“Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” — Brené Brown.
April 11-17 is STD Awareness Week, a week dedicated to raising awareness, reducing the stigma, and providing the tools and knowledge to prevent, test for, treat, and prevent STDs.
On the day I found out I had a genital wart, shame hijacked my life. And for four painful years, I carried my “dirty little secret” alone. It almost denied me the chance of finding a loving husband and love of self.
When I first noticed the bump on my vagina a week earlier, I thought little of it. I was still technically a “virgin,” so I figured I did not need to worry about STDs. Right?
Standing in my gynecologist’s office at the age of 25, my heart pounded as the doctor explained how warts are a form of human papillomavirus, or HPV, which affects 90% of the sexually active population in their 20s.
The shame rose from within and spread through every vein in my body. After he treated the wart, I sheepishly walked out of his office, hot tears streaming down my cheeks.
The sex ed messages from my Catholic upbringing—at home and school—were clear: “don’t do it.” When my father gave me “the talk” at 12, it covered the anatomical basics, how enjoyable it is, and our religion’s belief that sex is to be shared with one person after marriage.
Still, I didn’t set out to become an aging virgin.
When my mom died when I was fifteen, my virginity became the only piece of my innocence I felt I could control. Despite my no-sex vow, I managed to lock down a slew of boyfriends, sometimes for years on end, throughout my late teens and early 20s. Admittedly, I did everything else under the sun, including skin-to-skin contact.
And that’s how I got an STD without ever putting a P in my V.
I can joke about it now. Cracking jokes about serious things has helped me through other hardships in my life. But this experience took a radiant, confident young woman and turned her into an unworthy (in my mind) and insecure shell of a human.
After the initial treatment, more warts reappeared, and before long, they spread like wildfire to the point my doctor needed to perform laser surgery. Within weeks of that operation, the warts returned again.
After consistently seeing my gynecologist for four years while never making it past a first date for fear of someone learning my secret, I finally broke down to my doctor. I felt so isolated. I believed I was damaged goods.
He gave me the name and number of a therapist, a woman named Jon. At 29, I had never been to therapy. In my first session, the flood gates opened. Weeping, I told Jon about the HPV, the struggles with dating, my mom’s death and that, clearly—I was a hot mess.
Over the next roughly dozen sessions, I transformed while working with her. We peeled back the layers and, of course, at the core of it all was my mom. I had never quite dealt with her loss. After all, I was not equipped to.
Fear, joy, sadness, and even anger are emotions that are easy to share, but we often stifle shame, which is so destructive. We don’t trust sharing the causes of shame for fear that others will judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
By early April, less than four months after I’d started seeing Jon, the warts were gone. After wreaking havoc on my body for four years, they never returned.
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves,” writes Bessel A. van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score.”
As the shame from the STD lifted, I started to share my secret with girlfriends. I began to put faces to the statistic given to me when I was first diagnosed, that 90% of the sexually active population my age had HPV. Friend after friend admitted to having HPV, warts, or other STDs. It’s estimated that nearly 85% of adults between the ages of 18 and 65 will get HPV at some point in their life.
What I went through was not uncommon. I know that now. Yet it was the most isolating thing I have ever experienced. More than losing a parent as a teenager. More than the experience of struggling to thrive with stage IV cancer for nearly seven years, which has included undergoing cancer treatment in the midst of a global pandemic.
I started telling my story more broadly in the hopes that young people AND parents can learn from it.
In 2019, there was a bill in Colorado to require comprehensive sex education if a school was including sex education in their curriculum. It required the curriculum to include healthy relationships and consent, the health needs of LGBTQ, pregnancy options including adoption and abortion, birth control, and STDs. It also reinforced an already existing ban on abstinence-only sex education.
I was one of 213 people to testify for or against the bill. Nearly twenty years after my high school graduation, I was alarmed by the persistence of the absurd notion that abstinence-only sex education is the only way to go—a tragic disservice.
That is what I was taught. And look what happened to me.
I was the only person to speak first-hand of having an STD. My voice was shaking, but my message was strong. We owe it to our youth to educate them on an act the majority will partake in at some point in their lives, I explained.
The bill passed.
I broke my silence because this can and does happen to any one of us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2018, an estimated 43 million Americans had HPV, with 13 million new cases added that year. It is expected that nearly every sexually active person will get HPV in their lifetime if they do not get the HPV vaccine.
Sex is a natural human desire. People should not be shamed for being sexually active and inadvertently contracting an STD.
Parents, PLEASE talk to your kids about sex. All of it. Talk to their doctor about the HPV vaccine, and substitute “the talk” with an open-ended, age-appropriate dialogue about all the layers of sexual health.
And to anyone reading this feeling the shame of an STD, you are not alone and you are worthy.
Katie Ortman Doble is a professional headhunter, stage 4 cancer thriver (for seven years and counting), patient and sexual health advocate, and writer (blog: Future Happy Self). She lives in Denver with her husband Nick and their dog.