It all began with adolescent me, a bathroom and a box of tampons. After hearing my friends laud the various desirable qualities of tampons (so discrete, so grown-up, so easy!) and lament the years they had spent wearing pads, I decided to try them for myself. They seemed to be the height of sanitary sophistication. As my friends had said, “Pads are good for when you start. But tampons are just so much better.” That settled it then. I would be a real woman, marked by my transition from pads (the apparent training wheels of sanitary products) to tampons, those ultra-chic, ultra-sophisticated, mysterious bullet-like things I had first encountered in my mum’s purse as a child. Well, mystery no more! I was about to take my relationship with tampons to a very intimate place.
I triumphantly put the box on the bathroom bench and unwrapped one. I positioned myself and felt around a little bit, just to make sure I knew exactly where to put it and the right angle. Confident, I attempted to push it in and…nothing. It was like there was no hole down there at all; just some tender and sore spot that hurt when I pressed against it. Slightly perturbed but still determined to make the transition, I tried again, remembering my friends’ cautioning that it could be a little tricky the first time, but once you got it, it should just slip right in.
I tried again. Nothing but a slight burning and uncomfortable sensation. Whispers of doubt began curling through my mind: Why can’t you do this? All your friends can stick a piece of cotton up their lady parts, why can’t you? There must be something wrong…
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After a frustrated hour, I threw the whole box in the bin. Keeping them would only have felt like a mockery to myself and what I now believed to be my abnormal vagina.
I returned to using pads and promptly tried to forget the whole humiliating ordeal.
A few years later, I found myself sitting on an examination table, feet in stirrups. After letting slip to my GP that I had never successfully inserted a tampon and had never had penetrative sex, she referred me to a specialist.
The gynaecologist came in to the curtained off area.
“Now, I’m just going to look, ok?”
She sat down, her head between by feet.
“Just part your legs for me.”
I didn’t even realise that I had been pressing my knees together.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, prying them apart, bracing for the discomfort.
It didn’t come. Well, not until she held up a q-tip and said, “I’m just going to insert this ok?”
I nodded, even while my body began to tighten and clench like some human sized fist. The discomfort wasn’t unbearable, but it was far from pleasant. In my head I was berating myself. It’s just a fucking q-tip, not a flaming hot poker. Why was I struggling so much?
“Is that uncomfortable?”
The word vaginismus didn't pass through either of our lips that day. I had read about it, but refused to apply it to myself. Not yet, at least. The gynaecologist suggested it was just “sexual or pelvic pain” and recommended I see a physio.
I didn’t follow it up. I thought that if I just went about daily life, it might just go away. Maybe I didn’t have vaginismus. Maybe I could just keep going on living my life as normal and whatever was going on down there might sort itself out.
A few months later, I found myself in bed with a guy. I liked him and I trusted him. We’d fooled around a bit before and I felt comfortable. I felt ready. All my friends had participated in this act, just like they’d all inserted tampons back in high school. Now it was my turn. Sure, the whole tampon thing hadn’t worked out so great, but this was different. This was sex. Everyone did this. It was natural, normal. And it was finally my turn.
All that excitement vanished within minutes of our first attempt.
The guy in question seemed bewildered, puzzled. At what point he even said, ‘Am I close?’ I wanted to laugh but instead feigned my own bewilderment and shook my head.
Boom. Access denied.
After a brief intermission, energy and hope renewed, we tried again. My vagina defiantly stomped its foot and shook its head, ‘Nuh-uh. Closed for business.’ This time, there was no shared puzzlement, no brushing it off to ‘Oh, it was just the first time.’ I found myself wishing that my vagina were as simple a contraption as the cave encountered by Ali Baba in One Thousand and One Nights and all it would take was a simple command of “Open Sesame” to let him in.
After, he lay on his stomach, cupping his chin in his hand, looking concerned and no doubt trying to figure out what was going on. I sat up, hugging my knees to my chest, fighting back tears of frustration as I confronted the truth I had tried to deny for so long; maybe I did have vaginismus. Those earlier whisperings of failure that had crept in during my teen years dialled up and began roaring in my head: You’re such a freak. You can’t even have sex. There’s something wrong with you.
A few weeks later, I confronted the truth. I made an appointment with the physiotherapist, who confirmed the hypothesis I had developed and then denied cyclically over the years: I had vaginismus. I didn't feel surprised. If anything, I felt relieved: Especially when she said, “I see so many young girls dealing with this.”
Even though she said 9 words, I only heard 4: “You are not alone.”
Those whisperings, shoutings, roarings of failure began to fade underneath a quiet chorus of hope.
A few days later, I told a few close friends about my diagnosis. My confession was met with a mixture of innocent bewilderment, curiosity and, above all, empathy. What I had thought of previously as my biggest failure, my own personal defect, was suddenly not so frightening. It was an issue I had, and, more importantly, an issue I was doing my best to deal with. The most warming response was from a friend who praised me for being so open, for talking about it so honestly.
“It’s so amazing that you’re talking about this and doing something about this,” she said.
As I continue to deal with my condition, I can only hope that that initial chorus of hope that began when I realised I was not alone, buoyed by the support of my friends, family and team of health professionals, will continue to get louder, until those whisperings of failure eventually dissolve.
Shout out to all Dads.
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