When I was in eighth grade, my gym teacher separated all the boys from the girls and ushered the two groups into separate rooms before she started her presentation. With my cheeks red from embarrassment, Mrs. Callie showed slides and gave handouts of the female anatomy, and how the reproductive system worked. She explained what menstruation was, and all that other lovely stuff involved in female puberty.
She then moved onto a presentation of the dangers of unprotected sex and the different forms of STIs that sexually active girls can be at risk for. The presentation was concluded with a speech about the importance of loving one’s body and the varying forms of birth control available to those ready to explore their sexuality, but ensuring safe sex is being had.
In the midst of this presentation I remember passing notes to my girlfriends saying how I’ll never be dumb enough to not use protection, let alone sleep with a man without knowing his sexual history and health. We all felt so confident at that time that we wouldn’t be those 20 million women who are affected by an STI each year in America.
Unfortunately, what my gym teachers forgot to mention was that life is complicated, sex is confusing, and that there’s a huge invisible stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections. The teachers forgot to mention that there is no one face to STIs, and that any man or woman can become susceptible to one. There is nothing about what someone looks like that makes them more or less likely to contract something like chlamydia.
Flash forward to last year, I was at the lowest point in my life. My heart was shattered and everything seemed to just continue to move downhill. With failing courses, gaining weight, depression at an all time high, I thought about turning to the nameless men in my life for comfort. On what could be called a 4 month binge of sleeping with too many men, I contracted what I thought was 9 Urinary tract infections in a dangerously short period of time. While waiting for my prescription at my local pharmacy, the pharmacist began to voice her concern about the amount of times I’ve been diagnosed with my infection. She asked me to go get checked for STIs at a nearby clinic and to stick close to my phone after. Sure enough, a few days later I received the call that I was in fact infected with chlamydia, and that it’s impossible to tell how long I’ve had the bacteria. This only added to the list of negative things in my life, pushing me further into a state of learnt helplessness.
The next few days after that included many uncomfortable phone calls to previous partners. Hearing their voices brought me back to laying in bed next to them, hating myself for having a void in me that never seemed to be filled. I was tarnished and all they did was sweep that under the rug for the night. As I called the final number I was so emotionally drained that my well rehearsed speech seemed almost fictional. After the third ring, he picked up and I expressed my sympathy for what I most certainly had done to him. As I braced myself for what I could only assume would be a vengeful lecture, he let out an empathetic sigh before speaking.
“You need to put on your own oxygen mask when a plane is going down. You can’t just stare out the window or at other passengers and allow yourself to remain helpless. If you have a fighting chance to fix your situation, you need to reach for the damn oxygen and stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
He and I talked for the rest of the afternoon about all the changes I needed to start making in my life in order to get myself on a better track. We covered everything from my bipolar disorder to low self-esteem. He gave me the contact information for a nutritionist and fitness instructor, promising that once I got my physical health back that I’ll begin to feel my void heal over.
It has been almost a year since that phone call and I’m still doing him proud by focusing on me. After giving serial dating a rest, I learnt how to love myself again and fix the things I didn’t before attempting to be with another man. I still sometimes feel myself slipping into helplessness, but I’ve found better ways of coping that don’t include nameless men or detriments to my health. Instead I think about how far I’ve come, and how grateful I am to have taken the oxygen mask instead of watching everything crash and burn.