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I Was Married And Faithful. So How Did I Get An STD?

A little voice in my head told me this did not compute.

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illustration of microscope analyzing wedding rings and hpv virus
Christine Rösch
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It was just a regular Pap smear. I’ve been getting them once a year since I turned 21, if memory serves. That’s a lot of smears. The lobby is always filled with pregnant women, I always have to be told to “slide down” at least five times, and I’m always glad when it’s over. A week later after the appointment, I always receive a little card in the mail that says “Pap normal,” and I’m done with the nuisance for another year. That is, until four years ago, when I received a phone call from my ob-gyn, a woman I barely know since she did not deliver my children and I only see her for my annual Pap adventure.

“You’ve tested positive for HPV 16.”

It took me a minute to even understand what she was saying. “HPV” was barely on my radar. I knew what it was, and that I am supposed to get my kids vaccinated for it at some point, but as a middle-aged, faithful, married woman, HPV is not something I’ve ever worried about.

When I was a teenager and a young adult in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Powers That Be preached abstinence. In lieu of that, you were supposed to use a condom to prevent pregnancy, herpes and chlamydia. If memory serves, I think that was it. Maybe there was another random STD thrown in there, but back in that blissful age of Gen X ignorance, HIV/AIDS was never a concern for young (obviously misguided) heterosexuals like me, and we certainly had never heard of anything called HPV.

Today, human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Seventy-nine million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are currently infected with HPV. It’s so common that we now vaccinate our 11- and 12-year-olds against it. HPV is usually harmless and will eventually disappear on its own. Many people never even realize they have it. But some types of HPV can lead to genital warts, and others, like HPV 16, can cause cancer. It’s spread through contact, not necessarily intercourse, so a serious fooling around session without penetration can still spread HPV from one partner to another. The only approved screening for HPV is for women. So unless symptoms develop, there’s no way for men to know if they have it.

“You’ve tested positive for HPV 16.”

There was that moment of shock. Blood rushing around my ears, the vague sound of white noise or the ocean or something obscure making all sound feel like a dream. It wasn’t a cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t a tragedy. I could hear the words of my ob-gyn as she calmly explained how much of a nonevent this was, the extra screening I’d need to schedule. … But all I could think was, HOW DID IT HAPPEN.

My mind flashed back on a night a year earlier. It was a Thursday and my husband had gone off the radar. He’d left the office. He wasn’t home. He wasn’t answering his cell. It took me five attempts to reach him before he finally replied with a text, “Getting drinks with guys from work.”

He stumbled in at 10:30 p.m. and promptly fell asleep. The next day he claimed to have no memory of the night before and said his phone had run out of battery. That little voice in my head told me this did not compute, but I wanted to move on. I’m sure part of me didn’t want to hear the truth, because I knew we weren’t truly happy.

I met my husband in college and married him two years after graduation. I thought he was the love of my life and I wanted nothing more than to build a future with him. We were in our 40s when our relationship started to die. We went to marriage counseling and tried to find the connection that brought us together in the first place, but we had both become different people, and those people didn’t work well together as man and wife. He struggled with depression. My high-energy perfectionism stressed him out. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on parenting decisions. We argued constantly. Still, I always remained faithful. I never strayed. And I never thought he’d cheat.

But now reality was hitting me in the form of an STD that had to have come from somewhere, and it certainly didn’t come from me. My husband had cheated. Was it a one-time thing? Was he having an affair? Did it even matter? I confronted my husband and he confessed. He’d been with other women a few times over the past year. He’d used a condom, but obviously that wasn’t enough to protect him from HPV, which he then spread to me. He didn’t even know he had it. And worse than that, he didn’t know who’d given it to him.

Of course I immediately scheduled an appointment for a full STD screening. Thankfully, I tested negative for everything. I didn’t have HIV or chlamydia, just HPV, the most common STD out there. But I felt branded. His infidelity had left a mark. My doctor reminded me about how common HPV was, and that aside from more frequent and slightly more invasive screenings, I shouldn’t expect to feel any effects of the virus. But that didn’t make me feel any less violated.

We went back into counseling, but the damage was irreversible. I would not be able to trust him again, and it no longer seemed worth all the work it would take to try to repair the relationship. We filed for divorce less than six months after my HPV diagnosis.

Last week, I went in for my now biannual Pap, and today I received a message on my doctor’s new, online patient portal. In the subject line, I read the words “Pap Fine.” My HPV has resolved. I never developed genital warts or cervical cancer. I still have to keep an eye on it because, unfortunately, this virus can sometimes go dormant and then recur, but that’s not usually the case.

I realize that I’ve spent the past few years still feeling like I’m carrying a scar from my ex-husband’s infidelity. But now, I feel truly separate and wonderfully free. It’s as though this news has finalized my divorce, not that decree I received from the state. I feel like a reset button has been pressed, and I am free to start my new life, leaving the past behind me for good. I’m happy with my life and excited about the possibility of new romantic relationships.

In a strange way, I’m sort of thankful for that HPV diagnosis. Without it, I might have continued to sit in couples therapy being lied to. I might have wasted another year of my life trying to glue together the shattered glass that was once my marriage. And now that I’m on the other side of it all, I am wiser. I know that my body is strong, and I am grateful for the gift of my health.