I’ve never liked going to the doctor. Growing up, I had no problem visiting the dentist, or the orthodontist, or the optometrist (even though those three conspired to make me a glasses and braces nerd for most of junior high). But seeing a GP was different.
I spent two stints in the hospital at an early age. I don’t remember much about that, aside from how strange it felt to be somewhere without my parents, and how startled people were that a six-year-old could spell the word pneumonia.
The hospital was a thirty minute drive for us. We only went there for major problems. For the rest, we had a local clinic, much closer to home. When my siblings and I needed things like booster shots (vaccinate your kids!) and antibiotics (bacterial infections only!), Mom would haul us to the little building by the school. The waiting room was small, with a handful of chairs and a play area for the kids.
I have two bad memories of being at that clinic. In the grand scheme of unpleasant medical situations, both are laughably minor. In the first instance, I had gone in with generic flu symptoms, queasiness at the top of the list. The doc decided to do a throat swab. I gagged on the tongue depressor, but he stuck the swab down my throat anyway, and I proceeded to puke on his shoes. I felt awkward and guilty (albeit less queasy) as I watched the nurse come in to clean it up.
My second memory is just a fragment; I don’t remember why I was at the clinic that day. I just remember the doctor prodding my abdomen and telling me I needed to drop some weight. He wasn’t rude about it, and he wasn’t wrong; I had been gaining pretty steadily since puberty. But sitting there without my shirt on, I felt a rather dramatic sense of shame and embarrassment, coupled with a burning desire to make doctor visits a rarity in the future.
Years passed, and my dislike of doctor visits developed into a fear. If something was wrong with my health, whether it be cold symptoms or a minor injury, I would wait until the last possible moment to go to a clinic, blindly hoping things would resolve on their own. If I had to go, I would be completely stressed out the whole time I sat in the waiting room, and the whole time I sat with the doctor, and for about an hour afterwards.
Seeing a doctor was always a last resort for me. Yearly physicals were not even a consideration. And then I started dating Kate.
Kate is no stranger to doctors. She’s a type 1 diabetic with myofascial pain syndrome and hypothyroidism. On top of that (or maybe because of that), she has a healthy interest in medical matters. She took emergency medical training and held a license as an Emergency Medical Responder with the Alberta College of Paramedics. She’s the proud owner of some intimidatingly thick textbooks, and she knows all sorts of impressive sounding words.
In short, she takes health pretty seriously, which means she wasn’t about to let me get away with not having a family doctor. So she found one for both of us.
My first visit was just a consult. Kate had met with the doctor already, and had warned her about my uneasiness. The doc introduced herself, asked me a few questions about my medical history, and then told me our next appointment would be a physical. She explained what the process would entail – she would be recording my height and weight, taking my blood pressure, examining my throat and ears, and of course, doing a pap. Somewhere in the middle of her informative spiel, I started crying.
“What’s going on?” the doc asked gently, as Kate squeezed my hand. I had no answer. Or I guess I had an answer, but I was afraid that it would sound stupid. I was 35, and I had never had a pap before. I was afraid. Everyone in the room knew it, and no one was judging me for it, but I was judging myself.
Thankfully, Kate had made sure to find us a queer-friendly doctor, and this one knew her stuff (which is, sadly, sort of uncommon). She said that a lot of lesbians think they don’t need paps because they aren’t having sex with men. This is false. While it’s true that women who have sex exclusively with other women are a lower-risk group, we still need to get screened regularly. That goes for trans men, too. Anyone with a cervix, really.
I could have feigned ignorance, but that would have been dishonest. I already knew I was supposed to do it, but I was afraid, so I had put it out of my mind. Whenever the topic came up in my presence, I would do my best to swiftly bow out of the conversation. Or, you know, the room.
Just thinking about it made me crazy. I was consumed with “what ifs.” What if something was wrong, or weird? What if I splayed my legs out and startled the doctor? What if I had an issue that she couldn’t solve, and I got referred to a specialist? Or a team? What if I had some sort of rare condition that required the entire medical world to don headlamps and peer curiously into my vagina?
Sure, it sounds stupid now, but there were extenuating circumstances. My well-established doctor fear notwithstanding, I was also a former Catholic with very limited sexual experience. How could I reconcile deliberately drawing attention to a part of myself I had been trained to keep secret? I had Kate’s unfailing support and encouragement, but I still wasn’t sure I would ever feel comfortable.
I mean, could I actually do this?
When I sat down to write this article, I was planning to describe the experience of having a pap done. Oddly enough, the pap was sort of the least interesting part of the story. I worked myself up into a tither the night before the appointment, tossing and turning instead of sleeping. I was still antsy when I made my way into the exam room, but my nervousness started to melt away as soon as I changed into my fabulous paper gown and realized how ridiculous I looked.
The procedure itself took MAYBE two minutes, tops. It didn’t hurt. It was mildly uncomfortable and awkward, and then it was over. I cracked a few jokes in between. After it was done, I didn’t feel particularly proud or pleased with myself. I mostly just felt silly for having made such a big deal out of something so small.
If you’re reading this, and you’ve been avoiding having a pap, please reconsider. It doesn’t have to be the negative experience you’re expecting. Allow me to offer the following suggestions:
- Find a queer-friendly physician. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you’re already anxious about being there, the last thing you need is to feel shamed or judged when answering medically-necessary questions about your sexual history or your body.
- Be honest with your doctor. If you have a history of sexual trauma, or if you’re just feeling generally anxious about the process, your doctor can take measures to make you more comfortable, whether that means taking things at a slower pace, or explaining every step as it’s happening.
- Bring a partner or friend into the exam room with you. I took Kate because she’s my wife, and she has a knack for making me feel relaxed and safe. It’s hard not to feel vulnerable when you’re naked from the waist down and a stranger is touching your business. If having someone you trust in the room will help you feel more secure, do it!
- Relax. Try not to build it up in your head as this big, scary thing. I did that for years, and I was wrong. Fear is a powerful force. It’s also a crappy reason to compromise your health.
Go get screened. It’s important, and your loved ones will thank you.
If I can do it, you can do it.