TMI: Syphilis

Ok, I genuinely can’t believe I’m writing this, but in the spirit of full disclosure and my intrinsic need to help others and spread enlightenment – I’m essentially Mother Theresa, only I eat egg sandwiches on packed commuter trains – I am about to share something from which I hope all Vagenda readers will learn.

Yes, it is highly embarrassing and I’ll probably never have sex again after this is published, but to be honest given that about 10,000 chicks have probably been laid since the last time I was, (that joke works on two levels, guys), that’s pretty much like worrying about kicking over an empty bottle.

So here goes.

In 2008 I moved to Russia. I was 18 years old, and it was a spontaneous decision to go and volunteer. And then I ended up staying for about a year and a half.

Why did I suddenly up and move to Russia without a word of the language and with only a crumpled picture of Doctor Zhivago in my wallet?

Well, I had been through what I can only describe as an ABSOLUTE LIVING HELL, in which I dropped out of sixth form due to a crippling and debilitating depression, which saw me sitting alone in the attic conversion of my house for about 9 months.

I was a bit like Edward Scissorhands, only with worse hair.

It was horrendous. It meant I basically missed out on life from the ages of 16-18. All life. I missed out on clubbing, boyfriends, education, everything.

So naturally, when I arrived in Russia, smuggling a shitload of anti-depressants in my hold luggage, I was keen to start living again.

When the customs officer asked me why I was in Russia, and I said because I loved the art and the literature - Dostoevsky, Ilya Repin, Bulgakov - she answered dryly: “You know, these people, they are dead?”

Within the first week, I’d had creepy sex on a beach (yes, they have beaches in Russia), and then gone back to this guy’s “flat”. Which actually turned out to be some kind of weird private brothel, with four-poster beds, a dining room, a small sauna, and…four other Russian dudes.

I escaped from there at about 5am, sans half of my clothes, and stumbled along in that grey-flat light of morning trying to find the right tram on which to get home. Only I didn’t have any money, because I’d had a 500 rouble note tucked in my bra, which I’d also left behind.

That was week one. About a year later, I sort of fell in love with my French flatmate (um, hi G) and then met a really nice British guy in Moscow, but up until that point I basically had, consistently, the most irresponsible, sordid, slutty (bonafide slutty), awful sex with tons of guys.

Russia has a population of 142 million people, and I must have slept with about half of them.

There was S, the guy I met at a festival who bought me a rose and then I fucked him in a tent.

There was A, the sweet guy who was in the army (they’re all in the army, they have conscription), who bravely managed to overcome the fact soldiers are given bromide to suppress libido.

But there was also the dude I gave a blow job to in the men’s toilets of an underground club, with piss lapping around my ankles like I was goddamn paddling in Lake Windermere.

Guys, it wasn’t pretty. It was ten times worse than anything Lena Dunham can throw at you.

I am not at all proud of this. I never, ever used protection. I never even really felt ashamed of my behaviour. This all became clear a bit later when it turned out I had bipolar (go figure!), and this experience of thoughtless promiscuity basically ruined my sex life for the next five years and made me emotionally incontinent until I gave up and became a lesbian (actually).

But, you know what happens when you sleep with a load of men of dubious origin without any form of contraception? I’ll tell you what happens: you pick up NASTY SHIT.

There was the time I went to the gynaecologist at a Russian state hospital. In the waiting room, there was a man handcuffed to a police officer, and a man with his guts hanging out lying on a metal tray – I am not joking.

When I got to see the gyno, who was very friendly, she shoved what looked like a wooden spoon up me. This was done behind a thin white canvas screen, which meant that when she turned on a lamp, my whole legs-akimbo silhouette lit up for all to see.

There was the time I thought I was pregnant and pissed on a stick while my Austrian flatmate pressed her ear to the door – as if she could hear the result.

(Part of me at the time wished I was pregnant, so I could have a strong-jawed, blonde, dual-citizenship, bilingual Russian kid, who I would call Yury, and who would win Olympic silver in gymnastics).

Then there was the time I picked up trichomoniasis. Or ‘trich’ as it is sometimes known. Though I think that makes it sound too much like an American high school jock.

One of the nastiest STIs, trichomoniasis is characterised by itching, swelling, a greenish discharge and what medically is termed a “fishy”, “extremely malodorous”, or “foul” smell. And boy is it foul. GUYS, I COULD SMELL IT ON THE PLANE.

But, trichomoniasis – which is treated with the antibiotic metronidozale – turned out to be small fry. During a visit home for Christmas and New Year, I noticed that there was a little sore in my downstairs area.

It didn’t hurt, or itch, it was just kinda, kicking back down there. It could have been sipping a pina colada. I now know this sore is actually called a chancre.

Well, I went along to a GUM clinic, sat in the waiting room and read a copy of Country Life circa 1885, because it was the most recent issue they had.

After my gyno asked the usual “are you sexually active?” question, which I always have to strain myself to not answer “AM I?!!”, and offer a high five, the guy gyno snapped on his rubber gloves.

He then made a noise that sounded a bit like this: HUH.

Which is never something you wanna hear when someone is staring at your vagina. I mean, he was looking at this thing like it was a TomTom satnav which had just sent him to the edge of a cliff.

He said “just a second”, and he went out of the room and came back with a second doctor. This second doc peered at my vulva like he was looking at a rare diamond. Which, in a way, he was.

He then said: “It could be that you have syphilis”.


“Wha?” I said, “That’s ridiculous. Nobody has syphilis. That thing is like, died out, right?”

Syphilis, clearly, is for Bram Stoker and Nietzsche. There was no way I had syphilis.

“Well it is rare”, Dr 2. said, “But it is still active in a lot of parts of the world. Have you been on holiday recently to any unusual places, Africa say? Parts of Eastern Asia?”

There was a pause.

“I live in Russia”.

Yeah, I totally had the syphilis.

This was confirmed when they took a swab from the sore, and tested it under a microscope and found the typically present bacteria. They can also diagnose it via blood tests and look for the antibodies, but this takes longer.

I texted my sister to say I had syphilis. She didn’t even have the decency to sound surprised. I told a few select friends. And then during a New Year’s Eve party two weeks later a guy came up to me and said: “Heard you have syphilis?"

Now, luckily for me, my syphilis was caught early, in what’s known as the primary stage. This means it was easily treated with a penicillin injection in the butt, although sometimes it’s treated with antibiotics in the same way other STDs are.

Secondary stage syphilis will happen a few weeks later, if the infection is left untreated. Sufferers will develop a sore throat, rashes and flu-like symptoms. Then it lies low - the latent stage - until it develops into tertiary syphilis, which is when it does the serious damage.

Tertiary syphilis is probably the one you are most familiar with. That’s the stuff that raged through Europe four centuries ago, and sent people mad and killed them in the past. It can cause blindness, dementia, and if you are pregnant, it can result in still-births. Screening for syphilis is routine in pregnancy.

Which is especially important if you are pregnant with a potential Olympic silver medallist, called Yury.

So, what have we learned?

- Please, please, if you’re gonna sleep around – which is absolutely your right – don’t do it unprotected.

- Do not go and see a Russian gyno if you are prone to splinters.

- But do go to Russia, because it’s awesome.

- I was actually incredibly lucky, because where I lived in Russia has some of the highest HIV rates outside of Africa. (You need a negative HIV test to get a Russian visa).

- Syphilis still exists.

- If you are depressed or worried about your mental health go and see your GP and talk to him before you end up with syphilis.

- I no longer have syphilis. But I’m pretty sure it counts as my third longest relationship.

- Everything is totally cool down there now. Call me. *phone sign with hand*