I got my first UTI when I was eight years old. I had no idea what was happening, and no capacity to explain it to anyone else. I spent nearly three hours going backward and forward to the bathroom from my classroom, rocking on the toilet. Nobody noticed how often I went and nobody asked if I was alright.
Eventually I hit upon the idea of drinking nothing, for the rest of the week, reasoning that at least then I wouldn’t have to suffer the intense pain that occurred when I tried to go to the toilet. I lasted two days without water before I gave in. The infection eventually went away on its own.
Later, at 11 years old, I read in Dolly magazine about cystitis, a word I couldn’t pronounce but nonetheless recognized. The article stated that wiping back to front and failing to go to the bathroom after sex were common causes -– I was doing neither of those things. It also said that some people were just susceptible to them, and could expect them to recur more or less forever.
Dolly was wrong about lots of things, but this has proven true. Cystitis is one thing I can rely on to happen when I’m too tired or too stressed, and now I almost feel like I wish it upon myself when I begin to get run down. That slight sting, the hot feeling in the base of my gut. It’s the worst superpower in the world, being able to will a UTI into existence through pure fear.
Everyone I know has a cystitis story. My mum, the bearer of my genetic curse, has had them throughout her own life, once ending up in hospital with a kidney infection so bad she nearly hallucinated her way off the road while driving herself to the clinic. I have my own fair share of Tales of Burning Pee.
Being 16 years old, and away on my first vodka-soaked New Year’s camping trip (it’s a coming-of-age affair in New Zealand), I got the symptoms on the three-hour car ride to the tent I would call home for the next four nights. The tent was a nine-minute walk from the nearest toilets. I came to know the route really well.
On the way, we stopped at the chemist for the lemony alkaline packets which I proceeded to dissolve in Smirnoff and drink with drunken desperation. The sun and the strength of my 16-year-old determination eventually warded off the infection; the combination of vodka and that same determination to have a good time attracted much older Spanish men with names like Fabrizio.
At 20 years old, with a boyfriend accompanying me on a family vacation, I got a UTI that lasted nearly two weeks, since I couldn’t drink enough water to stave off the dehydrating effects of the New Zealand summer, nor refuse the sexual advances of my boyfriend in the sleep-out that smelled of mildew and heated to 35 degrees. My temperature climbed similarly, until I burst into tears in the middle of a BBQ, and begged my friend’s father to write me a prescription.
He tried me on a new drug that didn’t work, and the infection continued for another seven days. I ended up at A&E with my mother where a nice doctor told me to get ready and lie on the bed, then left the room. I didn’t know what to do, so I stripped from the waist down and covered myself with the white sheet, as if I was having a smear test performed. When he returned, all he did was gently prod my stomach, then tell me to put my clothes back on. I was in too much pain to be embarrassed.
I was living in Japan when I got my worst UTI. It could have been worse -– I could have been traveling through a country without advanced medical care; I could have been living in a rural town where they didn’t provide willing assistance to foreigners. But still -– suffering that kind of awkward, intimate pain in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and where they value silence and modesty over most other traits was pretty awful.
I had sex in a tent on the banks of a lake in Northern Hokkaido, after four months of abstinence. The sex was drunk and good and it didn’t matter that a sudden monsoon rain completely flooded the small canvas space. It did matter 12 hours later, when I was gleefully recounting the events of the night to my friend.
“God” she said. “I’d have a UTI immediately after a night like that.”
I was, by that point, well versed in dealing with UTIs and I knew, after my second day of symptoms, that I needed to see a doctor. But I was shy and nervous and had no access at all to an English-speaking medical clinic. My job started the next day, as an assistant teacher in a new high school, and I was determined not to have to take time off in order to get an appointment with a doctor. Japanese work ethic, FTW.
So I drank water by the litre and set off for work the next day, an hour and a half commute by tube to the school on the outskirts of Sapporo. I made it as far as the subway stop where I was supposed to connect to a short bus ride; as far as locking the bathroom stall before I collapsed on the tiled floor. I woke up seconds later curled around the toilet. Japanese bathrooms are, thankfully, very clean.
There was one other English speaker working at the school that I knew -– I rang her while still crouched on the floor, trying to figure out if I’d hit my head when I fell. “What should I tell the staff?” she asked. “Migraine,” I answered.
I used the Japanese-English app on my phone to look up the kanji for “urology” as I headed back to my neighbourhood, where there was a large medical clinic. I sat in the seats reserved for the elderly and pregnant and sick and ignored the disapproving glances.
At the clinic, I tried to make my condition known to confused but kind nurses with the aid of my Japanese dictionary and words like “bladder” and “infection” and “urine” and “pain.” The nurses watched while I peed on the stick, which was new to me, and then the doctor prescribed me “warm water.” I was nearly out the door before I came back in and demanded a prescription –- well, I aggressively said the words “prescription” and “antibiotics” in strident and tearful Japanese some kind of mantra until they began to look fearful that they were being cursed by a red-faced foreigner, and handed over a packet of pills.
Since then, my bladder and I have reached an uneasy truce, and that particular superpower seems to have receded. I take cranberry pills every day, and keep a stash of pure, sour cranberry juice to drink when I feel anything. I pee immediately after sex, no matter what, and I do not have sex in tents. I don’t even enter tents. I think I might subconsciously blame the tent for the whole Japan debacle, because if I can’t blame the tent then I have to blame the penis, and that just won’t do.
But I do think back to that eight-year-old girl, suffering from maybe the worst and scariest pain of her whole life, and feeling utterly unable to ask for help, and wonder where on earth that shame comes from. I had two sisters and a kind mother and an approachable teacher and yet –- the second something went wrong that wasn’t a stubbed toe or a bloody knee; as soon as it concerned that intimate area of myself that I didn’t quite understand, I couldn’t talk about it.
I’m not scared now -– if anything, I talk about my vagina too much. I think it’s a positive development, though my boyfriend’s mother might think otherwise. So go on –- what’s your UTI horror story?