Ladies, ladies, ladies!
If you are the proud owner/operator of a vagina, I highly recommend you read this. It can save your life.
If you're simply a vagina aficionado, or have friends with vaginas, I ALSO recommend you read this. Because, vaginas, guys.
I spent 16 years with the same guy, and when it started to fall apart, I spent a lot of time alone in bed, depressed.
When it finally did fall apart, I spent a lot of time also in bed, cheering myself up. But this time I wasn't alone.
(Shameless Winky Emoticon.)
My "number" is still in the single digits, but clearly I had some lost time I needed to make up for.
I got laid, got some great stories, and unfortunately, got something else:
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I don't have HPV anymore. I am healthy, clear of the disease, and Planned Parenthood has stated that my vagina is "so clean you could eat off it." So, hooray for me! I was lucky, but not everyone is - and HPV can be pretty dangerous. I was shocked at how little I knew about it, so here's what I didn't know and what you should be aware of, you hornball sexkittens...
HPV is something people don't talk about. It's not a glamorous or humorous STI, so it doesn't get much limelight, but it really should and here's why: IT CAN KILL YOU DEAD, LADIES.
-80% of sexually active adults in major cities have some version of it.
-Most of us don't know we even have it.
-There is no test to determine whether or not a guy has it - they can be carriers and never know. Totes unfair, right?
-There is, however, a test to determine whether or not girls have it - but it's not fun.
-Guys can carry it with no symptoms.
-Girls can carry it with no symptoms. I had it and didn't even know I had it - everything looked and felt perfectly normal.
-You can get it even if you and your partner are using condoms. (Suuuuper unfair!)
-HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. The booksmart part of me who aced all her sex-ed classes knew that it meant genital warts. But that's totally not it. There are dozens of different strains of HPV, all with different calling cards. Most of them have zero physical symptoms except for one, and it's a kicker: HPV can give you cervical cancer.
If you have a cervix, cervical cancer can kill you.
There is one silver lining - if you stay healthy, your body can "clear" the disease. It takes, on average, 2 years but it is very possible.
However, if you have an aggressive type of HPV, or you let it go unchecked because you didn't know to go get an annual pap test, you can die. Dead. And then you can't have sex anymore.
I'm a catastrophizer, so naturally, I was at defcon 1 upon hearing that I had HPV.
Everything I'd learned in school (condoms, condoms, condoms) about protecting myself had let me down, and here I was, newly divorced and scared shitless that I was going to die from snatch cancer.
I was terrified, because I didn't know the facts.
Guess who else didn't know the facts: the guy I was seeing at the time. Whom I foolishly called for comfort.
Let's call this gentleman "A."
Could stand for "A-hole," could stand for "Andrew." But to keep his identity (and callousness) a secret, we'll stick with "A."
I didn't have insurance, and this was before ObamaCare, so I went though a Christian Clinic to get an annual woman's health exam.
I had no reason to assume anything was wrong.
As soon as the clinic called me with abnormal pap results from what I assumed would be a perfectly routine pap smear, I thunderstruck to find out I had a stealth STI I didn't even know I had. I was extremely upset and the clinic did little to assuage my fears, telling me that I should come in for further testing but that if they determined that I had an STI they had to "report it."
TO WHOM DOES MY VAGINA REPORT TO EXACTLY?
"Bullshit," I say.
Then they told me about the additional cancer risk. Ughhh. Gutpunch.
I felt like I'd been poisoned.
I called "A." for support and to tell him I probably had HPV, which most likely meant he had it too and would be a symptom-less carrier.
At which point he promptly freaked out and asked me where I got it. Because there's, like, no way it could've been him.
He's CATHOLIC, for fuck's sake. They don't get diseases!
Now, there were really only two sources it could've been: either my ex-husband had tracked it in off the streets, or it was "A."
"A." insisted it wasn't him. Since I couldn't exactly vent my frustration on my ex, and most guys never even know they're carriers, I told "A" to check his facts and get back with me. "A." is convinced Planned Parenthood is the devil, and gets all of his sciencey information from trusted Catholic sources.
"A." then has his roommate call me to be the voice of reason. "A's" roomie is a smooth-talking Englishman with a penchant for one night stands. As a self-diagnosed sex addict, the roomie is well-versed in matters of the genitalia, and called me back to console me with his adorable accent and inconceivable misogyny...
"You probably picked it up from a public toilet seat, love," he croons.
"THAT'S NOT EVEN POSSIBLE ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS" I screeched back.
Yes, he was serious. He swore I couldn't possibly have picked up an STI from "A.," his Catholic condom-hatin' roomie, who, unbeknownst to me at the time, had a girlfriend back home when he and I first started dating. Clearly he could do no wrong. Clearly I picked it up from a toilet seat. Because, science and stuff.
(This man is also an actual part-time Life Coach. Ladies beware.)
Eventually "A." got checked, and proudly told me it came back negative.
Of COURSE it came back negative. It never shows up in tests for guys, so unless he had visible symptoms, he'd never know if he was a carrier (or Patient 0.) At my urging, he told his (now) ex-girlfriend, who may have wound up sharing this with both of us at some point. I'm sure that was an awkward conversation.
She was tested and it came back negative. I told "A." that it can take several months to show up in tests, that it wasn't an instant-results kind of thing.
"A." grew really cold at that point, and although we'd ended our romantic relationship months before, this was the spectacular end to our friendship.
I felt violated. I felt maligned. I felt misunderstood. I felt tainted. I felt dirty and I felt stupid. Like I didn't deserve to enjoy my body anymore. I felt a deep sense of shame and worst of all, a pervasive sense of dread and fear haunted my love life.
I'm pretty sure that film "It Follows" is about HPV.
Never a single symptom. Never any warts, bumps, never any pain.
Just an all-consuming terror that my vagina would grow cancer cells and kill me. Probably overnight, in my sleep.
I told another boyfriend about it. I'm convinced this man could not have been a "donor" because of the nigh-virginal state he'd been in when he met me. He hadn't been sexually active for years, so even if he'd been a carrier it would've passed long before he had a chance to pass it on to me.
However, since there was a chance I passed it on to him, I had to call him up.
At which point HE freaks out and calls every girl he's ever hugged or cuddled. He looks up HPV, but he looks it up on WebMD and chooses to focus on the worst case scenario.
Sure enough, one of his ex-girlfriends (with whom he'd had a walk down memory lane after he and I parted ways) has cancer. But it's THROAT CANCER. And she's been a heavy smoker for years.
My fault? Fuck no.
But naturally, he blames me. Awkwardness ensues and I feel like a monster.
Cut to a year later and it's time to call upon the good people of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles to test me and see what stage I'm at...
They tell me this...
There are three kinds of "danger levels" from HPV:
1) slow-growing, non-agressive HPV THAT COULD CHANGE AT ANY TIME AND KILL YOU AT ANY TIME YOU WHORE
2) Medium-speed, Holy Shit Keep An Eye On This It Could Turn Into Cancer Any Minute YOU WHORE, and
3) Cancer, you're dead. Or if you're not, they have to cut out pieces of your cervix with a small chain-saw so you'll WISH you were dead.
Guac is extra.
Fortunately, there are ways to test what kind you have.
First, you get a pap smear (a simple swab-rubbed-against-your-cervix-test) to determine whether or not you have cancery cells.
It's not fun, but it's not too painful. You'll just feel crampy the rest of the day, no big.
Then you wait 2 weeks, and if they call and tell you that you have cancery pre-cancerous cells, they'll need to perform a culposcopy.
A culposcopy is when they take what feels like a serrated jack-o-lantern scooping tool and rake-scrape it along your cervix while peering up your cooch with a microscope. It's grand.
So grand, the first time I had one, I got up from the table, threw up on the clinic floor and passed out from pain.
I woke up in the chair I'm pretty sure they place girls in after they have abortions. A heated massage chair, pulsing with soothing electric waves. I struggled to keep my eyes from tunnel-visioning out again as I heard my roommate's name being called in the waiting room.
My roommate, an officer and a gentleman, came to the back of the clinic and scooped me out of the chair and carried me Whitney-Houston-Kevin-Costner-style to his car and drove me home.
(Fun fact: my roommate is not tall in stature, but incredibly strong. When he carried me, I had a bizarre vision of those mighty leafcutter ants or whatever hoisting dead bird carcasses home for food.)
My insides hurt like hell and I cursed "A." with every pothole we hit on the way home.
In keeping with the theme of unspeakable pain, I laid in a fetal position on the couch and stared at "Birdemic" on Netflix. I'm loaded up on Ibuprofen while my other roomie fed me coconut soup from my favorite Thai place.
My roomies were pretty freakin' awesome.
I felt better in a few days, but had serious cramps and spotty bleeding. Plus the blood and other goodies that came out were stained with iodine dye, so it looked like a load of coffee grounds were seeping from my vagina directly into my panties.
So not sexy. But better than not knowing if I was precancerous, cancerous, or just plain fucked.
Planned Parenthood called me in a week with the results, and I guess I won the HPV lottery: I had the slow, only marginally scary kind of precancerous cells. Unlike the Christian Clinic, Planned Parenthood took the time to actually talk with me about HPV, and assured me that lots of women have it. I was pretty emotional still and told the nurse that I didn't know anyone else who had it. There was a long pause, and then she said "I had it. And I cleared it, and I'm healthy. So don't worry."
She told me tons of people have it and just never know, but I still felt awful. Like I was being punished for something.
So, cut to another year later. Things are great and I'm totally in love. I met an amazing guy who I can see a future with, and oh crap we're having The Sex Talk. And here's the part where I have to tell him I have This Thing, and he'll think I'm a whore and leave.
He'll tell me to avoid toilet seats.
...But he doesn't. Instead, he does his research and finds out that oh hey, a LOT of this is going around. And he understands that even if we use condoms, he may become a carrier and never have any way of being tested for it.
He responds by immediately making a visit to Planned Parenthood himself, and getting tested for everything.
(Just ask for "The Works." It's on the Secret Menu.)
He's clean as a whistle. And I'm about to ruin that, because he really wants to put it in me.
Cut to ANOTHER FREAKIN' YEAR LATER...
I'm still in love! Same Guy! We're still doin' it!
I go to my annual Planned Parenthood appointment and get my pap. It's abnormal and I have to come in for another culposcopy.
I cry a little. I'm so tired and over it - I just want to feel clean again.
Boo. But I'm a big girl now, and this is the price I pay for having The Sex. I have to be responsible, it's just... why is no one else talking about this? Why am I the only person I know getting tested for this stuff? I know I'm not the only one who has The Sex, so why do I feel so alone in this? My boyfriend is amazing and supportive, but then, it's not his cervix about to face the melon-baller.
I suck it up and borrow some xanax from a friend and endure my second culposcopy with significantly less pain.
No vomiting or fainting. (I'm a pro by now.)
I'm making jokes about how if I get 10 culposcopies, my 11th should be free. That they should punch my culposcopy card with the same punch they just used to take a nip out of my cervix. I am loopy and delightful.
Then the receptionist who checks me out tells me not to worry, that she had HPV too and recovered 100% from it.
I am relieved to know that I am among at least 3 sexually active adults in Los Angeles.
Later, they call with the news. I still have it. I still have slow, slightly-less-terrifying HPV. They tell me I probably won't die from cancer in the next 12 months, and to come back in a year. I feel dirty and ashamed. God dammit.
Over the next calendar year, I open up to 3 girls about my HPV. One has it, one HAD had it. But we all shared this amazing AHA! moment where there's this wave of relief that someone else is going though a hell we thought we faced alone.
The third gal is kind of a slut and should probably go get tested, bless her heart.
I feel better. I feel... better.
And better, and better, and better.
I take care of my immune system, get rest, and load up on healthy foods and exercise, per the instructions from my doctor.
CUT TO PRESENT DAY:
I have my annual pap, courtesy of Planned Parenthood.
I bite my nails for a week, and then, they call with the results:
(dramatic drumroll, please)
I am 100% healthy and fine. My body has cleared it, I no longer have HPV. Clean, pure, healthy happy vagina. So clean you can eat off it!
And I am elated. I feel exonerated in some way. Like I completed some sort of punishment.
The last vestigial souvenir of my single days is gone and finally, it's just me and my guy.
The one who trusted me and never made me feel dirty. The one who stood by my side and loves me unconditionally.
The one who can put it in me.
Ladies, (and dudes who read this,) I can't even begin to tell you how amazing it feels to have this hanging axe over my head removed. This dark Spectre is vanished, gone for good. I feel foolish that I didn't know about it, and I feel lucky I had the "good" kind. I feel even luckier that it cleared my system and, if I stay healthy and monogamous, I'll never have to deal with it again.
But if I'd let shame or "A." or guilt stop me from being diligent about my own health, it could've gotten ugly fast. It terrifies me how little I knew about HPV - and I consider myself pretty educated. Walp, now I'm even MORE educated, and if this inspires even one of my readers to go get checked, I'm happy to share.
Yeah, it's kinda embarrassing. But so are half my blogs, so, whatevs. It's never been about maintaining some perfect appearance. Sometimes it's about sharing what we know for the greater good. I waited to share this story, not because I was ashamed, but because I really wanted to have a happy ending to it.
And I finally do.
And you will too, if you take care of your health and GO. GET. CHECKED. (you whores.)
Ahh I'm just kidding. You know I love you.
I got this amazing, exonerating, Governor's-reprieve phone call from Planned Parenthood the same day Will (my boyfriend) and I'd decided to go for a hike, letting me know I was healthy and fine. We'd chosen a hike with a specific purpose - I had a book to drop off. I'd long since burned the wedding promises my ex had vowed, then broke. I'd burned mine too. There were no words left to keep once my ex left. But we'd written them in this beautiful red journal, a leather-bound book our Officiant would hold and read from at our wedding.
I'd exorcised the offending pages from the book years ago, but still couldn't bring myself to destroy such a beautiful blank journal with so many clean, empty pages left to offer. I also didn't want to ever use it again.
Here I was, stuck with this gorgeous journal that I could neither keep nor destroy.
I lamented the situation to my boyfriend, and he suggested we leave it up on the top of a mountain overlooking Burbank - the home of the Magic Tree, which has become a popular spot for meditation and reflection for those able to make the strenuous hike, and the journals left and donated up there would become communal records of joy, life-lessons, heartbreak, triumph, despair and ultimately, love.
I was absolutely all for this idea. I loved the chance to turn a loss into a gift.
The call came as we were in the car on the way to the hike, so we stopped at a coffee shop and the very first entry in the journal is now my own story of triumph and recovery.
In 100-degree heat on one of the hottest days of the year, we climbed together.
The air was hot and the book kept slipping in my sweaty hands but we climbed on, sometimes only a few feet at a time.
Eventually, (one legitimately strenuous mile later) we get to the top and I add the book to the box of journals at the summit, at the base of a tree which serves as a living symbol of love and dedication.
I left the book there. I let it go.
When we arrived home, I hopped in our pool.
I was still in my hiking clothes and as the grit and grime from the heat left my body, dissolving invisibly within the crisp cool water, I felt clean for the first time in a very long time.