- Try not to intellectualise your bodily experiences (much too late for that)
- If you start dating again, you’re likely to unconsciously pick someone with erectile dysfunction (can I unknow this?)
- When you’re ready, try penetration but on your own (oh shit, here we go)
Those are the three nuggets of wisdom my sex therapist gave me when we finished our sessions together in the autumn. She made it clear to me that she expected to see me again, or that I would see another psychosexual counsellor at some point in the near future. I was being discharged a) because my sister’s Danish health insurance had dried up and b) because we’d hit something of a brick wall in terms of progress. My generalised pelvic pain had improved and I was beginning to handle the upsetting side effects of the pill, the only thing left to test was the penetrability of my vagina. The fun part, right?
I was in no rush to test this theory, partly because I was so encouraged by the way everything else had improved. Even in terms of vaginismus, we had come to the conclusion that any superficial, psychological pain and reaction I had was situational and secondary. We also agreed that I wasn’t ready to try penetration again. I was happy with the progress I’d made and while it was a really big deal to test the theory at some point, it was nice to live in the pain-free-ish, worry-free bliss for a little while. And it was worry-free. Until…
A letter arrived announcing the date of my next appointment with my gynaecologist. I knew exactly what it meant. If I went into that appointment and said “yep, all good, pain’s reduced, periods are lighter, plus I’m handling the acne and mood swings” that my gynae would say “job done” and discharge me – rightly so. Honestly, I felt ready to be discharged. But in the back of my mind, the deadline of this appointment deeply worried me. I needed to test the theory that everything was fixed. I could foresee how upsetting it would be to be discharged and only then discover the horrible deep pain during sex was still there, meaning that if I needed more gynaecological care I’d have to start again, again, again.
Despite the advice of my well-intentioned friends to ‘find a lad’ in order to test my internal mechanics, I knew exactly what to do, or at least, where to go. The Vaginismus Network has hosted a couple of its events at a Shoreditch sex shop called Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium that has proven itself to be deeply knowledgable about unwanted pain during sex. Months of avoiding this big ominous question but one letter had me on a bus to a sex shop after class. Whatever it takes, I guess.
Sh! hooked me up with a dilator set. These are specially designed vaginal trainers of different sizes, mostly used to treat vaginismus. While I wasn’t specifically treating vaginismus, I was advised that it was the best option for testing the water again, especially since I didn’t know if vaginismus was going to be part of the process or not.
I was so sure it was going to be alright, because (have I said it enough?) everything else had genuinely improved. So I tried the smaller two. No pain, no vaginismus. I stopped there for a week or so, but this really bolstered me. I had reached the dream articulated by Fran Bushe in Ad Libido, I had fixed sex.
And then I tried the third one.
Pain. Pain, pain, pain. Deep, cramping, breathtaking pain. Shortly and sharply followed by a different pain and resistance: vaginismus.
What’s worse, the deep pain didn’t go away. It was like I had just turned my pain back on again, all of it, like a switch. Two days later I vomited up my breakfast because of pain, something that hadn’t happened since I started the pill. And I hadn’t even tried the largest one yet.
Safe to say, I did. And it was agony and pretty upsetting. Not just for that moment but also because it was quite #triggering in ways I did not expect. I must have tried them for two, maybe three minutes. Not long at all. It just made me feel deeply disturbed, uncomfortable and worried by the fact I have had sex with that pain in the past.
As a bonus stroke of discomfort, I currently live with my parents. They were pretty aware of my situation and how much it had improved. So when I was suddenly in pain again I was really unsure how to mention, “oh I’ve been upstairs testing out my vag before I see the gynaecologist on Tuesday!” So I did the very rational thing of saying nothing, becoming a bit of a stroppy teenager and not being a very nice person to live with. Oops. Sorry, folks!
There are lots of things I hate about pain, but up at the top of the list is the exhaustion that comes with it. Whether it’s due to the cause of the pain itself or just by the toll being in pain takes, it sucks. I’ve found the masters draining and challenging, so adding some extra stress, pain and fatigue meant that by the end of term I just felt like a blob of matter floating around. Most of my diary entries from November and December start with “I am so tired,” “I’m fucking exhausted” “bloody exhausted” “you’d think I’d be used to exhaustion by now…” or various uncreative phrases of a similar ilk. I really thought it was just university, but my workload this semester is much bigger and yet I have had so much more energy and I wonder if it has a lot to do with my return to the regular use of painkillers and the fact I’ve stopped using the dilators for now.
I can’t tell you how much I’ve hesitated over writing this blog. At the LSE Gender Department there is a lot of talk of so-called Imposter Syndrome. I’ve certainly felt it there, but I’ve felt it in this respect too – how can I spend so much time writing about sex but feel uncomfortable discussing solo vaginal training? And yet I didn’t want to force myself to write about it. If I felt there was a new line being crossed then I was going to cross it slowly and thoughtfully. But I did want to cross it eventually. The rediscovery of this pain has opened up a whole load of new questions, like was my pain ever hormonal? Did the pill actually fix something or did my pain just improve because more time had passed since the last time I had penetrative sex? The other feeling of imposter syndrome came from the fact I had restarted the pain myself. Should I devalue this pain because I had unknowingly but voluntarily made it worse? These questions haven’t gone away and I think this part of the story is crucial if I’m going to tell the next part. And though it does continue on from the #Periodically blogs, which aren’t going anywhere, I’m going to do so under a new banner: Pleasure Moans.
This blog is already way too long so I’m going to end it here. It’s obviously not the end of this (never-ending) story. I didn’t want this post to be quite so depressing but it is what it is. I promise the second half of this ‘episode’ is more constructive and angry and funny. I’ll try to write it soon, rather than leaving it another four months, but I’m making no promises. Thank you as always for your support, kind words and patience!