of Olga the cat on Twitter: @lindseywoho. She’s already working on “Beautiful, Pink and Plump: The Lindsey Wahowiak Story,” so don’t try to jock her style.