When you’re sick during the holiday season, visiting family isn’t an easy choice to make. But what should you do if you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?
STIs don’t seem like a particularly engrossing holiday dinner table topic, but they can become a source of discomfort and isolation when spending time with family. Why? When your health is compromised. feeling cared for by loved ones can make a world of difference.
But not many are able to lean on their families when they’re recovering from sexual health issues. This can especially cut deep if one feels they will be shamed if they disclose their status. That dilemma can cause inner turmoil, as well as challenges with family: what if one’s symptoms are visible to relatives? Or if you require health accommodations that they’re curious about?
So if you’re home for the holidays and you have an STI and don’t know what to do, here’s how you can take care of yourself:
Know the emotional toll of an STI
Many people with STIs feel devalued by their conditions, as societal shame that labels STI and STD carriers as unclean or overly promiscuous has existed for centuries.
Dr. Jordin Wiggins is a Fonthill, Ont.-based practitioner at Health Over All, as well as the founder of the Pleasure Collective. She says that her patients often express feeling anxious, depressed, and isolated because of their STIs.
“They almost lose all hope that they are lovable, will ever be able to have intimacy and pleasure again,” Wiggins told HuffPost Canada. “It’s a stigma we need to break.”
Feeling low isn’t great, but especially at a time of the year when the holiday blues can lead to full-blown depression. On top of a diagnosis, people might also be struggling with stressors like increased family obligations, financial problems, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The shame can lead to less than ideal health outcomes. Young adults who associate shame with STIs are less likely to get screened, a study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health reports. Not treating an existing STI can lead to worsening health, as some STIs can lead to health complications, like infertility and pelvic pain in cisgender women, the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) reports.
Whether or not you choose to disclose to relatives, keep an eye on your mental health.
Have a cover story if you’re trying to hide it
Most health professionals will recommend sharing status information with partners, but it’s not a legal or necessary obligation (with the exception of HIV; non-disclosure between partners is criminalized). Your sexual health is nobody’s business but your own and if you decide not to share with family, that’s well within your right.
It’s not hard to hide most STIs. Many STI symptoms aren’t immediately detectable, save for visible signs such as cold sores. However, some may cause signs of being unwell that may be difficult to hide from family members. In some cases, syphilis and gonorrhea can lead to fevers, while people with chlamydia can experience lower stomach pain.
Malaise, or general discomfort, and fatigue can trouble anyone dealing with a health issue. Those with HIV and on medication can experience side-effects like fatigue, mood swings, and a lowered appetite.
Watch: How Parents Should Talk About STIs With Their Kids. Story continues below.
If that’s the case, make sure you have a story ready if you’re questioned by an observant aunt or if your mother is wondering why you’re taking frequent trips to the bathroom. Often times, just a vague answer should be enough, especially if you’re trying not to share drinks or if your antibiotics prevent you from indulging in the holiday punch.
“‘I have a virus and I don’t want to pass it on,’” Wiggins says as an example. “You don’t owe them more than that.”
Plan on disclosing? Educate yourself first
Feeling shame and combating potentially shaming remarks from others should start with getting all the facts on your STI.
Wiggins acknowledges how hard it is to take an active role in one’s sexual health, even for people who consider themselves educated. When patients share their worries about revealing conversations, Wiggins emphasizes how comforting it can be to remind oneself that getting an STI is a common experience: every day, over one million STIs are transmitted.
A CBC report found that common STIs like chlamydia are on the rise in Canada and around 75 per cent of Canadians get HPV once in their lives. So chances are, someone in your family might have been in your shoes once — or could even be dealing with a current STI themselves.
Another comfort can be writing a short script to prepare for the conversation.
“Practicing ahead of time can make a difference. And I always recommend keeping the conversation light-hearted, if possible,” Wiggins says.
A straightforward approach can cut out much of the awkwardness: state what the STI is, how it does or doesn’t affect your life, and ask the other person to educate themselves.
If shaming is something you’re worried will happen, it can help to tell the other person outright how hearing judgmental statements will make you feel. Try to frame the conversation around your health needs, as that will get the other person to respond in kind.
It’s important to gauge what level of stigma you may face when disclosing. Different STIs may be stigmatized more severely. HIV/AIDS is more stigmatized than most conditions and it’s understandable if you’re not keen on unpacking that diagnosis during the holiday season.
Let people come to terms, but shut down jokes
Even if you prepare, you still might be met with judgment from your loved ones. If that happens, try not to take it too personally. That’s not to say you should let any digs at your sexuality or hygiene go unaddressed; but if your educated retorts aren’t making headway, don’t lose hope that a healthier conversation can be had.
“Most people are dealing with those cultural, emotional beliefs that we’ve all been taught … it’s not even like they’re trying to be hurtful. They’re just dealing with their own emotions in that moment,” she says.
Wait until the family visit is over before trying to have that conversation again. They’ll have had time to process your diagnosis and won’t be juggling as many holiday stressors.
Also on HuffPost: