I Didn't Know It At The Time

Having sex felt like being set on fire. Speculums and tampons weren’t much better, just enough to singe the ends of your hair when you stand too close, but sex burned throughout my entire body. The hottest part of the flame isn’t that small center of blue, it’s the white that blinds you when the arsonist keeps trying to ignite burnt remains.

We’re taught that it’s supposed to burn, that we’re supposed to bleed, that it hurts and that we’re supposed to be quiet anyway. That initial pain faded for most people, but it didn’t for me, it raged on, violently.

I thought that having more sex was a way to fix painful sex. Actually, that’s a lie; I thought that having more sex, even if it was painful, was a way to fix myself.I let half a dozen men strike matches to my body thinking that if I could burn bright enough for them then maybe I would be enough, as a girlfriend, as a woman, as a human, as anything. Some would temporarily soothe me with white foam, an attempt to be the hero, then they would set my body ablaze again and again until force was no longer pleasurable to them.

I fell in love with every single man who crossed my path from the age of 14 because I was desperate to be loved, to believe that I could be loved. I always had to be with someone, it didn’t even matter who, just someone, anyone. The men who were way too old for me, the boys who only cared about drugs, the charming guy you meet your freshman year of college who turns out to be the closest thing to a psychopath you have ever met.

That desperation allowed me not only to fall in love at the drop of a hat, but to convince myself that someone I loved wouldn’t cause harm to my body, that someone who said they loved me in return wouldn’t cause harm to my body. But that continuous brutalization on my body and soul ground me into the finest ash whose particles filtered out of the room to be anywhere else.

But I didn’t know any of that at the time; harm being a word I never would have even thought of using, brutalization not even in the vocabulary of my teenage self. What I did know was that at 20 years old the boy I loved more severely than the rest was at risk of leaving even while he held my wrists together behind my back while I sat in silence on his lap with my face buried into his shoulder half wondering if it would go faster if I suffocated myself into the pillow underneath his hair. I had to make sure he didn’t.

On my 21st birthday, I nearly passed out from my first pap smear appointment.While situating myself on the table, I told the doctor that I wanted to discuss painful sex. He said we could after my exam, put objects inside me that made my vision pure white, and said to come to his office after I got dressed. I had to sit down between putting articles of clothing back on because I was still lightheaded, but slowly made my way to his office where he told me that I should pump my body with absurd amounts of ibuprofen every time I wanted to have sex. He had no interest in keeping me as a patient, so he sent me on my way with a business card for a pelvic pain specialist.

A month later, I am telling a man old enough to be my grandfather that it hurts when I have sex and he is prodding between my legs while I am shaking with tears and snaps off his white gloves and tells me that I have very severe vaginismus and vestibulodynia. What the fuck is that? He sends me on my way with a pamphlet that had a diagram of labia being pulled apart by metal clamps with surgical scissors cutting out tissue around the opening of the vagina and told me he wouldn’t treat me unless I was prescribed a benzodiazepine.

I hid that pamphlet from my boyfriend, X, and got intimately acquainted with my brand new sexual dysfunctions. Vaginismus, I found out, is the term for when the muscles in the vagina involuntary spasm and contract so fiercely that it makes penetration extremely painful and sometimes altogether impossible. Vestibulodynia, the evil step sister, is chronic pain, nerve damage, and/or inflammation in the opening of the vagina. At least I knew the things I were experiencing had a name now.

I was never told how or why I developed vestibulodynia and vaginismus, only that they were delegated to the “primary” category for me, meaning that I was essentially born with them, like they were innate in my body. What I did learn, however, was that continual sexual pain only reinforced and exacerbated the defense mechanisms of contracting the vaginal muscles. Every time I tried to have sex it only made trying to have sex even harder, but I was not at a place where I had the luxury to stop trying.

Much to X’s approval, I started treatment for my conditions on a quest to be able to have pain free sex. Not for me, of course, but for him. I hit the ground running with the doctor recommended “conservative management” treatments which included vaginal relaxation techniques, ointments, calcium tablets, antihistamines, and prescription anti-convulsant creams. None of those worked, so I tried it my own way.

I bought every single type of condom imaginable; I bought organic lube, CBD lube, CBD oils, CBD pills, anything I could get my hands on that was supposed to help with “better” and “pain free” sex. The only thing that remotely worked was anal lube that I had bought for vaginal sex because it had lidocaine in it. It made sex bearable simply because I could hardly feel anything. That worked a few times, until the hurt became acclimated to the numbness and sparks of pain crept back into my body. I bought a $200 set of silicone dilators to try and stretch my vagina out but couldn’t get the one the size of my pinky inside without recoiling into the fetal position and crying.

X’s efforts were limited to insisting we have sex without a condom.

The next step in my thus failing treatment was platelet-rich plasma therapy, a procedure where I had to get my own blood drawn and injected back into my vagina over the course of three monthly sessions.

I show up to the first appointment alone early in the morning and take twice the recommended dose of my benzodiazepines, as I’m sure anyone with severe anxiety who was about to get needles shoved in their vagina would. I begin to rock side to side in a daze while the nurse instructs me to get undressed from the waist down and then begins to draw my blood into what appears to be a water bottle sized container. The nurse leaves to put my blood in a centrifuge to separate the plasma and returns with the doctor shortly after to me curled up in the fetal position on the chair crying and struggling to breathe.

The doctor, who had once before deemed me his worst patient in terms of anxiety, horrendously tries to calm me down enough to where I open my legs for him to put lidocaine cream on the outer portion of my vagina. The doctor and nurse leave the room for an hour while I watch myself bleed through the gauze on my arm and wonder why X hadn’t texted me yet.

The pair come back with tubes of my blood and the doctor sheathes on his white gloves and begins to inject me with lidocaine around the opening of my vagina, hitting each point like hours on a clock. I can only remember my body during this as if it’s floating naked in an all white space with no doors or windows, no walls or corners or ceiling or floors, just white. I cannot feel anything other than precise stabs into the opening between my legs that feel like they will never end until my entire body goes cold and numb suspended in that purgatory.

Heat returns to my body when the doctor places smelling salts under my nose and I jolt up as if just awoken from the dead with the nurse holding a fan to cool the flush across my face. I manage to get dressed and walk to my car, but I don’t remember a single thing after that until I wake up in bed with my glasses still on the next morning. I repeated this two more times, forgoing the smelling salts thankfully, but that pain stayed the same. X never came to any of the procedures with me, and I now couldn’t even be touched between the legs without feeling like I was being burned alive.

I thought once I knew the name of my affliction things were going to get easier, that my treatments would be as simple as drinking cold medicine to stop a sore throat or healing a broken bone protected behind a hard cast. I hadn’t really considered the effects of how invasive my treatments and procedures were; not physically, I was well aware of that, but mentally. For the ten months between being diagnosed and my last round of plasma injections I didn’t feel like a human, let alone a woman. Most days I felt like the frog in a science classroom with unskilled yet heavy handed high schoolers poking, prodding, and slicing across my flesh.

I stopped wanting X to touch me altogether. Even the simplest of gestures or softest of touches made me want to recoil and tense up for the anticipation of pain. My body was hot to the touch, but X’s hands and fingers and lips didn’t burn him upon contact, only scarred me deeper. I had to become cold to him to protect myself.

I think X thought my recovery would be instantaneous after my last procedure; that we would be able have sex again, that he would be able to touch and caress my body again, that we could lay around naked and have small talk again, that we could shower together again, that we could be a couple again. I imagine he missed that connection with me, eagerly awaiting the days it appeared I was practically throwing myself at him.

But my recovery wasn’t like that; X stopped telling me he loved me and broke up with me on my 22nd birthday because I still wasn’t able to have sex. The world comes to a halt for a moment and begins to flow again when I spill out gasoline from my veins and become engulfed in flames when I speed down the Pike at night with my eyes closed. I spend two weeks in the psychiatric hospital where I learn that my need for validation had only ever been a form of self-harm and that I had never once considered treating health issues for the sake of anything but keeping my relationships intact.

But I didn’t know that when I wrote this in my notes app a month after X broke up with me and a month before I end up in the ward:

i was trying to be more comfortable with other sex stuff and the next time we saw each other i was going to suggest trying intercrural sex (which if you don’t know what that is it’s okay because i didn’t either until recently) it’s basically using the thighs as a receptacle for sex, so it’s non penetrative. i didn’t want to do it, just thinking about it made me feel embarrassed, but if it made him happy i was willing. just like with period sex, or positions from behind

when we broke up x told me “every time we’ve been intimate since not having [penetrative]sex anymore, it always feels like you don’t want to be doing it, like you’re doing me a favor”

he was right, of course, and i guess i know that he truly did love me at some point because he’s the first guy that’s been able to see through me and figure out that that’s what i’ve been doing my whole life

X told me he knew that I didn’t want to be having sex yet continued to have sex with me anyways. I attributed that to love, I was happy that he knew me well enough to figure that out. It took me a while to realize that it was not a positive thing, and that understanding made me want to burn my flesh off under scalding water.

I don’t know how to exist as a sexual being for myself. Everything I have ever done sexually has been to please another person. Even when I’m on the receiving end I’m usually doing it to make a man happy or to try and force myself into the habit of doing it so I’ll end up liking it. That never really worked.

I would say about 90% of all sexual situations I had ever been in were involuntarily voluntary, meaning I consented to the encounter but did so out of fear and want. Want for a guy to like me, to stay with me. Fear of them leaving me. There have been times of course where I have sought out sexual pleasure for the sake of sexual pleasure and times where I had enjoyable experiences, but more often than not, that was not the case.

With that being said, I was the one emotionally manipulating myself into having sex. Sure, there are some other problematic circumstances surrounding some of my partners, but if we just ignore all that for a second, I can’t blame these people for having sex with me when they had no idea I was mentally and physical forcing myself to. I was good at pretending, disguising the pain, putting on a mask to make myself seem as desirable as possible. Men on the other hand are stupid and will take anything given to them sexually on a silver platter. I can’t blame most of them.

X, however, I can blame him.

The realization that he knew broke something in me so severely, shattered me on a level I didn’t know was physically possible. It was one thing for men to be dense enough to not catch on, but it was another for someone who claimed to love me, claimed to have my best interest at heart see right through me, and still have sex with me.

I don’t think X himself understood the implications of what he was saying when he told me that when we were sexually intimate it felt like I didn’t want to be doing it. I think he also thought that came from a place of love, of knowing me, he wouldn’t have said it so sincerely otherwise. And maybe that’s why I’ll try to humanize him to ration with his behavior; that he was just a naïve boy who was failed as much as I was with a lack of sexual education growing up. That I never said “no” or “stop” out loud so he thought he had full consent. That he loved me so he never meant to do anything to hurt me.

But aside from the fact he knew me well enough to catch on, he still didn’t stop what he was doing, and maybe that’s why I’ll try to demonize him to ration with my own hurt; that he was a man who never stopped to question the systems that only defined sex as penetrative and dominating and for his pleasure. That he clearly saw my strained body language and lack of enthusiasm when my mask broke and disregarded it so he could still get off. That he used loving me as an excuse to believe he would never hurt me.

Neither option has gotten me much further in feeling better.

I didn’t know I was lying to myself about the others not having caught on at the time, but I did know that it wasn’t as simple as forcing myself to have sex, but that I was forcibly removing myself from my body in order to have sex. My actual self was not able to handle the things that came with sex:the physical pain from my conditions, the anxiety from knowing it was going to be painful, the fear that if I didn’t submit they were going to leave me, the fear that I had no worth as a person or as a partner if I was not capable of having sex. My mind would vacate my body and leave behind a created consciousness that I deemed fit for what that sexual situation demanded. I can’t tell you where she went, but she was not in that room.

I can’t recount majority of the sexual situations I’ve been in. Having sex for me was comparable to the times I’ve been put under anesthesia. In my case, you’re naked from the waist down, mostly aware of what’s going on, then someone painfully jabs something inside of your body, you become unconscious for awhile and then wake up sore with no memory of what happened. When I can remember, it’s like I’m standing outside of my body watching a limp, lifeless, faceless version of myself lying on their back with someone on top of them.

I found out while at the psychiatric hospital that there’s names for all of that.

Dissociation is a general term that refers to disconnecting from one’s own feelings, thoughts, memories, sense of identity, or environment. Depersonalization and derealization stem from that and involve, respectively, feeling like you’re detached from your own body, mind, and feelings, like you’re watching your life from an outside perspective, and feeling detached from your surroundings. These things are coping mechanisms that engage when we are faced with trauma, stress, or fears we are unable to deal with. At least I knew the things I were experiencing had a name now, again.

But removing your entire consciousness from something can only do so much in terms of the remaining physical sensations. I cannot remember most of my sexual encounters, but I still remember the pain. I can remember the pain from the time I tried to lose my virginity, and the time that followed, and the time that followed, and the time that followed like a feedback loop spiraling so fast it starts to smoke on the track.

During the second week of my treatment, I was allowed to miss an hour in the morning for an annual gynecologist appointment with a new doctor that I don’t even know why I bothered keeping seeing as I wasn’t going to be having a pelvic exam. I knew it didn’t hurt to have my breasts checked at least. I explained my issues to the doctor and she thankfully didn’t try to pressure me into any vaginal exam, but on the way out handed me some resources for treatments and more specialists, including the second scariest pamphlet I’ve ever received from a doctor’s office with the title:

Now Offering Sedation Gynecology!

That phrase made me feel nauseous; it made me feel faint and panicky because that’s really what my life had come to, needing to be sedated for a simple pelvic exam, to be rendered unconscious during penetration not just mentally but now physically. I flash backed to the scariest pamphlet I’d ever received, the first I got for my treatment options, the one with the clamps pulling the labia like it was on some medieval torture device and steel scissors cutting out vaginal tissue. I had been tormented by the possibility of that becoming my reality for months on end; every time another medication or DIY method failed the cloud above my head grew bigger, and when I tried the smallest dilator again after the injections the darkness was enough to overshadow the white I saw when the silicone attempted to penetrate my body. I never told X about this treatment option, a surgery called a vestibulectomy, because I was terrified he would ask me to have it done, and I was terrified because I knew I would have.

When it appeared that the injections had been unsuccessful (meaning there had not even been enough time to tell if they would have worked) X asked me how I felt about it. I told him, “Honestly? I’m more upset for you than I am for myself.”I cared more about X being able to have sex with my body than I cared about my body, more than I cared about myself.

Whenever people found out that I wasn’t able to have sex they always asked me how my boyfriend felt about it, they never asked how I felt about it. I would tell them things like, “He’s really great with it, he tells me he loves the sex we have and that he cares about me and has been great helping me with my treatments.” I don’t know who I was trying to convince more at the time.

I would grin and bear it when they tell me that I must be really good at giving head to have kept him around for so long without what they considered sex. I would keep a polite smile on my face when they would tell me he would probably never want to marry me. I knew all of this, I knew all of this from the beginning.

But the thing is, even if they did ask how I felt, I don’t know what I would have said. I made my own feelings on the matter irrelevant; I only ever did what X wanted or what I thought he wanted because he never told me any different. EverythingI was doing on my quest to have sex was for X. Every pill, every procedure, every drop of blood, every single tear, everything I had ever done was always for X, it always had been.

It was confusing adjusting to a world where that was no longer the case, but on the drive back to treatment I realized something: I don’t have to do that anymore.

I don’t have to do anything for anyone anymore, I could finally do what I wanted, which was not wanting anything at all. I didn’t want the surgery. I didn’t want to try anymore treatments. I didn’t want to go to the gynecologist, I didn’t want to drive three hours for a pelvic specialist. I didn’t want to try sexual positions that made me feel degraded. I didn’t want to spend money on fancy lube and condoms and have to buy new underwear because the stains from greasy ointments stopped coming out in the wash. I didn’t want the fucking surgery.

I knew now that I had never once tried to get better for my own sake, that I hinged a full recovery on being able to have a vagina that could accommodate a penis being jackhammered inside of it. And I knew now the best thing I could try to get better was taking the time to not try at all, because I didn’t trust myself enough yet to believe I would only try and heal my broken body for myself and not for the sake of a relationship, but I knew maybe someday I would get there.

I still didn’t know what I wanted for myself, but I knew at least what I didn’t. 

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