I knew that Amazon sold actual sitz baths, but I chose a simpler option — and by simpler, I mean cheaper and more convenient. I filled my largest stainless steel pot with herbs and several kettles-worth of hot water. I felt like a witch over her cauldron. In actuality, I was desperate. This was yet another attempt to rid myself of a yeast infection.
For several weeks, I’d been taking anti-fungal pills, soaking tampons in yogurt, eating copious amounts of raw garlic, and dropping oregano oil underneath my tongue, to no avail. As I placed my pot on the kitchen floor of my Berlin apartment, I was staving off hopelessness. I hiked up my robe and squatted over the steam.
Over the years, I’d become familiar with what caused — or at least exacerbated — my chronic yeast infections: a lover’s careless hands, hormonal changes from taking Plan B pills, a terrible diet, antibiotics, scented detergent and soaps. Monistat and its equivalents pretty much zapped them all in the past. But as of late, my infections were a mystery, pests that were starting to feel like punishments. What had I done wrong? I’d changed my diet, used condoms regularly, and switched to hypoallergenic products. Why were they coming back and staying for so long?
I feared I had a resistant strain. The gynecologists I saw abandoned their scripts about wet bathing suits and tight underwear. They suggested I was genetically predisposed; pills and garlic would be my future.
I wonder what would’ve happened if those same gynecologists hadn’t relied on their usual spiel. What if they’d genuinely inquired about the life that these yeast infections disrupted? What would I have dared to tell them? Not much, probably. More likely than not, I would’ve ignored any inner discernment about the true cause of my distress, which went deeper than the surface of my vagina’s membrane. It would be a few more years before I could fathom that the true source of my pain was my ex-partner: the stubbornness of my infection likely due to the depth of my emotional ruin.
Maybe I would have reached that conclusion sooner if a professional had mentioned the relationship between stress and chronic yeast infections. Unfortunately, I had to figure that out on my own.
While researching wildly for permanent solutions to my vaginal torment, I stumbled upon the correlation. A 2015 study published in the Annual Review of Microbiology determined that changes in stress can result in yeast overgrowth, causing infections. A 2020 study in the Journal of the Turkish-German Gynecological Association had complementary findings: there’s evidence that depression, anxiety, and stress can increase one’s susceptibility to vaginal yeast infections.
Interestingly, many of the articles I read failed to mention a toxic relationship as an environmental and embodied stressor that factors into chronic illness. The search words “chronic yeast infections and toxic relationships” yielded very few results, but articles about toxic relationships and poor mental health were plentiful.
The National Library of Medicine published a research article in 2015 stating that, “negative partner interactions were significantly associated with increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.” But I don’t need PubMed to tell me that a toxic relationship wreaks havoc on one’s mental health: I am a statistic.
According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 2 women have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner. Approximately 1 in 3 women have experienced coercive control by an intimate partner. I am that 1. My ex-partner humiliated and gaslit me for most of our relationship, and for most of our relationship, I nursed yeast infections. I had several infections for the 1.5 years we were together, each one lasting weeks at a time.
And yet, breaking up with him was so difficult.
Days prior to my DIY vaginal steam, I took three buses on a biting cold evening to join a friend at a cultural heritage event. When I got there, I was met by warm lighting, buffet style food, and live music. I watched as adults danced in place and children darted about. I wanted to be present; I couldn’t. My partner had just left Berlin after a three month visit. During that time, he’d shamed my body and my sexuality, coerced me into choosing him over my livelihood, attempted to isolate me from my family, and caused me to question my reality. A voice outside of my own had to cut through the chaos; I needed my friend’s opinion. I gave no context, only a question: Do you think I should break up with him?
I don’t remember what she said, but on one of those three buses back home, I called him. “What is it that you want, Khi?” he asked. I had an excruciating headache, but I wasn’t crying. I told him it was over. That was my second time ending things. Immediately I wondered: Would it last? I was mentally lost and inundated by emotion, but my body — she knew. The itch between my thighs was an instruction, a command, a plea to let him go and heal. Apparently, without realizing, I listened.
And I haven’t had a yeast infection since.