As an OB-Gyn physician one of the most frequent difficult discussions I have with women is about STDs – sexually transmitted diseases. You can find lots of information about STDs from many sources – your doctor, school sex education, medical or health websites, etc. You can see pictures of the physical effects, read about the symptoms, and find out what treatments are available. But almost nobody talks about the emotional weight of having an STD.
Within just the last few weeks I’ve heard from women carrying an enormous load:
- The young wife who thought she had escaped getting the herpes her husband has, but just tested positive and can’t get rid of the “dirty” feeling
- The young mother wondering if there will ever be an end to the procedures she will need for the HPV (human papilloma virus) on her cervix
- The recent divorcee whose ex-husband is telling everyone about the herpes she developed prior to their marriage decades ago
- The recently retired wife still holding the hurt of a chlamydia infection years ago, knowing SHE had never gone outside her marriage for sex
- The wife and mother who hasn’t had sex in years, in part because of her husband’s HIV infection
And I could tell more stories. These are women I’ve talked with personally. None of them are my patients. These are women who have asked me for reassurance, perspective, and hope. I’ve cried with them, hugged them, and prayed with them.
Nobody tells you in sex education class about the shame you’ll feel when your doctor says the words, “Yes, your test for ……… is positive.” Nobody tells you how hard it will be to have to tell any future boyfriends or husband about your STD. Nobody tells you how much you’ll hate your body, or how isolated and dirty you may feel, or how heavy the weight of knowing you have an STD will become, and how it will never go away.
As a doctor, I do my best to shine a positive light on the STDs these women carry. I talk about how strong their immune system is and how they can make it stronger, about the medications we have to help keep these infections in check, and about how it’s likely that the potential new men in their lives have encountered the same issues before. I try to help lessen the emotional weight of carrying an STD, but I can’t make it go away.
As a woman, I’m angry that nobody has been talking about such things. Oh yes, there’s plenty of talk about “safe sex,” birth control, and Gardasil. And I’m truly happy about any unwanted child who never gets conceived, any young woman who doesn’t need a prescription to treat gonorrhea, and any wife and mother who never gets cervical cancer.
But what prescription can I give for a broken heart? Ask any of the women I’ve talked with in the past few weeks, and they’ll tell you that abstinence followed by permanent mutual monogamy in marriage is worth it.
In trying to not add shame to women who already have an STD we’ve only driven that shame underground, especially for women of faith. We’re not helping them carry the enormous emotional weight of having an STD.
And we’re not giving other young women the tools necessary to keep them from becoming weighted down with that shame in the first place!
I may be dreaming, but perhaps these steps would be a good place to start:
- The women’s ministry in every church should offer an optional sharing group where women can ask their questions, pray for each other, and help lessen each other’s shame over having an STD.
- Women who have received a measure of God’s healing for their shame should tell their story to other young girls, perhaps those around age 10 or 11.
- Pastors, Christian physicians, and Christian teachers should take every opportunity to help young women develop the emotional and personal skills to remain abstinent.
We need to talk about the truth!
There’s so much else that needs to be done. I haven’t talked at all about men, their feelings, and their role in STDs. I’ve only hinted at how wonderfully God can bring you healing for your shame, and how He can turn what we thought would forever keep us in hiding into something whereby we can help others. And I hope medical science continues to find breakthroughs.
But for now, I’ll continue to do what I can to give women a place to shed their tears, share their stories, and soak up the hugs and prayers and hope that God allows me to provide.
And if you’re a mother of a pre-teen, PLEASE have the talk with your daughter. TODAY!
Your Turn: Do you think talking more openly about what it feels like to know you have an STD would be a good thing? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.
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