I’ll never forget the day I had my period, an active yeast infection, and a urinary tract infection (UTI) at the same time. I had to act normally at work, pretending that I didn’t feel like a metaphorical razor blade was stabbing me in the urethra, or that cramps were radiating through my lower back, all while dealing with the itchy discomfort of my tampon chilling inside of me in the midst of a bacterial invasion.
And the worst part? I didn’t know how to fix it.
I was 22 years old and working at a digital media agency in New York City. Between the Bagel Fridays, the extravagant dinners, happy hours, and cupcakes sent directly to my desk by vendors hoping to win my team’s business, I was unknowingly destroying my microbiome. I was feeding trillions of bad bacteria cells into my gut with their beloved sugar, yeast, and alcohol, then killing off the good bacteria with rounds of antibiotics prescribed by my doctor.
After multiple second opinions and the last ”I’m sorry, honey, but you’re going to have to deal with this forever,” I sought out a holistic nutritionist. And boy, was I sorry I did. Although I finally learned that my yeast infections were a function of the bad bacteria in my stomach overtaking the good (and not because my vagina was incurably dirty like I had feared), the solution was going to be more complicated than a pill.
My nutritionist put me on a strict diet: no dairy or meat because of the antibiotics and hormones. No sugar, alcohol, or yeast because it would feed the overgrowth of “candida” as I learned to discreetly call it, and no peanut butter because it happens to be a very mold-friendly food. I left her office convinced I was going to die of joy deprivation.
I learned quickly that the food wouldn’t be the hardest part. No, that would be re-shaping my identity as a social New Yorker. As a recently-single-twenty-something in the city, my social life was extremely status quo—networking by “getting drinks,” going on dates and “grabbing a drink,” and partying my face off for a friend’s birthdays/housewarmings/goodbye parties/hey-I-got-an-extra-ticket-to-this-thing. I had a lot of friends and I was proud of the network I built. Or so I thought.
Despite the occasional bagel relapse, I was extremely motivated to avoid alcohol. When I had an infection, I wasn’t having sex. Did I mention I was a twenty-something girl living in New York? I knew it had the power to really push an infection from 0 to 60, so I avoided it. It wasn’t hard for me to go out and dance sober since I was pretty outgoing. But then I quickly learned the “nothing good happens after midnight” rule. Here’s what happens after midnight: your friends become annoying, your co-workers get handsy, and the crowd isn’t nearly as sexy or as funny as it thinks it is. Nightlife gets old when you’re not on everyone else’s level. I suggested alternative options, like healthy dinners or game nights, but my friends weren’t interested. To be honest, I wondered if they were my friends at all.
In my newfound alone time, I started to read. I pulled out book after book from the library about anything that would keep me motivated with my diet, like books about sugar or factory farming. I even got into motivational self-help books, but I didn’t dare read those on the subway.
And then the day came when I realized I had to break-up with New York. I had given it six years of my life, and honestly, most of that time I had been drunk or too hungover to pay attention. I was trying to live this Sex and the City/Girls mash-up of an experience, and I wasn’t even able to have sex because I was busy ruining my health and surrounding myself with people I ultimately had very little in common with. I had fallen asleep.
With dreams of becoming “woke,” I moved to Los Angeles. It was everything I needed it to be and I got a full on health awakening. But most importantly, I learned that health—especially feminine health because this shifts in every life stage—is a process and not an end-goal. It is not necessarily defined by location or profession. It is not something that will ever be achieved and then crossed off of life’s to-do list. It is not determined by anyone else but ourselves. Health, like New York, is a state of mind.
WRITER: JOHANNA PENRY