I had my first UTI as a freshman in college.
Earlier that year, I spent countless hours in self-imposed quarantine inside a dorm room in Penfield Hall while my three closest friends and I painstakingly combed lice out of one another’s hair. We had come to discover that we were all plagued with nits, and as a result, were sentenced to spend our freshmen evenings with a spread of fine-tooth combs and special shampoo. We locked the door, because we would obviously never make the right friends, kiss the right boys or join the cool normcore acapella clubs if we became the lice girls (I’m currently violating our pledge of secrecy; sorry guys).
As it turns out, UTIs are not so different. Sure there are no bugs, shampoos or risk of contagion, but we are equally reluctant to speak out loud about our urinary tracts. In spite of their frequency, their complete and total normalcy, UTIs are not a hot topic of conversation. As someone who suffers from UTIs all too frequently, this is truly a tragedy.
When I contracted my first UTI, I was under the impression that there was an actual alien growing in my stomach. To make matters worse, it felt like someone had cruelly replaced my urine with Tabasco sauce. The pain was so startling, I convinced myself (with some added intel from WebMD) that I probably had Dengue Fever.
I was prescribed two antibiotics: one for the pain, one to fight the infection. The pain pills, as most women are likely aware (I was not), turn your pee a hideous, fluorescent orange. It’s Jolly Rancher urine.
I had never heard women complain openly about UTIs. I didn’t understand what they were, what they signified or what they felt like. I was embarrassed to share the diagnosis with friends (or pee in public places, for that matter). I figured it made me gross, slutty, unkempt — all labels I hoped to avoid with the same frantic fervor as lice girl.
That first UTI somehow opened the floodgates to a litany follow-ups. It was like the UTI version of “breaking the seal.” They seemed to pop up reliably every couple of months, no matter how frequently I peed, how much water I drank or how religious I was about clean underwear.
There was the plane ride to Copenhagen, where I stood up to pee so many times, I developed a casual conversational relationship with the man who sat in the row nearest the bathroom (he kept giving me these knowing little head nods, as if we were in on something together). There was the time I ran into the boy I wanted to kiss from my music theory class while I was squatting, arms around my knees, between stacks of books on the second floor of the library, hoping that if I ground my teeth hard enough, the Tabasco-sauce sensation would fade. I muttered, “Nice place to think,” or something equally bizarre, by way of explanation (I never kissed him).
During my junior year, I contracted a UTI while doing research in Varanasi, India. The sting began merely hours after bathing in the holy Ganges River. Locals from all over the country spent hours, days, weeks even, making pilgrimages to pray beside these waters — so skipping my chance to bathe in the river was definitely not an option (at the time I was operating under some sort of live fast/die young mentality). To call the water unclean would be the understatement of the century: I watched a dead goat float past while I was submerged. In short, I pretty much deserved the UTI that time around.
I had a hard time communicating my problem to local medical professionals. My Hindi was fairly respectable, but I had yet to learn the words for “urinary tract.” I was given a powder to drink with purified water that looked a bit like turmeric and a bit like molding rust. The drink, however, came only after a firm scolding from a woman wrapped in a traditional Rajasthani sari. I wasn’t sure what she’d said, exactly, but the sentiment was clear: This is an unclean disease for unclean girls.
In my 22 years, I have likely spent hundreds of dollars on coffees I had no desire to drink, purely in the interest of using cafe bathrooms in moments of fiery UTI panic. On more than one occasion, I have Postmate-ed over-the-counter UTI relief pills to my place of work. And at bars, I have responsibly ordered many a vodka-cranberry to promote urinary tract health. I’m not alone in my suffering: According to my current gynecologist/life coach, UTIs account for over 8.1 million annual hospital visits in the U.S. Numerically, that is the entire population of New York City — a metropolis of aching UTI victims.
This is an era of gloriously open dialog about our methods of birth control. An era of wielding our tampons while we walk to our office bathrooms, rather than hiding them up our sleeves. We’re supposed to be reclaiming our bodies, our definitions of femininity, our womanhood. Why not start with our urinary tracts? Who’s with me?!
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.