Women's Health

Rhymes with Christmas

Here we go. I wanted to write about this when I was totally healed and good and there was a happy ending because I like happy endings. But, we’re going to go with a sort of content somewhere-in-the-middle.

I have a condition called Vaginismus. It rhymes with Christmas, but it’s not even close to joyful. There’s a lot to say, but I’m going to try and make this post a quick-ish rundown. Vaginismus is when the muscles in your pelvic floor are so tight, they can’t relax. Imagine having a clenched fist that you can’t unclench, because you’ve never known what it felt like to be unclenched. You can’t hold anything in it. It won’t open. Some treatments for Vaginismus recommend contracting and relaxing your muscles repeatedly. Mine was to the point where I couldn’t contract anymore and had to focus on just relaxing. When I tried to contract my eyebrows would go up, there just wasn’t anything left to contract.

So how do you learn to relax those muscles? In my experience, if you go to an OBGYN they yell at you, yes, literally yelled, “just relax, just relax!” …Which makes it really easy to relax. Or you go to another one that shakes his head, says, “Try relaxing” and prescribes you some anti-anxiety medicine. Or you go to a doctor who doesn’t believe what you’re saying is even true and that you’re just fine.

No tampons, nothing else can enter. When I was a thirteen-year-old girl trying to use tampons, I thought I was just an idiot who couldn’t find my vagina. No combination of mirrors and flashlights helped me find that elusive hole…Because essentially, it wasn’t there.

As you can imagine, it caused more problems as I got older and wanted other things to go in that elusive hole. Do not pass go, do not collect anything good or fun or convenient in your life.

Some people have less severe cases that result in painful sex. For me, it was just impossible. And also painful. The symptoms vary, but if you’re having pain know there are probably answers.

And the only reason I’m writing this now is because I think the best thing I can do is create awareness, even if it’s with my limited audience. I couldn’t find anything useful online. A lot more of, “just relax” and if you’re relaxed and in the mood enough, it’ll just work. Well, it didn’t work. There’s a lot of bad information out there.

My physical therapist put it best, I think, when she said, “I don’t care how ‘relaxed’ you are, I want you to get rid of all this tension.”

I did not know pelvic floor physical therapists were a thing. I went to a sex therapist because the general consensus is that it’s all in your head. She had the sense to send me to a PT to rule out the physical first. That’s when I started to get answers.

Side note: Vaginismus can be caused by trauma or shameful thoughts surrounding sex and many treatments involve a combination of mental and physical therapy. For my case, I found it was mostly physical. But usually, it’s a two-prong approach to treatment.

What is going to a pelvic physical therapist like? Slightly traumatizing and emotionally draining. But I love mine because she treated me like an old friend. Somehow, perhaps because the nature of her job is so awkward, she was able to joke around while her finger went where nothing had gone before. We’re talking internal physical therapy here. It’s a whole new ball game. She did massage on the outside as well. She said these tension problems contributed to/were connected to other problems I’ve had as long as I can remember, such as stomach issues, sore shoulders, tension headaches, etc. She told me I need to practice relaxing my ears and my butt cheeks. She asked me if I clenched my jaw. I said, no. The next week I paid attention and it turns out, yes, I definitely do. Aren’t bodies fascinating? Everything is connected.

The thing with the physical therapist was she only went as far as I was comfortable, then helped me relax, and the proceeded, then stopped. It was a much better experience than I had had with other doctors. A lot of times it seems like just forcing it or pushing through the pain is a solution, but your body will fight back against that, because its job is to protect you from painful things. I was annoyed with it, but it was just doing its job.

I’m writing this because I was too embarrassed to get help and as a result, I suffered too long and too much. I want girls to know that not being able to use a tampon might not just mean you’re geographically-biologically challenged. I want OBGYNs to recognize this as a possibility. Apparently, most aren’t trained in muscular-skeletal issues, but they are who most people go to first when they have vaginal issues. It may feel like there are no answers because you’re looking in the wrong place.

Women’s reproductive health is hard. It’s all up there. We can’t see it. Even supposed experts don’t seem to know much about it. There are answers out there but you have to dig to find them, but there are resources, for vaginismus at least, a lot of other pelvic floor disorders or sexual dysfunctions don’t even have names. Some people are in pain constantly. Some people can’t wear tight pants or stand up for long periods of time. It’s time to stop neglecting our pelvises. We’ve got a lot of work to do, research-wise. It’s the core of our body. It’s not just sexual health, it’s overall health. It affects women and the people who love them.

We won’t get into it now, but here’s a quick reminder about part of the reason we don’t know much about female sexual disorders: “PubMed has 393 clinical trials studying dyspareunia. Vaginismus? 10. Vulvodynia? 43. Erectile dysfunction? 1,954.” (This is a good article).

Once someone told me this thing had a name my Google searches got more productive. I cried as I read stories of people who had struggled with the same thing. I was/am far from alone. If you’re struggling with something similar, you are not alone. One group calls Vaginismus a “private pain.” It’s an area we have deemed private, but you do not have to suffer privately.

My first gynecologist appointment I was in pain for over a week after. People will say that’s normal. Or they won’t say anything at all.

It’s not normal. Pain is not normal.

It hurts your body. And it hurts your self-esteem.

Here’s someone else’s story that resonated with me:
“I always felt like I was damaged goods. I looked normal on the outside, but I didn’t feel worthy because I couldn’t do the most basic thing that everyone else could do. Because it’s not something that’s all over the newspapers, I just had no idea where to get help. I just blamed myself. If I was a guy, I’d know what was wrong. We all talk about their erectile problems; we know there are pills for it. When I hear couples say that they can’t have kids, I often wonder if this is why. It’s not something you can ask someone.
When you leave the office where I was treated, you’re given this little magical pink bag, which had our “homework” assignments in it. I remember in the waiting room, whenever I would see a woman come out with one, I’d wonder: Does she have what I have? But nobody would speak up. There was such a taboo around it even though it was clear we are all suffering from the same thing. I wonder if those other women wanted to talk to each other as much as I did.” (What It’s Like to Have Severe Vaginismus)

I’m done not talking about it. I’m no expert. But I can try and point you in the right direction if you need help.

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