I’ve become a sexual health hypochondriac

Since dating someone who was absolutely riddled, I’ve become a sexual health hypochondriac.

Until 2016, I had mainly only slept with a handful of people, who I was in relationships with, and they had each slept with as few people as me. Plus, I was a goody-two-shoes about contraception.

I was tested for STIs every now and then, but I had never really worried about my sexual health.

Enter 2016 and the Whippersnapper. He had caught herpes before he met me, and had regular outbreaks of genital warts.

The week after we last slept together, in January 2017, I developed a really painful, red raw, sore vagina. I got a bit obsessed with looking at it in my makeup mirror, in the toilets at work every five minutes, and was convinced I could see bumps down there.

The bumps made me think I’d caught genital warts, but the soreness made me think it was herpes.

I went to the clinic and got my vagina cranked open, for a doctor to peer at. After a while she said “where were the bumps you thought you saw?”

It turned out the redness and soreness were just very dry skin, and the bumps were completely normal and not genital warts.

I was relieved.

However, with herpes and genital warts, they’re both caused by a virus you catch (the herpes virus, or HPV for genital warts), which can then lie dormant for a long time, causing no symptoms. Then, you get an outbreak of symptoms in the future, maybe when your immune system is down.

And both can be transmitted by skin contact, even if you use a condom, which we did.

This has meant that even though I didn’t have any symptoms in January, it was still possible (but incredibly unlikely) the Whippersnapper did transmit a virus to me, which has since been lying dormant.

I don’t think I would have worried about this tiny possibility, if it weren’t for the fact that the redness, soreness and bumps kept coming back.

I only had sex 5 times in 2017, due to a combination of being heartbroken, picky and sexually shy (apart from this night, when I was none of those things). But actually, there was a good proportion of the year I probably physically couldn’t have had sex even if I’d tried. It would’ve been too painful.

It seemed to weirdly sync up with my cycle. From the last few days of my period to ovulation, one side of my vagina would be red raw and horribly painful. Sometimes just walking across the room and my underwear brushing past would really hurt.

I would use the medical moisturiser the doctor recommended back in January, and that would help. And then, weirdly, ovulating would seem to fix it.

However, in the days of redness, the mirror would come out and I’d locate some phantom bumps and convince myself I had genital warts again.

Then, even when my vagina was back in action, I’d be too paranoid about being infectious to properly pursue sleeping with anyone.

In April, I met the Bearded South African Man, and he told me he’d had herpes for 10 years.

Fuck sake, not another one! I thought.

This reconfirmed to me that everyone is riddled. It brought back into stark focus how one night of passion can have consequences for the first of your sex life.

So all year, I’ve gone back and forth, half the time thinking I’ve got an STI, and half the time thinking I’m just a hypochondriac.

One thing that didn’t help, was remembering a time WS had genital warts and he showed them to me. They were really hard to see, if you didn’t know what to look for. This meant when I looked for possible warts and didn’t find anything, I thought maybe I just don’t know what to look for!

Then, in December, I went on some good dates and it looked possible that my sex organs might get reopened to the public. (By this stage, I hadn’t had sex since May. Not only had my hymen grown back, but I’m pretty sure I’d grown a few new ones.)

I was having a bad month with the redness, and the phantom bumps looked quite convincing.

I need to make sure I’m not contagious. I thought, and finally made an appointment at the sexual health clinic.

It was just before Christmas when my appointment came around. The redness had gone away again, on the day of the appointment.

I sat in the waiting room and filled in the form they gave me. This time, the waiting room was pretty busy, whereas last time, it was just me and one other guy,

Must be the Christmas rush. I thought.

Everyone was busy getting their festive STIs diagnosed before going home for Christmas.

When I got called in to see the doctor, it was the same one I had seen the previous time.

I described the redness and she said it was vagina eczema, and I just needed to carry on using the moisturiser she advised last time, but to use it twice a day.

I described the bumps and how they ‘come and go’, and she said they couldn’t be genital warts if they go by themselves.

In my heart, I knew this already. My phantom bumps either only last a few days, or I would find them once and then never find them again. Deep down, I know people like WS wouldn’t be having their genital warts frozen off if they only last a few days untreated.

It is a funny coincidence that I didn’t have vagina eczema, then I slept with someone with poorly genitals and suddenly I have all these symptoms. However, it’s not that surprising in some ways. I have really sensitive skin everywhere, and have had various skin problems on my face and body. Also I’ve always had vagina problems like thrush. So getting a skin problem in my vagina doesn’t feel like much of a stretch.

One of the anxiety disorders I work with as a therapist is health anxiety.

“Health anxiety (sometimes called hypochondria) is when you spend so much time worrying you’re ill, or about getting ill, that it starts to take over your life.

You may have health anxiety if you:

• constantly worry about your health

• frequently check your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain

• are always asking people for reassurance that you’re not ill

• worry that your doctor or medical tests may have missed something

• obsessively look at health information on the internet or in the media

• avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes

• act as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)”

(NHS Choices, 2017)

I don’t think I have full-on health anxiety, but some of my worries about sexual health are a bit like that. On one hand, I knew I had a tiny risk of catching something from WS, and then I developed new symptoms which kept coming back, so worrying seemed pretty fair.

However, I think the way I kept checking for bumps and then worrying I had genital warts, even when I couldn’t find the supposed ‘warts’ five minutes later, was less rational.

When I work with someone with health anxiety, I use various CBT techniques to help them refocus on the benign (and often more likely) explanations for the symptom they’re worrying about.

We all have an evolutionary bias towards threatening information over neutral information. So if something happens which could have a threatening explanation, or it could have a benign explanation, our minds jump to the most threatening one.

When we were caveman, this was helpful – if you’re sitting around the fire and hear some leaves rustling, and could assume it’s just the wind or a sparrow, or you could think it’s a sabre-toothed tiger, it was the cavemen who jumped to the worst conclusion and ran away that lived to pass on their genes.

So, if someone with health anxiety has a headache, and there are 100 possible explanations, but one explanation is a brain tumour, they jump to that conclusion and think about it so much, that any other, harmless explanation stops seeming possible.

So, to help put it back into perspective, we would get them to write down all the possible reasons they might have a headache (e.g stress, being dehydrated, having a cold) with the threatening explanation at the end of the list.

Then they give each option a percentage, for likely it is to be the cause of their headache. They rate the likelihood of the threatening explanation (e.g. the brain tumour) last, so that one just gets allocated the remaining, leftover percent, which is usually a really low amount like 5%.

Health anxiety pie chart

(Psychology Tools)

This helps the person go from thinking their symptom is 100% likely to be something awful and life-threatening, to putting the risk into perspective.

The problem with sexual health anxiety, is that sexual health is so stigmatised and talked about so little, that it’s hard to do something like this.

For one thing, I wasn’t looking at my vagina enough before I got worried, so I didn’t have a baseline to compare it to. I never looked at it normally, so I didn’t know what bumps are normal.

And compared to the symptoms we usually cover when working on health anxiety – like headaches, dizziness, lumps – no one talks about sexual health symptoms like vagina bumps. On the rare occasions they do come up, it usually is in the context of an STI.

When I googled vagina bumps, the first results were always genital warts and herpes.

But then I did find out about some harmless, non-STI vagina bumps as well:

  • folliculitis (hair follicles becoming infected, often due to hair removal) and ingrown hairs
  • Fordyce spots (misplaced sebaceous gland tissue. The sebaceous glands, which produce oil, are deep below the surface of the skin, but sometimes they appear on the surface of the skin, harmlessly)
  • pimples (just like anywhere else on the body or face)
  • cysts (caused by glands becoming blocked)
  • skin tags

Another CBT technique we use for health anxiety, is the Inverted Pyramid. This is to help the person remember how many different possible outcomes there are, from one symptom, because they are focusing solely on the most threatening outcome.

To use this technique, I would ask the person to roughly estimate the answers to a series of questions, like:

  • how many people also might have had this symptom today?
  • how many of them would still have it this evening?
  • how many would still have it tomorrow?
  • how many would still have it in a week?
  • how many would go and see their doctor about it?
  • how many would be referred for tests?
  • how many would be told the problem is something serious?
  • how many would be successfully treated?
  • how many people does that leave?

It’s called the Inverted Pyramid because it starts with quite a high number of people (e.g. “100,000 people in London might have a headache today”), but the numbers get smaller at each stage (e.g. “only 10 people would not be successfully treated”). It’s a good way of helping someone remind themselves that symptoms usually do go away on their own, but even if they don’t, and even if there is a problem, it’s often successfully treated.

Again, the problem with this technique is that, for sexual health anxiety, I have no bloody idea what’s normal for other women’s vaginas, and what signs or symptoms come and go harmlessly, because we never talk about it. On the very rare occasion we do, it usually is because of something serious.

I think this is how I ended up with health anxiety about my vagina, despite being fairly clued up about sexual health, and regularly treating health anxiety. Although it’s more difficult to apply the usual CBT to myself, because of the stigma and lack of information about sexual health, I do feel reassured now the doctor has told me again that I don’t have genital warts or herpes. I really do believe it’s just vagina eczema now.

At least now, I know a whole list of harmless reasons I might have some bumps down there. To be honest, most of the time I thought I saw bumps, I think there was literally nothing there.

Before I got anxious about STIs, I didn’t know my vagina well enough. I think I’m not alone in this. I remember talking to one of my friends, a few months after she had given birth. The birth was traumatic and had complications, and her vagina was different afterwards. When she plucked up courage to look at it, after things had healed, she said she wished she’d looked at it more beforehand, because she wasn’t sure what it used to look like.

But I think it’s not just us.

The whole world doesn’t know its vaginas well enough.

Last year, period pains were found to be as painful as having a heart attack. This discovery highlighted the lack of knowledge and research about menstruation and women’s health. Things that only affect women seem to be less of a priority to research, understand and successfully treat.

And it’s not just doctors and scientists.

Even if you think about graffiti – how often do you see cock and balls drawn on a wall or a book or a bus stop, compared to a vagina?

I took a photo of this one, years ago, because it was the only one I’d ever seen.

I think the world would be a better place if we all got a bit more familiar with vaginas, and more comfortable talking about our sexual health.

15 thoughts on “I’ve become a sexual health hypochondriac

  1. Haha, that vagina pic is interesting! I’ve never seen a graffiti’d vagina before.

    In college I had a boyfriend with herpes. I was a littler paranoid about having caught it soon after but being that is been over 20 years, I guess I can presume I’m safe. ?

    I had folliculitis once soon after meeting Mars and was freaking out.it was painful and I was convinced I had herpes. Nope, just folliculitis. I think I got it from shaving then going into a hotel hot tub.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Then, in December, I went on some good dates and it looked possible that my sex organs might get reopened to the public. (By this stage, I hadn’t had sex since May. Not only had my hymen grown back, but I’m pretty sure I’d grown a few new ones.)” Lol this is funny! A close friend of mine told me to go out and buy a vibrator (rabbit ear style) when I mentioned something similar to her. Best advice ever! Removes the ‘use it or lose it’ reasoning. As or the more serious aspect of your post, the sexual health doctor I talked with frankly really put my mind at rest – however, in London as a bigger city, and in your age group, I feel I’d be more worried. Did I mention that herpes starts out like a cold/flu – but then you get a particular ache in your genitals? She also was adamant that you can tell a healthy penis when you see it and that HPV is highly visible as sores when its contagious. I guess the HPV is a different kettle of fish. She was pretty blasé about it but the way you’re writing about it makes me slightly fearful.

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  3. Pingback: Slide the fish into the shuddering water | Dater Analysis

  4. Loved this post, I worry a lot about STDs, fortunately not obsessively but it is concerning when dating multiple men that at some point I am going to hit the herpes lottery especially as so many men are not honest about the dating let alone their honesty on their status re STDs

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, Great G-d Brown, Ms. DA, at that time, who more than you could have earned a bout of hypochondriasis sexualis?!? (This observation is about those who had crossed your path, NOT about you. 😉)

    As for that closing graffito, hey, it ain’t no Banksy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have some serious anxiety involving my sexual health. I will overanalyze every little pain that I experience from my stomach to my sex organs and convince myself I have an STD or disease involving my vagina. It is awful!! I feel a lot better knowing that I am not the only one with this type of hypochondriasis. It affects my daily life at this point and I know I need to see a psychologist but it is hard for me to see a doctor because I am fearful of a scary diagnosis. I went through a traumatic experience with an ex boyfriend who came into contact with HIV. The 3 days of not knowing if I had the virus was absolute agony and I feel like I have PTSD from those 3 days. I think this is definitely what triggers my anxiety. Thank you for writing this! It helped me a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

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