Our resident agony aunt, Rhona McAuliffe, advises a reader who is dealing with a bottom issue
I don’t feel great about writing to you about this but here goes. About two months ago my boyfriend started getting clusters of boils on his bum, which ended with him in A&E in excruciating pain (they were infected at that point) and embarrassment. For the following two weeks, as he was on antibiotics, I was his carer, drawing the pus to the surface with a poultice, washing the area with anti-bacterial soap and then packing the boils with gauze. I’m an extremely squeamish person generally and tried not to let him see me gag but he did hear me quite a few times.
The problem is, he’s better now – apart from the nasty scarring – and says that I made him feel disgusting when he was sick and that I was completely un-empathetic. I can’t believe it, after I made such a huge effort to put my issues aside and help him! Plus, I’ve only known him 18 months and we only moved in together in March. Despite his disappointment in me though, he still wants to have sex. This is a nightmare as all my brain sees now when we’re in bed together is gauze and pus. Sex is the last thing I want. I’m not sure I’ll get past this feeling and am worried that I can’t un-see things. He is one of the good ones but I can’t imagine reclaiming the physical side of our relationship. Is this normal? I know I’m being mean but I can’t help myself.
Totally Grossed Out, Leinster.
If you’ve read any of my other columns you may know that I’m fascinated by minor medical conditions. So much so that, depending on the butt, and person attached to it, I may well have dropped everything and raced over to help you. If only you’d called!
Passing the boil-baton, however, wouldn’t necessarily have eased your current predicament. The fact is, your relationship has just undergone a test of sorts and I’m not sure either of you have emerged with flying colours. As tests go, it was a tiny blip in the system. It’s true that hardly anyone wants to pop and pack their partner’s carbuncles but most get through it without incident.
You, however, seem to have a low tolerance to and possible fear of bodily secretions. Faced, as you were, with the responsibility of tending to your mortified patient’s intimate needs it’s no wonder you’ve reacted the way you have. Add your boyfriend’s bum to the equation – a former zone of playful sensuality and occasional comedy – plus a love-nest-come-hospital-gurney, and it’s easy to see how your libido might have flat-lined.
Meanwhile, your boyfriend has never been more vulnerable. At a time when he needed compassion, support and reassurance that you were still attracted to him, you were dry heaving by his glutes. In anticipation of this impasse, it’s a pity neither of you thought to call in the troops – a mother, a brother, a friend – to do the dirty work for you and peel your boyfriend’s dignity off the sheets.
This is part of the reason why so many women who have vaginal births request that their partners stay squarely above the action, at shoulder level, throughout the birth. There are countless stories of men who lose interest in sex after witnessing their partners giving birth, and a not insignificant number who are treated for PTSD after particularly difficult births. And of course many more who enjoy ring-side seats, ‘deliver’ their own babies and worship their warrior women ‘til death and beyond.
But how non-birthing partners process the birth experience and collateral drama is dependent on their individual sensibilities. Before I had my babies, I had hoped my husband would live-report from the trenches. As it was, I had two emergency sections, he fainted when he saw the epidural needle and was promptly ejected from the operating theatre. Turns out, he’s not the guy you call when you’re crowning; or when the dog pukes or there’s a gruesome injury. He’s chef, carer, organiser and so many other things. Just not the Gore Guy. That’s me.
A human-sized pustule
Being open with your boyfriend about your phobia/s is a good place to start, while owning your strengths. He may think you’re being dramatic or childish, which is not the case. You don’t need to tell him that all you see when you look at him is a human-sized pustule but do say that you need a little time to transition from nurse back to lover. Although that might be laughable to some – especially carers of partners with chronic illnesses who have profound issues to navigate – it is very real for you.
In this vein, and working to the premise that you might suffer from haemophobia (an irrational fear of blood) or trauma-related anxiety, it is also worth exploring your fears with a therapist. One method common with young medical students who discover they are squeamish on the job is Systematic Desensitisation, or Gradual Exposure Therapy. The practice here is to start with something that makes you a little bit anxious, the thought of a paper cut, for example. Progress to searching for an image of a paper cut and graduate by tending to someone else’s paper cut IRL, until you complete the cycle so many times the anxiety dissipates.
Whether you stay with your boyfriend or not, managing your physical and emotional reactions to icky things will only help you. Whether it’s eighteen months or eighteen years together, a 2-week rash of butt boils should not herald the end of a relationship.
It also might be time to get to know his bum again. Talk to it, find humour in your ordeal together, crack Vitamin E capsules on the scar site and treat him to a massage. As well as desensitising you, this will replace your boyfriend’s feelings of rejection with tenderness and affection, working towards deepening your bond, not breaking it. If all goes to plan, you’ll be sharing a post-coital roll-up by Saturday.
And if he has another eruption, you know where I am.
Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart. If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it. Write to Rhona at [email protected]