(Courtesy Zachariah Reitano)

When I was 17, I experienced erectile dysfunction (ED) for the first time.

My reaction was absolute confusion and frustration. Something was wrong and I knew it. It‘s hard to talk about erectile dysfunction at any age and I realized that there was not a single person with whom I could speak about it other than my father. 

I was lucky. My dad was a physician and an expert in sexual health. Growing up, very few things were off limits at the dinner table. One day I mustered up the courage and finally brought it up (and when I say ‘finally’ I mean as long as a boy can wait when something might be wrong with his penis).

My dad  asked me a few questions (“Are you depressed? Stressed? Using drugs?”) but after a few minutes, reassured me that I shouldn’t worry—we could fix this. Still, I’d seen that look on his face before when my sister was ill. He was concerned.

The next time we were exercising together, he took my pulse and made that face again. He stayed calm, but he knew something wasn’t right. He scheduled a stress test (where a physician monitors your heart as you exercise on a treadmill) for the following week.

I remember walking into the doctor’s office and passing a waiting room full of men in their 50’s and 60’s. Looking back on it now, I should  have suspected it was a bad sign we were taking the same test but, at the time, I felt pretty confident I was going to crush it.

I hopped on the treadmill and started walking. Minute 3 hit and I was doing great. Minute 6 passed and I was almost having a good time. Minute 9 and I barely started to break a sweat. Minute 12 arrived and… my heart just stopped. The last thing I saw was the EKG monitor going nuts and the last thing I heard was my doctor asking for help. Nay, it was more like an urgent scream. 

The memory that followed was me laying on the floor and looking up to see my dad and the doctor huddled over me. She explained that my heart had fluttered and, before I knew it, I was in the hospital for a procedure to burn the parts of my heart that were causing it to do something it shouldn’t. Frankly, that’s as much as I wanted to know.

I was cured, fixed, ready to get back into action, and the first thought I had was, well… you can imagine what my first thought might have been. But after the operation I continued to have a few minor irregular heart beats that required some medicine. My luck, that little white pill to keep my heart in check caused erectile dysfunction. I was pissed.

But I wasn’t alone. About 10% of young men experience ED. Because the conversation is so stigmatized, men aren’t going into the doctor’s office, talking about it with professionals, but seeking advice online. Worse, there are guys purchasing medication on the black market.

If we break it down – our penis has lots of small blood vessels. When you can’t get an erection, the small blood vessels are damaged in some way (could be from high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, etc.). These blood vessels are so small that if something is off in your body, often the first place you’ll notice it is in the strength of your erection. Granted, this totally sucks, but it also can be a huge lifesaver.

Yes, there is usually a medical issue brewing that leads to erectile dysfunction. ED is not the complete inability to get an erection. It’s not binary and it can be subtle. In reality, ED is a man’s equivalent to a car’s check engine light turning on; something’s wrong but we don’t know what until we get the car into the repair shop.

I could have ignored my “check engine light.” I could have been playing basketball that week and dropped dead. But that concerned look on my dad’s face was equivalent to a mechanic shaking his head telling you that your car was about to blow a gasket.

The fact of the matter is that a change in your capacity to get erections could be a sign that you have some pretty serious diseases doing damage in far more vital organs than your penis (vital to survival, anyway). It could be a possible sign of diabetes, coronary artery disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, or depression. The cause of ED is very important. 

To this day, I cannot imagine what would have happened if I didn’t have a physician as a father, if I didn’t have someone who created an environment where I felt comfortable expressing what I’m sharing with you today.

Guys do not want to talk about how they can’t get it up. Believe me, I get it. Before men could be easily treated for ED, before medication, before all the research showing why we have problems from time to time, what was the vibe associated with ED? Men were labeled as ‘impotent’ (a ridiculous word for an easily treatable and important medical condition) and told it was all in their heads. I sometimes think about all those older men who suffered silently and blamed themselves for what we now know was probably caused by an underlying medical problem. It’s time we speak out about it and get the help we need. Here’s to opening up the conversation. 

Zachariah Reitano is the co-founder of Roman, a new service where guys can go online and get diagnosed, prescribed, and discreetly delivered ED medication – quickly and affordably. The site just launched and you can check it out here