#STIgmaFree: Supporting STI+ Loved Ones
We all have people that we love in our lives. We have role models that we admire. We have friends that we spend every Friday night with. We have family that we can always count on. We have partners that we can share our hearts with.
Now, imagine one of these people telling you that they have tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection. Do you initially feel scared, confused, and see them as a completely different person? We may be tempted to react with criticism and rejection because our society teaches us to associate an STI+ status with shame and disgust. But when you really think about it, being infected with an STI is not much different than being infected with a cold.
An infection is defined as “the process or the state where an infectious agent invades and multiplies in the body tissues of the host that can result to the manifestation of symptoms and disease when the immune response of the host is activated.” A sexually transmitted infection simply means that the infection was transmitted through sexual contact, most commonly via anal or vaginal intercourse, but may be passed by kissing, oral-genital contact, sharing sexual toys, or exposure to infected blood.
Some common STIs, such as Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, can be easily cured by taking antibiotics. However, other STIs, such as HIV and Herpes, are caused by viruses, and similar to the cold virus, they are not curable. When a loved one has a cold, do you say, “Well, did you wash your hands often enough?” and make them feel as though it is their fault that they are sick? Just like catching a cold, anyone and everyone can be at risk of an STI at some point in life, and just like a cold, no one feels good about it. All that is needed is love and support, not blame.
Have you ever made a simple mistake, such as locking your keys inside your car, leaving a cake in the oven for too long, or forgetting the final draft of your report at home the day it was due? Imagine the thoughts that go through your head after making a tiny mistake. Some of us may tear ourselves apart, questioning our intelligence, thinking of everything we could have done differently, or being frustrated about it ruining the day. Now, imagine what thoughts might go through your head after making a mistake that will be with you for the rest of your life, like becoming infected with a viral STI.
Replacing judgement with compassion is crucial because it is likely that the person with an STI is already judging themselves harshly. Many people only see others at risk of becoming infected with an STI, making it easier to label STI+ individuals as irresponsible, dirty, or unlovable. Once hit with the reality that no one is exempt from that risk, some instantly place those labels upon themselves, resulting in self-blame, self-consciousness, and self-hate. Individuals infected with STIs often experience an extremely emotional time after learning about their status, so feeling judged by others can be truly destructive. STI+ individuals need to work towards forgiving the circumstances that resulted in their status, and they need to be supported in order to do that. They need to be given the love that they are not able to give themselves after their diagnosis.
Not only is it a learning and coping process for them, but for you too. You are forced to face the reality that STIs can affect anyone and everyone. You learn that having an STI does not change who a person is. You learn that STI+ individuals do not only exist within a specific population. You learn that coping with an STI+ diagnosis can be devastating and emotional. You learn how important empathy and compassion are. You learn that STI+ individuals do not deserve to be negatively labeled. And most importantly, you learn that STI+ individuals deserve to live happy and healthy lives, free of judgement.
Just like when you offer chicken soup and a blanket to loved ones with a cold, show STI+ loved ones support by hugging them and letting them know they are the same person you have loved since the beginning. Reassure them that there is help, time will pass, their heart will heal, and they will feel like themselves again.
“You are not your illness. You have an individual story to tell. You have a name, a history, a personality. Staying yourself is part of the battle.” ― Julian Seifter