Finding out you have a sexually transmitted disease can be devastating, life-altering news for some. But it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in your struggle. In fact, the CDC estimates that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year. The CDC also found that in the U.S. in 2016, more than 2 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were reported—the highest number ever. Dr. Kate Balestrieri, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, sees firsthand how STDs impact the lives of her patients, and says it’s important to know that life—and happiness—goes on after being diagnosed.
“With the right treatment, people can go on and have a flourishing, robust sex life,” says Balestrieri. She adds that learning to cope with having an STD takes time, but that it can be done (along with treatment, of course). “The first reaction is typically shame, fear, and embarrassment,” she says. “Patients feel guilty, like it’s their fault. Many internalize it and assume that they’re ‘bad.’ Some become self-destructive, either in their minds or with their behavior.”
I felt disgusting and ashamed—I never thought I would be that person.
When Lauren from North Carolina found out that she was diagnosed with chlamydia at 25, she was a wreck. “I cried when I received my positive test results,” she says. “I felt a lot of shame at first. I grew up in a town where abstinence was the only thing taught in school, so I felt disgusting. I never thought I would’ve have been ‘that person’ who gets an STD.” Those feelings are completely normal, says Lauren, and she suggests educating yourself and talking with trusted loved ones when you first get the news. “No one wants to talk about it, so the stigma remains, which is why we really need to talk about it,” she says. Even parents can be uninformed. “My mom didn’t know a thing about chlamydia. She asked if my dog would get it. I also had no idea what the treatment involved until I got on the antibiotics.”
When you’re ready to talk about it—either with friends, family, your partner, or a therapist—Balestrieri advises having a vocabulary that helps you talk about your STD so that it reduces the shame associated with it. “I recommend being candid and matter-of-fact,” she says. “For example, to a sexual partner, you can say, ‘I was last tested on X date, and I’m negative for X and Y, and positive for Z. When were your last tests?’”
Kerry, 31, from Philadelphia, remembers when she was first diagnosed with gonorrhea. She felt shame and guilt, just like Lauren. “I wasn’t in a monogamous relationship, so I had no idea who may have infected me,” says Kerry. “To this day, three years later, I’ve never told my parents.” However, she did talk to her closest friends about it and was pleasantly surprised by how they handled it. “I would never wish bad on my friends, but what really helped me cope was that as I talked about it more with them, I learned that some were also living with STDs, too. Opening up about it and learning I wasn’t alone really helped me.”
Opening up and learning I wasn’t alone really helped me.
There are also plenty of support groups that cater to people living with STDs, both online and in person, says Balestrieri. “Look for dating sites that connect people with specific STDs.” Sites like Positive Singles and Meet People With Herpes not only offer you a place to get support and make friends, but also may even help you meet a new partner. Lauren adds that women can also use YESmeansTEST.org to learn the stats and find nearby clinics.
Another big concern after being diagnosed is telling your partner. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, the most important thing is being transparent and preparing for your partner’s possible response. “I decided to tell my partner so he knew and could take care of himself,” says Lauren. “What I didn’t anticipate was how poorly he’d react. He accused me of being a slut and denied he had given it to me—even though I knew it could only be him because I was regularly tested. It was incredibly hard to go through that.”
The best way to cope with an outcome like Lauren’s is to emotionally prepare yourself for your partner’s anger and judgment—even if it’s unfair and unwarranted. “A lot of partners can shame you about it, so really think about whether you’re prepared for it to be over,” says Balestrieri. And if it’s not over, are you prepared for them to accept you with the STD? Are you prepared for their discomfort, fear, and questions? If you’re feeling really fragile about the conversation, have supportive people around when preparing for the talk.” Telling your partner also helps prevent you from internalizing all the feelings associated with having an STD.
Another important coping mechanism that helped Kerry was ramping up her self-care. “After the initial fear and shame of have an STD subsided, I really started paying attention to how I was caring for my body and mind,” she says. “I started practicing yoga and meditating more. I upped my vitamins and natural supplements to help strengthen my immune system and made sure I was seeing the doctor on a regular basis.”
Balestrieri emphasizes the value of seeing a therapist for extra emotional support. “It’s important to see either a sex therapist, sex addiction therapist, or another psychologist or therapist who specializes in sexual trauma, dysfunction, or health,” she says. “They’re uniquely trained to address healthy dating plans, shame reduction, sexual reawakening if you feel shut down, and other topics that are related to navigating the news of an STD.” And it never hurts to say it one more time: You’re far from the only one dealing with these struggles.