The story of cubicle encounters, green goo and my first visit to an STI clinic.
There’s something about Doctor’s waiting rooms, apart from the weird smell of bleach or whatever they use to sanitise them. It’s more a feeling, I think.
Mild worry, a little regret, perhaps. Something that goes with the outdated magazines and the vinyl seats in case someone oozes or dribbles everywhere.
The one I’m in is a little different, I suppose, in that it’s more tastefully-decorated than you usually get on the NHS. It still has the vinyl chairs, though. I suppose however classy you are, there’s still the possibility of something leaking.
I’m here because I got a text from an anonymous number. Nothing that exciting, to be honest… “Scott, a recent partner tested positive for the STI: Gonorrhoea (Throat) - please come and get tested”
And to be honest, I much prefer this method of finding out I might have an STI than the other one, when you start pissing razor blades. That one came about years earlier, when I was at university.
I was in the one gay club in my University’s tiny town, and there was an older guy who was flirting with me. While I was grateful of the attention (ANY attention at that age - I was going through one of many ‘hot mess’ phases) I didn’t think he was cute enough to take home, so we ended up in a toilet cubicle, because THAT’S how classy I was when I was 18.
He worked doing voiceovers, or something, I know he loved the sound of his own voice because he wouldn’t stop talking in between kissing me and sticking his hands down my pants.
Mindful of our predicament, and that we’d be barred if the bouncer caught us, I was getting a little nervous, but despite repeated requests, he would not shut the fuck up, so I just shoved his head down there to keep him quiet.
After enduring a teeth-gratingly uncomfortable few minutes, I made my excuses and left, seconds before a bouncer walked in. At that point, I was imagining myself some kind of rebel hero, like something out of Queer As Folk, all cheeky charm and coming-up-smelling-of-roses.
About a week later, I noticed things were a little sore down there, but assumed it was due to playing with myself far too much (I was a teenager, remember), so I thought nothing of it until the pain got worse, and green goo became a thing. Since the goo that usually came out of there wasn’t usually green, and was a lot more enjoyable to create.
So, I did the responsible, grown-up thing and ignored it for a day or so, in the hope that it would go away on its onw. Eventually, the pain got pretty much unbearable, so I rang the city hospital to book an appointment. Well, I tried. No-one answered the phone.
So after a day or two of listening to the ringing tone, I took myself and the feeling of having barbed wire stuck inside my wang down to the hospital. After some wandering around, I found a knackered-looking portacabin thing around the back that was apparently the entire department.
And the first thing I noticed was the phone ringing. Constantly. Everyone behind the desk is ignoring it. Tapping away on computers, filing things. One of the women looks up as I walk over.
Hello, I say, not really sure if I’m supposed to explain myself, or just drop my pants and whap it out on the table, I need an... STI checkup.
Do you have an appointment? She says, looking my scruffy studenty self up and down, as if I were asking for a suite at the Ritz
No I say
Well you need an appointment.
And I say well I tried to book, but I couldn't get through…
There’s a moment of silence between us, well, almost silence, apart from the constant ringing of the phone. It’s like she’s daring me to finish that sentence. I don’t; she has what I need and we both know it.
You need to keep trying. She says. She probably didn’t actually smirk as she said this, but in my mind she threw back her head and laughed like some kind of bureaucratic demon.
At this point, the infection itself comes to my aid, almost as if taking pity on me, by delivering a twinge of pain not unlike a shard of glass being pushed just a little further into my urethra. I winced.
She notices and says Do you have symptoms right now? I nodded, she sighed and tells me to take a seat, as they’ll see me as soon as possible, but it might take some time.
So this is how I became something of an expert when it comes to STI clinic waiting rooms. This one was the full nine yards - drab, badly lit, pictures of spectacularly gross photos of STIs on the walls, year-old copies of Gardening magazines, the lot.
It takes a couple of hours to get seen, while the phone rings constantly on the desk. No-one ever answers it. After a while, it starts to grow, filling my world until it’s pretty much the only thing that exists. Luckily, just before I start crying blood, a nurse calls me into the consultation room.
You don’t mind if we have a student nurse in the room with us. This isn’t a question. It’s important that they get some hands-on experience. I shake my head while cursing my graphic imagination. We start going the through the usual questions, and I notice the student scribbling something down with each question. Name? Scribble. Date of birth? Scribble. Symptoms? Scribble scribble!
One of the questions the nurse asks is How many sexual partners have you had in the past six months? I panic and half the number. She gives me a look that I’ll never forget. Blimey, she says, You get about a bit! I’m too shocked to really respond to this, so I just laugh it off a bit, until I see the student write what I’m almost certain was ‘Gets around a bit’ on her pad. I’m not sure I want that on my NHS record. I mean, it’s all relative, but even so…
Anyway, after a good look at the affected area, and a poke with one of those sticks we’ve all heard the horror stories about (and she went at it like she was cleaning a chimney, the cack-handed moo), I was sent to see a Doctor, who didn’t look up from the text he was sending for at least 30 seconds after I walked into the room, and who dealt with the whole thing like he’d much rather not be there. A sentiment I was beginning to share, apart from the burning in my nethers, now extra sore from the nurse’s jiggerypokery.
He had a student, too, who just sat in the corner, silently and watched. Then the nurse and her student come in, so we can all hear the diagnosis together. It’s like some sort of parade, or the end of a crime novel where all of the people involved are gathered in the Drawing Room to hear whodunnit. Or in this case, whatisit.
Anyway, after we’ve all bonded over this exciting denouement, I took the pills the Doctor prescribed and, as I headed for the door, the nurse wordlessly handed me a rather large paper bag full of condoms.
Head spinning, I promised myself I’d never get a blow job in a nightclub toilet again. And, since there’s no way you can prove otherwise, let’s say I stuck to that resolution forever.
Anyway, back to the present day. A much nicer, cleaner classier joint. Based in central London, it’s pretty much been designed to be the opposite of all the things I encountered ten years earlier in a small town in the midlands. No-one tutting at me for getting around a bit, online bookings, up-to-date magazines, the whole shebang. No heavy-handed ramming of an uncomfortable stick into tender places, and no photographs of STIs, just Cheryl Cole on TV show in the corner, but they can’t really help that.
This time, of course, I’ve got no symptoms, it’s just a checkup because I got that text. But even so, there’s a vague tension, a little speck or randomised dread in the pit of my stomach, that something, somehow isn’t going to be Quite Right.
Happily, it’s not a feeling I have to live with for long, as the testing nowadays gets the results to you in a text the same day, but even so, there’s that hour or two after the test, before the results come in where I can’t help but worry, and look back over the decisions I’ve made recently, trying to pin down any one moment that could be to blame in case the tests come back positive.
And while I’m steeling myself, reminding myself that the results of this test is my responsibility, no-one else’s, I start to think about all of the things outside my control that might have happened; condoms occasionally fail, after all. Was I sure they hadn’t, every single time? Of course not. No-one could be.
So I start thinking about PrEP, this little pill that can stop HIV infection if it’s taken once a day by anyone who might be at risk, and how I’d happily take that, if it meant that this growing knot of dread in my stomach would go away. I did a little research on it, and it would be cheaper for the NHS to fund PrEP as a preventative measure than it is to fund the anti-retroviral drugs needed once someone has contracted HIV.
And then, as I read into the reasoning behind why PrEP isn’t widely available, it seemed to boil down to the idea that, somehow, if it were available, it would be ‘abused’, and that more people would indulge in riskier behaviour. PrEP has the potential to be a useful tool alongside condoms, not instead of them.
Think about it: If I alone take PrEP, great, I’m not going to get HIV. If a large proportion of the people at risk of contracting HIV take PrEP, then even those who don’t are more protected because there’ll be less new infections to transmit the disease.
There’s still this lingering idea that, somehow, HIV is a gay disease and that it’s not really a problem for everyone, as if somehow it can differentiate. This is hugely offensive, of course, and truly stupid when you know that, of the 6,000 new HIV infections in 2014, 2,500 - almost half - were most likely contracted through heterosexual sex. I asked around in my friendship groups since learning this, and most of my gay friends use condoms regularly, especially outside of committed relationships. Absolutely none of the straight friends I asked did. The girls use the pill, and the boys assume that the girls are all on the pill, so they don’t need to.
It was at this point, as I was really getting into this, that the text with my results arrived - everything was clear, there was nothing to worry about. This time.