All my life I’ve never been able to get my lady parts to work properly. If it wasn’t one thing it was another.
As a teenager, I could never really envision myself having sex. I think I just knew implicitly that it was going to hurt like a bitch, because how could it not? For a while I just wasn’t interested at all, but in my later years I figured that my high school boyfriend and I should do it, because that just made sense. I planned it out (very poorly, in my head) but it never happened because he broke up with me.
Post-graduation, I started dating someone new, and on my 18th birthday he decided that, as my gift, we should have sex. You know, to make me a woman and all that. We’d been dating for about 2 and a half months, which to me at that time was nothing. I didn’t really want to, but I felt pressured and I wanted to ‘get it over with’ so I agreed.
I will never forget how painful it was those first few times we tried. I’m not even kidding you, we were not even CLOSE to being successful but I screamed so loud you would think that I was being stabbed to death. Which is exactly what it felt like.
We kept trying with all the usual tricks and helpful aids and what not but nothing improved. I only became more scared until eventually I avoided it altogether.
A few years later (or just a couple of months ago), I was with someone who I actually really liked. His name is Dan and there was no doubt in my mind that he was the right person. Or at least a right person. He was a lot more practical than the first guy and decided to start small, and when it seemed like I was improving I was so excited and proud of myself, but when I wasn’t I would cry. Overall, I wasn’t getting any better, and since I couldn’t even handle that we knew something was seriously wrong.
So I went to my family doctor. She told me that I had some kind of extra flap of skin that was getting in the way and sent me to a specialist at a hospital in Toronto. This upset me, but it wasn’t the end of the world, because it could be fixed with a small surgery.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the specialist. My family doctor was wrong. This isn’t going to go away so easily.
I have two conditions, one of which affects the other and also interacts with my mental illnesses in a very impressive vicious cycle.
The first is called Vestibulodynia, also known as Vulvar Vestibulitis Syndrome or VVS (technically a type of Vestibulodynia), which is what I prefer to call it. I tend to just use VVS as a catch-all term for all of my vagina-related problems because it’s easy to say. That is incorrect, of course, but not if you go by Dan’s definition – Vagina Very Sensitive. Yep, that about sums it up.
In short, Vestibulodynia is pain right at the entrance of your lady canal (….I’m sorry) which can be described as burning, sharp and cutting (or ‘stabby’, if you’re me). The cause of it is unknown – it’s not an infection or anything like that, everything appears otherwise normal.
The second is Vaginismus, which totally sounds like either a volcano or a dinosaur (depending on which of my friends you ask) – “involuntary vaginal muscle spasm, which makes any kind of vaginal penetration—including sexual intercourse—painful or impossible.”
The cause of this is also unknown, but some factors that may contribute to it (which I feel apply to me) according to Wikipedia are:
- Fear of pain associated with penetration, particularly the popular misconception of “breaking” the hymen upon the first attempt at penetration, or the idea that vaginal penetration will inevitably hurt the first time it occurs
- Chronic pain conditions and harm-avoidance behaviour
- Generalized anxiety
- Negative emotional reaction towards sexual stimulation, e.g. disgust both at a deliberate level and also at a more implicit level
- Fear of losing control
- Not trusting one’s partner
- Self-consciousness about body image
- Misconceptions about sex or unattainable standards for sex from exaggerated sexual materials, such as pornography or abstinence
- Fear of vagina not being wide or deep enough/fear of partner’s penis being too large
I feel like I’ve experienced all of those things at some point or another, but especially the first two. After the first excruciatingly painful experience, I now fear that pain again and tried to avoid it for a long time. And in turn, that first time was made much worse by my initial preconceptions and unwillingness. This is why I regret it so much more now, aside from the emotional aspect of it – “If multiple attempts at penetration are made before treating Vaginismus, it may lead to fear of sexual intercourse, and worsen the amount of pain experienced with each subsequent attempt.” Great.
The VVS is also a contributing factor – even if I was completely relaxed and comfortable, which I was (as much as I could be anyway) with my second partner, after experiencing that initial pain upon entry, although the rest of the tissue is fine, it causes the muscles to tense up. So it just keeps on hurting.
Something interesting that I found was that people with this condition often say that they feel like something is obstructing the way, or like it’s “hitting a brick wall”. I’ve said this before as well and it didn’t even occur to me that it could be connected to a condition like this. My family doctor’s original theory seemed to make sense to me.
To give you an idea of the scale of pain that we are talking about:
“A simplified and more versatile version of the classification includes symptoms that vary over four ranges. The first involves minor discomfort that may diminish during inter course. In the second range, burning and tightness persist. In the third, entry and movement are painful, and in the fourth penetration is impossible and forced entry is extremely painful.”
I would be classified as mostly being within the fourth range.
So what about treatment? Well, the proven effectiveness of different options are not great, maybe because the cause is often unknown and potential contributing factors can vary so much from patient to patient. Patients are often “impacted by the frustration of finding a diagnosis, subsequently confronted with an area of medicine that is still in relative infancy.” Although it took me a very long time to seek medical attention, I was lucky that I got sent to a specialist because VVS especially is still unknown even by many gynecologists.
I do wish that I had started to deal with this earlier, and although I recognize that much of the delay was due to my own fear, it also angers me that another part of the reason was that friends and family kept telling me that I was “just doing it wrong”. I heard that I wasn’t aiming tampons in the right direction, that sex hurts for everyone the first time, that you just have to push through the pain, and so on and so forth. I believed them – I’ve always been pretty inept at a lot of things in life, so it wouldn’t surprise me if sex was just another one to add to the list. And it’s not just me: “sufferers are…hesitant to seek treatment for chronic vulvar pain, especially since many women begin experiencing symptoms around the same time they become sexually active. Moreover, the absence of any visible symptoms means that before being successfully diagnosed many patients are told that the pain is ‘in their head’.”
The gynecologist prescribed me a Topical Estradiol cream (basically cream with estrogen in it) with added testosterone for the VVS, which I’m supposed to use for a couple of months before moving onto pelvic physiotherapy (involving vaginal dilators and other similar methods) for the Vaginismus. At least I think that’s what’s happening. It was all very quick and confusing.
If you’re wondering how that’s supposed to work, so am I! I do not have high hopes.
But now that I’ve laid down some knowledge, what I really want to talk about is the mental health and emotional aspect of this.
I will note that most of the information I’ve come across regarding this matter has been related to Vaginismus (VVS seems to be less well-known), but Vaginismus and other similar disorders are linked to low self-esteem, relationship issues, and Depression. Well. I think I basically just described myself.
In terms of self-esteem, although of course I know that this likely doesn’t actually affect how people perceive me upon a first impression, I feel broken and defective, like I’m not a real woman because one of the only parts of my body that MAKES me a woman doesn’t work properly. I feel like people can just SENSE that I’ve never had sex, and in my head I feel like this contributes to people looking down on me as innocent, naive and stupid, especially other women.
I feel like no one will ever love me because they may not be able to connect with me in that way. I feel like men feel sorry for me, but not enough to actually be with me.
Relationship problems – well, I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of those. But that is a whole other post (or several). All I know is that I can’t stop wondering if my most recent ex and I would still be together if I didn’t have this problem. He keeps telling me to stop thinking that way, but I wonder if it did affect things without him fully realizing it. Maybe we would have formed more of a connection, enough for him to stay. Maybe. But I will never know.
I’ll probably continue to write about how conditions like these can affect relationships because to me that is the saddest part. For many years literally all I wanted was to find love. Now I want other things too but that is still a huge part of my life that I feel is lacking. I never wanted children and now I am kind of ambivalent about the idea of them but it still devastates me to think that I may not have a choice. I hate the thought of other women feeling this way too. Infertility as a whole is well known but this is something else. This is something that no one ever talks about.
According to Vaginismus.com (yes that is a real thing),
“Being alone and dealing with Vaginismus can be disheartening and isolating. The embarrassment and shame of having the sexual condition leads many women to suffer privately and avoid future male partner relationships and contacts. Many single women wonder if Vaginismus can be overcome without having a partner, and feel there may be little hope due to their singleness.”
I feel that, but I want to end on a hopeful note. Although conditions like these are not considered fully resolved until a woman manages to have sex, single women can still receive treatment and get at least like 99% of the way there. And there are nice guys out there who will stay by your side and support you. I have not MET them, but I hear they exist.
And I know that talking to the internet about my vagina is weird. I know that talking to my FRIENDS about my vagina is weird.
I am also determined not to care. It is literally a part of me, and these conditions are a part of me too and always have been, whether I’ve known it or not.
I’m sick of feeling like I don’t relate to other women. Maybe I need to make other women relate to ME. I’ve heard alllllllll about your sex lives, now you can hear all about this.
If reading this makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay, because it makes me uncomfortable writing it, and I know that I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes. But ask yourself why. Honestly. The answer is probably stupid. Mine is. All I can really come up with is some variation of, “People aren’t supposed to talk about those things,” or, “That’s private!” or, “No one wants to know that!”
But like…really? These are real things that affect my real life, and I like to think that I am in the business of talking about real things. I truly believe that everyone would be better off if we all were.
My Vagina is Very Sensitive and I am proud! (…Or at least coping with it in the best way that I can.)
Just so you don’t think I’m making things up (or if you want to learn more), here are my sources:
Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 22 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie and her roommate.