"I caught chlamydia from unprotected sex," recalls Maggie (not her real name), 26, of Santa Cruz, Calif. "It was during that horrible postcollege time where everyone gets depressed about what to do with their livesand I coped with alcohol, drugs, and frivolous sex."
She found out about the chlamydia when she went to a Planned Parenthood clinic to get treated for a yeast infection. She chose the clinic for its low cost, since she was uninsured. "I ended up staying for the whole day while they gave me my annual physical and tested me for virtually anything I could have contracted."
It was impossible to tell how long she'd had the chlamydia. "I didn't know I even had an STD," Maggie says. "That might be the scariest partI could have spread it to someone without realizing it."
Since it was caught early, Maggie's chlamydia never caused any problems. "I felt lucky and grateful that I'd been the recipient of such an easy STD," she says. "I was a little angry at whomever had given it to me, and a little ashamed that I might have passed it on."
Telling her sex partners
A simple misunderstanding about the nature of STD reporting gave Maggie many nights of unnecessary worry. "I thought that if the results were positive, someone from the [health department] would contact me to give me a survey about my sexual behavior. In addition, I thought the caller would take down the names and phone numbers of anyone I'd had sex with in the past two months. When I was waiting for my results, all I could think was, 'What the hell am I going to tell this person when she calls?' Do I give numbers of the ones I know? Do I lie?"
In fact, the Santa Cruz health department offers partner notification as a voluntary service. Maggie was not required to name names. When the health department did call, it was to offer to phone anyone she didn't feel comfortable contacting herself.
Maggie had slept with four men during that time, and with two, the sex had been unprotected. One of them was her best friend, J. She asked the interviewer to let her break the news to him personally. "I called J, my heart racing, told him I needed to talk to him, and I let him know that I'd been diagnosed with chlamydia," Maggie remembers.
"At first he seemed upset. Then, through the course of the conversation, I learned that actually he had been diagnosed a month prior. He had given it to me! It made me feel much better, and I felt much stronger that I had the balls to call himwhen he didn't."
The one partner whose name Maggie furnished to the interviewer was someone she was no longer speaking to. He guessed her identity and called her in the middle of the night, very upset. "I neither denied nor acknowledged the blame," Maggie says. "The truth was, he had been sleeping around with several people, and he could have contracted it from any one of them. He needed to know that."
Other than telling her partners, Maggie was able to keep her diagnosis private. "I told a few friends, but mostly it was to educate them," she says. "Chlamydia is treatable, but many, many young people have it these daysparticularly in college environments, where promiscuity is common."
Chlamydia was a wake-up call
Being diagnosed with an STD prompted Maggie to think about changing her sexual behavior. Since then she has had sex with fewer partners and always uses protection, unless she's in a long-term, committed relationship. "I saw this as a wonderful wake-up call," she says. "You have to learn from mistakes and destructive behavior. Otherwise the lesson was wasted on you, and another lessonprobably less forgivingis just around the corner."
For Maggie, safer sex is now totally nonnegotiable. "My negotiations now include: I've got a condom. Wear it," she says, flatly. The usual complaints and manipulations from partners who don't want to use protection don't phase her. "I contracted the disease from my best friendI couldn't trust him to tell me that he'd been diagnosed," she explains. "If someone asks me, 'Don't you trust me?' I smile, kiss them, and say, 'It's not about trust.'"