I sat on the crinkly tissue paper on the exam table at the campus infirmary, embarrassed by the noise it made; it’s not like I could do anything to NOT disrupt the silence with sharp, papery sounds, but I hated how the peacefulness of the room was disrupted by my presence. I was a freshman at Penn State and at the first doctor’s appointment I had ever made on my own.
I looked down at the medical intake form. That was a first too; I had never been the one to answer for myself. Name, birth date, and reason for my visit. Easy. I could answer those questions. I was there because a small sore grew on my right cheekbone, about an inch under my eye. I thought it was an oddly placed zit. Then it got bigger and itchier and more irritated. I had diagnosed myself as having ringworm of the face and went to the campus pharmacy for fungal cream. The cream just created a lovely home for whatever was on my face to keep growing.
My medical history was tougher to complete. I come from a long line of obese relatives who have high cholesterol and smoke too many cigarettes after never exercising. Cancer or heart disease of this nature is not hereditary, but if laziness could kill me, then I had all the things. My sexual history? Well, that was complicated at best. I didn’t know if I had a STI or had ever been exposed to a partner with HIV. I went to the campus infirmary to get relief and answers for a growth on my face, but I left with the need to wait for the results of an HIV test.
Technically I was a virgin. By the conventional definition of intercourse, I still am. No penis has ever entered my vagina. I have had plenty of sex to know I am not a virgin, though. But the difference between then and now is that I had never had consensual sex. I am a sexual abuse survivor. I performed sexual acts on another person for years. I had sexual acts done to me too, but I couldn’t tell you what all of them were. There was no protection used, and I don’t know how many sexual partners my abuser had. I had a lot of sexual experience with very little information.
It was just a piece of paper, but it felt like someone was finally asking me questions about things I wanted to talk about. I was relieved and terrified to tell my story, but I wanted to be honest. I did my best to describe the almost 10 years of sexual abuse done to me by a female relative. The medical professional who then went over the form with me tried to understand the details I wanted to share, but I couldn’t answer some of the questions.
As a sexual abuse, incest, or rape victim and survivor, we don’t always know what happened to us. Memories are blocked (sometimes for our own good) and other times there just are no memories to be had depending on the situation. We have to fill in the blanks, not to make stuff up, but to try to understand the fear, the panic, the pain of what happened to us. Not knowing what went into our bodies or not knowing how a bruise or cut appeared on our bodies doesn’t mean we are lying about the fact we were violated. It means our brains either shut off to protect us or were shut off by other factors both in and out of our control. A lack of memory does not mean lack of abuse; not all of the dots need to be connected on a dot to dot puzzle to know that what we are looking at is an elephant.
The medical provider who was there to determine why my cheekbone was breaking out in sores helped me nurse some wounds not seen. She was very gentle when asking if I had ever been tested for sexually transmitted infections. Have I ever had an HIV test done? I had not been tested for anything. Because my abuser was a woman, I was at a lower risk for what she wanted to test for, but it was important to my physical and mental health to have answers to questions that should not have needed to be asked.
The person who hurt us did not take precautions to protect us, so we have to protect ourselves and the ones we love. Of course I was willing to be screened. But when we are violated, when we become victims of sexual violence, we have to accept at some level that our story is directly related to someone and something that repulses us. The results of my HIV test and any other exam involving my sexual health would be my responsibility despite my innocence. The reality of an infection or life-altering disease fed into the fact that the unknowing is as bad as the remembering.
I had blood drawn and waited.
The spot on my face was herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). HSV-2 is the sexually transmitted virus that causes genital blisters, but the type 1 cold sore on my cheek blistered too. The medical professional I saw chalked my outbreak up to stress or fatigue. Maybe a weakened immune system or hormone changes. This felt like a sign, though. Or a reminder of what could be. She was determined to get me the answers I needed. While the blister was not an STI, she took the time to explain safe sex, even between same-sex partners. She wasn’t shaming me, just giving me information I deserved. She also gave me a prescription for Valtrex—yes, the antiviral herpes medicine. Not only was the blister painful, but it was very close to my eye. I was at risk for a bigger problem if I touched my own eyes after touching the cold sore.
She called several days later to let me know the results of my blood work. Her voice was like the sharp, crinkling sounds of the exam table paper. Since leaving home and settling in at college, what small sense of peace would be disrupted by the presence in my life I had no control over? In this case, it wasn’t, at least not physically. I tested negative for HIV and the other panel of STIs she screened for. But mentally, I knew it was just the beginning. I may have been medically healthy, but when it comes to sexual violence, mental wellness is always a balance of the unknown with the very vivid reality that our lives are the product of nightmarish memories.