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“You should talk about it with Simon*. He also caught syphilis.”
That’s how it started. We had met before on a few occasions, but I didn’t know him well enough to spontaneously ask him to talk casually about syphilis with me in a park. But I so desperately needed to feel less alone in this. Thankfully, he agreed to share his story with me for Club Sexu. So, we met up and I quickly understood that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.
From the beginning of our conversation, I realized that his expectations were high and that he was eager to hear my story: “I didn’t catch syphilis at an orgy on the Moon, you know! You might be disappointed,” I said.
Simon is a laid back guy whose mood rarely seems to fluctuate. He can tell you all the intimate and juicy details of his life with the same tone throughout, never giving the impression that he feels shy or bothered. Whether he’s talking about smoothies or anal fissures, it’s all the same to him. I love that.
“Medical professionals often say that syphilis has come back with a vengeance in the gay community in recent years, and yet, you’re the first person to tell me that they’ve had it,” he tells me. I racked my brain for a moment to remember whether any friends have ever told me about catching syphilis, but no one came to mind. I recalled a few stories of people I know who had contracted gonorrhea and chlamydia, which are common, but none with syphilis. That probably explains why I felt a bit isolated in all of this. We discussed this strange taboo without ever really finding an underlying explanation. “What I remember from my history lessons is the impression that all the great artists of this world died of syphilis,” he offers as a semi-explanation.
I told him that, when I was in high school, I had to do an oral presentation on syphilis. The only things my brain retained from that project, unfortunately, were large pustules, brain damage, penicillin, and the word “death.” Let’s just say that the educational objectives hadn’t been achieved.
Simon then launched into his own story. He told me that, after a breakup, he went through a four-year period of sexual emancipation (which he affectionately called his ho phase). During this time, he said he got tested once every three months and had contracted very few sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs) despite the many partners who had crossed his path (or rather his crotch). That is, until a Labour Day weekend during which he hadn’t been idle: “I was particularly ‘active’,” he summed up, adding that he had engaged in risky behaviour and that his memories of that weekend were rather hazy.
“For my repentance, instead of going to church, I went to the clinic about two weeks later,” he says with a smirk.
And that’s when his hell began. Obviously, not enough time had elapsed since that fateful weekend, because the infection wasn’t yet detectable. His negative test results led him down the wrong track… for several months! From the moment Simon received his results, he began experiencing a myriad of particularly painful symptoms that lasted until December. It started with intense diarrhea, followed by anal pain that lasted for weeks on end. “When I was doing number two, I had the impression that a dagger was stabbing me in my butt. And the pain would go on for several hours afterward.” It was therefore easy to pinpoint the site of infection.
During those 90 days of pain, Simon went to the emergency room three times, where he was prescribed an antibiotic for urinary tract infections and a cream for herpes. I’m amazed: “No doctor thought of doing a little STBBI test?” Nope, zero, niet.
It wasn’t until December that he noticed red spots popping up on his abdomen that quickly spread all over his body in less than four days. His Google searches didn’t lead him anywhere reassuring: “There were two options: either it was some skin disease that was called ‘pity… something rosea,’ or I was in the first stage of HIV,” he said with a sombre look.
Convinced of having HIV, he fortunately got an emergency appointment the next day at a clinic specializing in STBBIs. The doctor, and a rapid HIV test, immediately eliminated that possibility. She carefully examined his anus, left the room, returned with another doctor and two med students, pointed out the chancre, typical of syphilis, and simply told them: “This is what you need to be looking for.”
Two days later, a blood test confirmed a syphilis diagnosis and Simon received an injection of penicillin in each buttock. “The needles are really long, huh?” I asked. “When you’ve spent the last three months feeling as though you were being stabbed in the ass every time you used the toilet… They seem really short!” he replied. He had a good point. Less than two weeks later, the pain and red spots were 100% gone.
Then, Simon asked me about my story. I felt a bit bad telling him it was worlds away from his experience. So I summed it up quickly, like tearing off a band aid: “It was during one of my regular screenings, which I do every three months. I had a positive result for syphilis. I had no symptoms, not even pain, and I was called in the next day for treatment. His insistent look made me realize that he was waiting for a sequel. So I continued: “The day after treatment, the clinic called me back to tell me that I also tested positive for chlamydia.” His jaw dropped. My story might have been boring, but it at least had a punch.
Simon asked me if I had engaged in any risky behaviour. For me, any sexual encounter constitutes a risk, but I understood that he meant unprotected penetration. The undiagnosed hypochondriac that I am emphatically answered “no.”
It must be said that syphilis can be contracted through any sexual contact, just like gonorrhea and chlamydia, so no need to take any additional risks to run the chance of contracting it!
I also told him that I had then contacted my sexual partners from the previous months to inform them. Each of them then got tested and told me that they tested negative: “I must have gotten syphilis from the Holy Spirit, then!” I tell him, both outraged and discouraged.
At that moment, a soccer ball rolled up to our feet. A child ran up to retrieve it. “Watch out for the syph’!” Simon whispered in a slightly creepy voice, as a joke. Fortunately, the little boy heard nothing. We laughed, watching him go further away, until he stumbled and fell over, headfirst.
“If you asked me to choose between getting my teeth kicked in or catching syphilis a second time, I admit that I’d hesitate between the two,” he said.
I looked at the crying and screaming kid, his mouth bleeding. The choice seemed obvious to me. I’d choose syphilis; it heals much faster.
*Fictitious first name to protect his anonymity