Three Ways to Help Your Friend Who Was Diagnosed with an STI
I remember the heartfelt look in her eyes, the intonation in her “Oh my God, are you okay?”, and how she stood by my side through my healing. It was on this seemingly normal night, overlooking the sunset with a chipotle bowl and a homemade frozen margarita, that I found the courage to share with my best friend that I contracted herpes.
Being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection or disease (STI/STD), whether curable or not, has significant potential to deeply affect one’s sense of self. When your friend chooses to share his/her/their diagnosis, worries, and fears, your verbal and nonverbal responses can make or break their healing process and the feelings they hold toward themselves.
BE AN ACTIVE LISTENER
Many listen with an intent to reply, but few allow for the necessary time for one’s feelings to be expressed and resonate. There is a well-known stigma of dirtiness and shame associated with contracting an STI. You likely are the first person that your friend is choosing to share with—honor that. Your friend trusts that you will still see their light, even in their darkest moments. There may be tears, silence, or maybe conversation flows just like it always does. No matter how the conversation is initiated, allow your friend to be in control of its flow. Refrain from interruption. Not every statement requires a reply. For some, the nod of a head, a warm gaze, or a hug may be more well-suited than words. Your response matters more than you think.
Most of us learned in our health classes ways to avoid disease, but we were never taught what to do if we ever contracted one. We go into sex thinking that we are invincible. The really is that STIs are common. Fifty percent of sexually active youths will contract an STI before they reach age 25 (American Sexual Health Association). Despite that factoid, a strong stereotype persists for those who are diagnosed—slut, whore, man whore, the list goes on. It is not uncommon during your friend’s disclosure that you learn some things about yourself. Heck, even when I was diagnosed, I learned that these stereotypes were some I held within me, too.
Disease and infection are realities for anyone who engages in sexual activity. Use this opportunity to do your own research, analyze your belief systems, and educate yourself with reliable, comprehensive resources (hint, hint, some listed below). It is okay to admit that you were wrong or uneducated on a topic. After disclosing to my friend group, one admitted that I challenged their belief systems about those with STIs. Like all stories, your friend’s journey could help you grow in unexpected ways if you are open to its teachings.
ASK HOW YOU CAN BE MORE PRESENT IN THEIR HEALING PROCESS
The healing process is different for each person, and that is why it is so crucial to ask, “What is the best way that I can support you during this time?” Maybe that’s holding your friend through tears. Or a mani/pedi date. Maybe it’s binge-watching their favorite TV series or attending sporting event together. Maybe it’s answering a phone call at 2 AM because they’re worried about who will ever love them. Or maybe, they just need a hug. Maybe they just need you to say, “I’m here for you. I stand by you.” Ask them what they need and discuss the best ways that you can meet those needs together.
My healing was not something that happened overnight, in fact, it is still ongoing. The support and receptiveness of my friend group contributed to the confidence that I needed to move forward from my diagnosis. You can be that same stepping stone in your friend’s journey by honoring their vulnerabilities, needs, and reminding them of their light in not only your life, but also to the world around them.
“Emily Depasse is a woman of many hats, er heels! A writer by heart, she maintains a sexual health and wellness blog, emilydepasse.com, which explores her vulnerability as a herpes-positive individual. Emily’s background in sexual health began long before her herpes diagnosis. She graduated Cum Laude with her BA in Gender and Sexuality Studies from Salisbury University in 2015, with a specific research focus on the female orgasm in relation to body image. This fall, she embarks on her MSW/MEd Human Sexuality dual degree at Widener University, with an intended Sexual Therapy Track. When Emily isn’t writing or researching, she spends time lifting, focusing on her savasana (with her newly acquired RYT 200), and exploring her version of Philadelphia.”
CDC.gov (Center for Disease Control)
Ella Dawson (blog)
The STD Project (focuses on breaking STI stigma)