What I've Learned From Frequent Yeast Infections

About a year ago, an old flame from New York came to visit me in Detroit. I’d been looking forward to his visit for weeks, and I was particularly excited about having the chance to be intimate with him for the first time in a year. But in the days leading up to his arrival, I noticed an all-too-familiar sensation of discomfort as I attempted to masturbate. It was an internal, raw, stinging sensation that immediately caused me to recoil and pull my dildo out in an almost knee-jerk reaction. Great — another yeast infection.

A trip to my OBGYN confirmed my self-diagnosis, it was yeast indeed. I’d already been dousing my vulva with a combination of Monistat and coconut oil to soothe the itching, but my doctor prescribed me a single dose of Diflucan since it was a particularly intense infection and told me to not have sex for a week. As I left the doctor's office and climbed back into my car, I growled and slouched into my seat as I prepared to give my partner the heads up that sex would be off the table during his visit.

Being the understanding sweetheart he is, he didn’t mind a bit. We actually hadn’t spent much time together outside of the bedroom, and enjoyed the opportunity to hang out without the constant distraction of wanting to rip each other's clothes off. But when we got into bed at night, the tension was palpable. I wanted to have sex with him, or at least be pleasured in some capacity, but I was shit outta luck. It felt as though yeast infections were the universe’s eternal curse on my vulva, and I was at the mercy of my doctor’s orders.

My History With Yeast Infections

Up to 75 percent of women are diagnosed with a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their lives, and I’ve actually been getting yeast infections since I hit puberty. I danced for the entirety of my childhood and teenage years, and having to wear a tight leotard on a daily basis while moving and sweating often resulted in bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, UTIs or general irritation and itching. I always told my mom as soon as I noticed something was off, and she’d always make sure I was taken care of immediately. Once she even took me to the emergency room because I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep.

As I got older and began to date, my dad began to question the source of my frequent infections. “Zoe, I know these infections all come from having sex. This is exactly why you need to be careful with boys, they’ll give you all types of shit like this.” At age 16, I already knew that vaginal infections could spontaneously occur for all sorts of reasons besides sexual activity, after all I’d been getting them years before I’d had any sexual contact whatsoever. But even when I explained this to my dad, I could tell he still saw my nearly bi-monthly infections as a direct result of sex.

My mom continued to reassure me that there was nothing wrong with being extra sensitive. I always took very good care of my body, I just happened to be more susceptible to infections. Even though I knew I was powerless in this sense, it really didn’t help the fact that experiencing an infection generally lowered my baseline ability to tolerate… anything. It could ruin even the most pleasant of days.

Perhaps one of my most memorable infections occurred when I was 17 and vacationing in Denali National Park in Alaska. I’d slowly begun to notice the itch build over the course of a few days, but since I didn’t even have a pharmacy available to me, I decided I would ignore it and not investigate the extent of the infection until I had the resources available to me to heal it. The next day, I rented an ATV to ride along the Stampede Trail, a gorgeous route that I’d been looking forward to exploring for a while. But as I mounted the ATV and felt the pressure of the seat against my crotch, I knew I was doomed. There was definitely something wrong. I rode the extent of the trail wincing and trying my best to enjoy the beauty of my surroundings, but the pain cast a dark shadow on what was otherwise one of the most magical days of my life.

As soon as I returned home to Maryland, where I was still living at the time, I secured a last-minute emergency appointment with my OBGYN. The results from the test came in the next day, and I received the call from my doctor while I was in the car with my dad. “You’ve got a pretty wicked yeast infection, all right.” Wicked. I could hardly believe that my actual doctor had referred to the infection plaguing my vagina as “wicked”. I relayed the message to my dad, making note that she had specifically used the word “wicked”. Not realizing that I was upset by this, he burst into uproarious laughter, almost tearing up as he hooted and cackled. Men will never be able to understand what this shit feels like, I thought to myself.

It’s not just the fact that it hurts, or even the fact that I have to abstain from masturbation and sex, yeast infections really just leave me feeling destroyed from the inside out.

But in a sense, it was a bit funny. As I recall and write about my experiences with yeast infections, I realize that it’s very easy for me to forget about what a mental toll the pain and discomfort takes on my psyche when I’m not presently feeling the pain. And I’ll admit, there have been some pretty objectively comical scenarios that yeast infections have placed me in. I had an infection during a trip to Mexico when I was 20, and even though I was able to converse in Spanish at an intermediate level, I had no idea how to ask for yeast infection medication. I ended up pantomiming an itch by making my hand into a claw and moving it in a circular motion around my crotch while saying “me duele” (it hurts) over and over again. The woman working chuckled at me and immediately located a cream that promptly zapped my infection after the first application.

How They Make Me Feel

Yes, it’s all quite silly except for when it’s actually happening to you. It’s not just the fact that it hurts, or even the fact that I have to abstain from masturbation and sex, yeast infections really just leave me feeling destroyed from the inside out. It dampens my lively spirit. It makes me feel disgusting and powerless, and wears me down until I feel like a little nub of a human struggling to eke through the day’s requirements.

Fortunately, the one thing I can control is my emotions. There’s definitely a difference between having a good attitude about these infections instead of behaving as though they’re a curse upon vulvas. In reality, any decent sexual partner should be understanding of a yeast infection, but in the past when I’ve freaked out about having one, it’s caused my partners to mirror my panic so that we both shut down until it’s passed.

When It Comes To Sex...

That’s why I decided to keep yeast infections to myself in my early 20s. I’d make up excuses about why I couldn’t have sex, or just avoid my partners altogether. Obviously that didn’t get me anywhere, and by isolating myself I simply perpetuated my grumpiness. My infections always occurred at the same rate independently of my physical and sexual activity, and I began to realize that this was just my personal, unpleasant reality. I had to find a way to make it work. Even though I couldn’t eradicate them forever, I could become more adept at identifying them early on so that a potential week-long infection could be over in a day or two.

I got quite skilled at outsmarting an incoming infection. Almost daily, I’d insert a finger into my vagina, swish it around a little bit, and give it a taste. It was very interesting to see the differences in my secretions from an ovulation standpoint, but it was also a great way to tell if something tasted a bit off before the discomfort set in. I experimented with all sorts of alternative remedies, from coconut oil to garlic, but I ultimately discovered that good ol’ over the counter Monistat worked best on my body when I spotted an infection early on. I began to stock an emergency supply of Monistat at home, and I always brought it with me when I traveled to remote areas where I might not be able to access it.

Things have been much more under control in the past couple years since I realized how to detect them early on, but I still get the occasional surprise full-blown infection. I detected my most recent infection almost moments after I’d begun having sex with one of my partners. He’d gone in and out of me a couple times, and I slowly felt the burn setting in.

“I’m sorry. I’m prettttttty sure I have a yeast infection,” I said as I dismounted him.

“Hey! Don’t be sorry at all. We can just snuggle,” he replied with a smile.

We lay next to each other momentarily, but then I hopped back on him. His caring and optimistic response had prevented me from becoming discouraged, and I enthusiastically (and almost intuitively) began giving him a blow job. Not because I felt I had to “finish” anything, simply because I wanted to continue being sexually intimate with him in a way that we could both enjoy (while not aggravating my infection.)

The Best Way To Deal With Them

For me, coping with frequent yeast infections became a lesson in attitude adjustment. I’m not saying that we don’t have the right to be pissed off when we’re in pain, because let’s be real — yeast infections will always suck, but there is definitely an optimistic way to handle them. Once I was able to vocalize and describe my feelings of frustration, I found that my partners were a lot more compassionate. Especially if your partner isn’t familiar with what a yeast infection is, it can be a really great learning experience for them. Although it certainly isn’t mandatory for you to be a yeast-educator, ignoring or downplaying your symptoms around a sexual partner is only going to make the entire experience more frustrating for everyone.

So, as with all things, communication is key! Everyone has some type of medical issue they cope with, eventually. I have always felt as though yeast is stigmatized as a “gross” or “embarrassing” infection to have, but that’s mostly due to the way I hear other people discussing (or rather, not discussing) it. The more we are all able to have matter-of-fact conversations about the very real and inevitable things that happen to our body, the easier it becomes for us to feel comfortable moving about the world, not living in fear of the next yeast infection.

Images: Author's Own