After finding out you have a chronic sexually transmitted disease (STD), it's
not unusual to experience feelings of shame and a negative body image. Here are
some ways to restore self-esteem.
According to two American Social Health Association (ASHA) surveys, most people
who had been diagnosed with herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV)—two chronic
sexually transmitted diseases—experienced depression and feared rejection from
future partners. Can a person with one of these diseases ever learn to adjust?
After the initial shock of her HPV diagnosis had passed, Sarah faced some hard
emotional work: overcoming her sense of shame and adjusting to her new body
image. Because HPV is a virus, she quickly learned that she would have her
sexually transmitted disease forever. Only 24 years old at the time, she felt
"used-up and unclean."
Sarah is not alone in her emotional reaction to her diagnosis of chronic STD.
Psychologist and sex therapist Jill W. Bly, PhD, says that in her experience
counseling people with STDs, "The first reaction of people is usually pretty
overwhelming. They think their sex life is over."
Fortunately, these feelings pass. Just like people who learn to deal with other
unpleasant surprises in life, people also eventually learn to adjust to HPV and
herpes. Indeed, when one ASHA survey asked people how they felt about herpes
recently, compared to when they were first diagnosed, fewer people had as low a
self-image this time around.
Still, the question remains: How do you reclaim self-esteem? The answer seems to
lie in the words of psychologist and marriage and family therapist Joy Davidson,
PhD: "Avoid being a passive victim of your own disease." In other words, by
gathering knowledge about the disease and how it affects your body, you can
Restoring self-esteem—knowledge is power
Know your disease
"Education is definitely the first step to restoring self-esteem," Bly says.
Davidson couldn't agree more. "Get as much information as you can about ways of
coping with the disease, both medically and psychologically."
Myths surrounding STDs contribute to feelings of shame, and fact-finding
missions often succeed in debunking them. One common fallacy, for instance,
assumes that a person who has HPV or herpes inhabits a small, ostracized colony.
Not so. As a matter of fact, ASHA estimates that 24 million people have HPV and
more than 40 million carry herpes.
Learning the best ways to cope with a disease also helps you regain a sense of
control over your body. New insights into the transmission and treatment of HPV
and herpes are being discovered all the time. However, staying on top of
research usually involves more than a trip to the doctor's office. "Don't rely
on your physician to give you all the facts. If it's not their area of specialty
they sometimes pass on the same myths that a lay person
is likely to have picked up," Bly cautions. Davidson agrees. (See "Resources"
below for current information outlets.)
Know your body
For some wisdom, you need look no further than your own body. If you're
experiencing genital warts and herpes blisters, simply observing the timing of
the outbreaks may give you a greater sense of control over your disease, and an
acceptance of your body's changes.
For instance, one ASHA survey revealed that seven in 10 people with herpes cite
stress as an outbreak trigger, though little research has attempted to prove
this. People with herpes have also listed menstruation, poor nutrition and lack
of exercise as outbreak triggers. Based on these experiences, noting the timing
of outbreaks and what might have inspired them may help curb the disease's
influence on your body.
Something as simple as looking at your outbreaks of herpes and HPV can ease the
adjustment to your new body image, according to Bly. Of course, some people
aren't comfortable looking at their genitals in a healthy state, not to mention
observing them when blisters or warts adorn the area. Still, Bly recommends,
"Become more genital friendly. With men that's not so hard; they're usually
pretty friendly with their genitals. With women, though, it usually takes work
on their part. A woman should get out a hand mirror and look at her genitals
when they're in a healthy state and look at them again during an outbreak. Then
she can become more accepting of the disease and the affects that it has on her
Outside sources of support
While the above recommendations are helpful, studies have shown that social
support is crucial to STD adjustment. Fortunately, there are many forms of
support from which to choose.
Friends and lovers
Over half the people surveyed by ASHA had told a friend about having HPV. But
support from a lover, according to one study, may aid adjustment more than
support from any other source.
Keep in mind that support groups should provide growth and not simply
commiseration. Certified sex educator Jan Swanson, RN, advises that a support
group should include people at all levels of adjustment, particularly those "who
have adjusted and are carrying on with their normal lives."
Signs of health
Even if you've done all of the above—gathered information, told a lover, and
even engaged in a respectable amount of genital-gazing—how can you tell that
you're truly adjusting?
Bly advises, "I tell people to be patient with themselves and take the time to
adjust to their new body image and the new beliefs about themselves as people.
You also must learn to accept rejection from a potential partner without
thinking that you're a terrible person. If someone can get to that point,
they're usually doing pretty well." (For tips on how to tell a partner, as well
as information on regaining intimacy, see Couples Coping with a Chronic Sexually
Meanwhile, Davidson recommends, "You absolutely have to be an active participant
in coping with a disease...and make decisions about how you want to work with it
on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. I think that kind of action
orientation is empowering, and that it can have a counter effect to the shame or
the pain of having contracted an STD in the first place."