I was twenty-eight years old the first time I had pleasurable intercourse. Actually, I was twenty-eight years old the first time I didn’t experience extraordinary pain from intercourse.
It took years for me to admit I had a problem.
At thirteen I tried to insert a tampon. It hurt … a lot. When I stood up and took my first step, everything went black and nausea sent me to the floor. I removed the tampon and lay on the bathroom floor until the wooziness went away. Scared and discouraged, it was another year before I tried again; every attempt thereafter yielded similar results. But I wasn’t that concerned about it … I mean, my mom never wore tampons.
When I was nineteen, my boyfriend and I decided we were going to lose our virginity together. Even though his finger had been too painful for me, I was determined. I was in love and it was the right time, dammit! We spent $350 on a hotel room at the Fairmont in San Francisco to ensure it was special, but in my private thoughts, it was to ensure that I’d go through with it. When the time came, I didn’t. In anxious anticipation of the pain, I wasn’t aroused and no amount of lube was going to bring me around. We agreed that we lost our virginity anyway, redefining the word to encompass solely the emotional piece. I didn’t want to worry myself too much about it, but it started to seem like something might be wrong.
After a few feeble attempts at intercourse, myriad sabotaged relationships, and being cheated on by two different boyfriends—who couldn’t have sex with me but did have sex with them—I found that my sexuality best existed in my clothes, outward persona, and casual make-out sessions with people who weren’t allowed to get too close. Some partners didn’t see it as a physiological barrier, but as a matter of trust. I scrambled to hide my shame from the disdain I saw in one boyfriend’s eyes as he told me I wouldn’t have sex with him because I was just unwilling to admit that I was a scared virgin. And I was a virgin … against my will. I didn’t know that chronic pain down there was so abnormal.
Like many women with this disorder, I tried to seek help. Within the first few years of realizing something might be wrong, I went to three gynecologists, my family’s general practitioner, and employees of Good Vibrations, with complaints of vaginal pain. Some wrinkled brows and a few lame theories later forced my unsolved problem into the recess of my mind as I gave up dealing with it and ignored it altogether.
At twenty-two, I entered a serious relationship. I knew I had to just bite the bullet and complete an act of intercourse. The physical pain that I knew was inevitable was preferable to facing the embarrassment again of admitting that I was essentially a virgin to a man well experienced at the age of thirty-eight. Becoming numb to my body was far more tolerable than considering myself incapable of sex. He didn’t know me very well, so I was anonymous in the faces I made. I was elated by the knowledge that I was finally having sex; it made leaving my body, and all its associated pain, that much easier.
But the high of finally participating in the grown-up realm of sex wore off quickly and my vagina screamed louder and louder as the years with him went on. On occasion, the pain would get so bad that I’d lose my vision for a moment. My dysfunction tortured me while I remained blind to its source.
I found an article about a woman who also experienced pain during sex. She had “triumphantly” evaded her problem by finding other ways to be intimate with her husband. I burst into tears. The article was probably meant to be inspiring, but these other forms of intimacy seemed like a booby prize to me and ultimately left me with a sense of aloneness and hopelessness. It was then that I knew my problem was real. Someone else had it too. But being validated in my dysfunction was no comfort without the accompaniment of a solution.
In my romantic relationship I felt undesirable, guilty, and broken. I began to reserve physical intimacy for moments of obligation, not desire, often halting excitement at a kiss, lest it lead to more. I would start fights, telling myself that he wasn’t attracted to me; telling him that he wasn’t attracted to me, and not accepting his protests. Restraint became suppression as I slowly and simultaneously realized and ignored my problem.
But he knew that I had a problem, though he never forced the issue, careful not to place blame or label me as dysfunctional. “We ought to have more sex,” one of us would say, pretending it was an option. After four more years of less and less frequent sex, less and less frequent kissing, then less and less frequent physical contact, my boyfriend and I finally stopped trying altogether. We spent the last year of our relationship as good friends, barely touching, in one large bed.
After five years together, we broke up. I was twenty-seven.
And I was nervous. I was forced to face new challenges on the dating scene. Now that I couldn’t ignore that I had a problem, accepting the limits of my body without devaluing myself became a constant effort. And exactly when and how was I to divulge to new partners that sex wasn’t on the table? At the introductory handshake? “Don’t get too excited; we won’t be having sex”? When we’re naked in the bedroom? “Sorry buddy, get a good look because this is as far as it goes. Hope you’re not already attached.” I couldn’t figure out how to get close to potential partners without ultimately duping them. I couldn’t figure out how to offer less than enough.
In August of 2009, 20/20 aired a piece on women with vaginal pain during sex; their stories were so undeniably my story! I called the clinic in New York that was interviewed for the piece. They referred me to one of only three clinics in the country that specialize in this disorder; how lucky for me that one existed here in San Francisco! I was diagnosed with Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. I learned that my particular condition was that the muscles that make up the walls of the vagina were so contracted there was no flexibility, resulting in decreased blood flow to the surrounding tissue. My pain was topical, muscular, and after a decade of sexual failure and ignorance, emotional.
After only three weeks of physical therapy, my life altered dramatically. Pain was no longer about brokenness, but about healing. The pain that accompanied my first sessions of physical therapy released tears and expressed hope. My core was literally opening; my muscles stretched, lengthened, and mobilized to become an expression of free will. These physiological shifts were mirrored in my mental states, causing more health, pleasure, and relatedness. How freeing and therapeutic to experience the pleasure of intercourse as an access to deep, emotional presence! My reward is immersion in the spectrum of human experience.
It wasn’t that I’d lost a physical ability which I had to recover, but discovered a faculty which I had never known myself to have. When reflecting on the tremendous emotional effects this experience has had on me, I draw on lessons from my physical therapy to synthesize major themes and trials in my personal history. My pelvic pain became a springboard for the pursuit of personal growth. I didn’t even know all that I was missing.
Once a subject of shame, I now share my story freely. At times I cry for the many women before me who have lived and died, suffering from brokenness, aloneness, and hopelessness, because the taboo nature of this subject has prevented development of and access to treatment. Out of sharing I hope to find and impact any woman who sees herself somewhere in my story. The profound listening of those I’ve told so far inspires me to be vocal, to raise my voice above the censorship, and powerfully invite you to seek healing.