I have human papillomavirus (HPV). This is a fact of life that I cannot change. It is something I cannot control. And you know what, I can’t lie—I’m pretty messed up about that.
Since my HPV diagnosis in 2018, I’ve had two incredibly traumatic cervical biopsies and a cervical ablation. I feel a sort of low-grade anxiety and shame around this infection, even though it’s so common. I often have trouble trying to express how disempowered I often feel around my HPV. I want to be strong. I’m a sex educator. I should be empowering people and relieving stigma. I try my best, but shame still lives inside me. It brings up a lot of negative feelings that are always there, bubbling underneath the surface.
As this essay began to form in my mind, I grew to think of my shame and guilt around HPV as what one of my clients calls, “the black bubbles.” These are all the icky, terrible, shameful, hostile feelings we store in our souls. Sometimes the tar bubbles to the surface and creates blemishes on your psyche. The invisible bubbles are the body and soul attempting to clean themselves of grime. At first, very much like an annoying pimple, they cover themselves in sludge before clearing themselves out. It’s a soul purge. Painful, but necessary; ugly, but once it’s over, we feel fresh and lighter. Writing this essay feels like bursting a black bubble.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of empowerment going on here, too. I’m a pretty well-known sex educator. I’ve been writing about HPV for years, starting with an investigatory feature for Marie Claire. I became interested in HPV because one of my best friends was subjected to a horror-movie-level biopsy experience, for which she was entirely unprepared. I realized as a sex and health journalist, I knew basically nothing about HPV.
After my diagnosis, it got even more personal. I documented my experiences—like my cervical biopsies—in several outlets, with the goal of normalizing the conversation around HPV to help dispel some of the stigma. Statistics show that at least 80% of sexually active adults between 18 and 35 will have some form of HPV at some point in their lives. Some strains are more dangerous than others. Some cause cancer. All are equally easy to get. It’s so common that there has been talk about no longer classifying it as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). I am no stranger to shouting this diagnosis to the far corners of the internet. What I haven’t openly discussed at any great length is my anxiety around my HPV.
What really haunts me are the cervical biopsies, or colposcopies. My doctor advised me to take “two Advil” before coming. They then used a hole-puncher-like device to carve tiny bloody chunks of cells out of my cervix, without a numbing agent of any kind. It is unbelievably scary and painful. I’m not being overdramatic. My sister came with me the first time I needed a biopsy, and she almost fainted. It was intense. The Advil (ibuprofen) they advise you to take doesn’t do jack shit.
The ablation, a bona fide surgery where I was put under anesthesia, was a delight, if I’m perfectly honest. I love attention, and my whole family came to support me. The worst part was having to pay $3,000 out of pocket (my insurance would only cover 75% of the surgery costs, despite my having a Blue Cross Blue Shield “Gold plan”). So while the American health care system is literally a joke, it isn’t having ablations that eats away at my happiness on a daily basis. It’s the thought of undergoing another colposcopy.
Since I started writing about HPV, my life has been altered drastically. A few weeks after my cervical surgery, I started chatting with the guy who would become my husband. I’m in a monogamous marriage now, I’ve moved to London and started a whole new chapter in my life, but it still feels like HPV is going to follow me around forever. The medical procedures and subsequent discomfort, pain, and fear are always looming over me. I’ll need an annual Pap for the foreseeable future. The threat of another painful experience with my feet in gynecological stirrups is always possible.
My therapist says I have an issue with overthinking things to the point where I can convince myself of almost anything. And she’s very correct. When it comes to my HPV, I often convince myself that I’m going to get cervical cancer. I was a few months overdue for today’s Pap. I can almost feel cancer growing inside of me even though my logical brain knows the odds of my HPV having gotten so aggressive are infinitesimal. My emotional brain keeps pointing out that it could happen.
I have been dealing with HPV by talking about it—talking about it until it seems real to me, so it seems normalized. I started by writing about my diagnosis publicly. Anywhere anyone would let me write about my struggle with HPV, I would write about it. There were times when I asked to write about it because I was so insanely anxious, I felt that I would explode. I used the internet as my therapist and my catharsis. Of course, my therapist pointed out that while normalizing messages around HPV and trying to find comfort in the stories of others like me was useful, I was only plastering over my deeper anxieties. There are only so many times you can say, “I have HPV! It’s OK!” before you realize what you’re really asking is: “I have HPV! Is it OK?”
A public need for approval does not mental health make. My therapist suggested instead that I start journaling about my anxieties. Any time I felt a strange cramp in my uterus or ovary, I was to sit down and write about it before allowing myself to spiral into a terror-eclipse. Every single day has been a struggle to get a hold on the black bubbles that creep onto the surface of my brain, but being open with people I love and who love me has helped me cope.
Then there was the whole prospect of dating with HPV. That entire business made me queasy. The guy who most definitely gave it to me basically tried to gaslight me into thinking I had gotten it elsewhere, implying in not so many words that I’m a sex educator and therefore a dirty whore. I thought I had gotten to a point where that kind of sexual shaming could not pierce my armor. But I was wrong. Any time I wanted to start seeing someone, I sabotaged the entire thing before it even started—terrified they would think I was disgusting and not want to have sex with me.
My therapist told me to be forthright with the information with my husband (then my paramour). He was so totally chill about it. I burst into tears. Everything I had told myself about my diagnosis was in my head. I had been telling people for so many months that HPV was not a big deal, and all along I was torturing myself.
I felt ashamed for feeling so poorly about myself when I was telling other women to love their bodies. I was constantly ping-ponging back and forth between feeling like the HPV voice of my generation and hyperventilating when the mere thought of another biopsy entered my mind. Taking a step toward true compassion was the only way to handle the bubbling feelings. I had to face them. Having finally let it out into the open, facing the possibility of rejection only to be met with empathy and understanding was a stepping stone toward letting go of my deep-seated shame. No one in society gets away unscathed by shame, no matter how sex-positive your background.
The push and pull of wanting to accept yourself in a world that is still so sex-negative is a daunting task. This is a thing many people with ongoing STIs have to deal with regularly. The logical mind may know you’re not tainted or bad, but the messaging you get tells you a different story. Maybe one day I’ll finally feel totally OK with my HPV. Today is not quite that day for me, but I hope reading my written catharsis may bring you closer to yours.