‘I’ve started to remember things that happened with a boyfriend when I was 14’

Dear Trish: ‘I’ve just started college but I worry about death and I can’t be intimate’

PROBLEM: I’m 18, and while the past 18 months of schools were hard, I did fairly well in my Leaving Cert. I didn’t get my first choice, but I’ve just started college and am happy and excited about the course.

I had to move away from home, though, and that’s not been easy. For the past several weeks I’ve been feeling extremely anxious, and I don’t know why. I’ve started to obsess about my health; not only about me but how I could affect others. I’ve started to worry a lot – about stupid things, like a mouth ulcer or a cold sore or anything else that I notice about me.

My mind gets filled with anxiety – could I have HIV or Covid, and could I have passed on a virus or something to other people, especially my boyfriend? I know it sounds weird but I’m worrying about death.

I talked to a friend of mine, and stuff that I’d forgotten about started to come into my mind – stuff that happened with a boyfriend when I was 14. He made me do things that I wasn’t comfortable with. He was abused and he made me do stuff with him. What if I got something from him and now I’m responsible for affecting others? I have a fabulous boyfriend and yet … I can’t, I’m not able to get intimate with him – I can’t get this feeling out of my mind.

ADVICE: You have a lot going on and you are right that all your symptoms are linked to heightened anxiety. You are also right in linking past events with your ex-boyfriend with your inability to have intimacy with your current boyfriend – there is a strong possibility that your body is protecting you from experiences you do not want to repeat.

Anxiety has risen hugely as a result of Covid; in particular, health anxiety has gained a lot of traction. Covid has made us afraid of contamination and has also created in us a fear of infecting others, and much of this is completely legitimate. However, with anxiety we take what might be reasonable precautions and raise them to a new level, and we can become paralysed with fear. Naturally the ultimate fear is death, and so the mind goes there and picks at it until it can become an obsession. Your concern about HIV might be something you could put to rest with a simple test. Many student unions are offering these tests, or you can contact HIV Ireland for support, information and free testing: hivireland.ie.

Sometimes anxiety can be alleviated by taking some action and so going for a test (both for Covid and HIV) can be a first step. However, most people’s experience of anxiety is that this is not the end of the worrying, and further effort needs to be put in to manage your mind and its obsessions. Your college should have a student counselling service that will be able to offer you free and confidential counselling. This will be necessary to help you with quieting your mind and untangling the threads of your anxiety. You will also find a safe place there to explore your sexual history with your ex-boyfriend and the impacts on your current romantic situation. It may be that you invite your current, supportive boyfriend to some of these sessions, as he may be a huge source of support to you as you try to figure out why your body is so determined to refuse any sexual moves.

One possible problem is vaginismus, a condition that is far from unusual and has many successful treatments: most of these include a medical assessment (to make a diagnosis and to make sure there are no physical issues), physiotherapy to strengthen your pelvic floor and give you body confidence, and then psychotherapy to help you understand why this is happening. Homework is usually given, in the form of gradual sensuality exercises to retrain the body to accept touch as pleasure rather than a precursor to pain or upset. If your boyfriend understands and partakes in the homework, you both stand a very good chance of increasing the pleasure, fun and intimacy in your relationship. There is nothing more romantic than someone trusting you enough to let you connect with their most vulnerable parts – so your invite to him is a huge vote of trust in you as a couple.

You spent most of two years at home while doing your Leaving Cert and then got flung into non-stop exposure in college and in your new accommodation, so accept your anxiety as a relatively normal response to huge upheaval. Your mind is trying to gain control over sudden and extensive change, so it is understandable that it turns inwards, into worrying and pessimism. Keep your focus outwards as much as you can (activities, talking, cooking), book a session with a student counsellor and go to college health, as they will have expertise in vaginismus.

Accept that you have anxiety and trust that, with time and work, it will lessen and allow you to fully enjoy your time in college.