One’s preference between tampons and pads is one of the many catty, teen girl gauges which separates the Cool from the Inexperienced. Cool girls can go swimming during their periods and not worry about anything falling out; they can wear white shorts without stressing about stains. Growing up, I obviously wanted to be that carefree girl, so there I was, 13 and bleeding profusely in the bathroom at my friend Julia’s house. She stood outside the door, becoming increasingly impatient as she coached me on: “Becca, look at the diagram! Do you feel the hole? Put your leg on the toilet and feel the hole!”
“It won’t go in!” I bawled, poking randomly at my crotch with the blood-soaked tampon––the cheap kind without an applicator. After about an hour of this emotional back and forth, I gave up and vowed to never try tampons again, until 11th grade, when I tried again with a plastic applicator. It went right in.
I never thought much about this event until my wedding night. My husband, Luke, and I were both virgins (we’ll get to this later) and insanely excited to finally have sex. We had driven to a nice hotel from the wedding venue; I had put on sexy underwear for a sexy night—and then, agony. I knew breaking your hymen was supposed to be painful, but was there supposed to be blood everywhere? Was I supposed to cry? He tried to go in several times, but it was so painful that we finally gave up.
Wasn’t your first time supposed to be sexy, like in Titanic? Over the course of our engagement, I had even read an Oprah Magazine-recommended book called The Guide to Getting it On to prepare for this hopefully orgasmic moment, but the guide had not instructed women what to do if your vagina was all but closed for business. I had been let down—by Leo DiCaprio, by Oprah.
Over the following week, every time we tried (emphasis on tried) having sex, the same thing happened. We eventually achieved penetration, but it left me bloody and throbbing afterwards. I talked with my other sexually active friends, and they assured me that it hurt at first, but as you stretched out down there, it would get better. Except it didn’t. After a week or so, I stopped bleeding, but it still felt like my vagina was being ripped in half with each thrust. Luke was very understanding and didn’t pressure me in any way, but I also wanted him to feel good. At the same time, however, I lost my libido almost entirely from so many continuously bad sexual experiences. My ability to satisfy and be satisfied hit rock bottom, and our sex life became almost non-existent.
Around this time, my friends and I had a bridal shower for one of the girls in our group. The rosé was flowing, and the conversation naturally turned to their sex lives. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to do some good, old-fashioned silent-bawling. Isn’t sex supposed to be one of the foundations of marriage? And what does it say about me that I can’t even enjoy it? Would our marriage crumble because of my inability to receive a dick?
I researched my symptoms at-length on WebMD and Reddit and thought maybe I had a prolonged yeast infection, which apparently could cause pain during intercourse. Then I read a bunch of internet articles and promptly diagnosed myself with vaginismus, which is when your body involuntarily clenches its pelvic muscles so penetration is either impossible or incredibly painful. I attempted self-treatment by buying my first-ever vibrator to help stretch out and relax my muscles, but it didn’t do a whole lot. We tried positioning a pillow under me during sex so the angle wasn’t so drastic. We tested different lube types and brands, which helped some but not enough to solve the problem. I also tried relaxing during penetration, but it was difficult when it felt like your pelvis was being used as a battering ram. I even bought kegel balls to help strengthen my muscles, but they hurt too much to insert and remove.
My path to eventual diagnosis and treatment was long and winding: I finally went to a gynecologist (for my first ever pap smear) to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with me anatomically speaking. After I never received the results of that pap due to disorganization from the doctor’s office, I went to a second gynecologist, who confirmed I was fine and that I just needed to keep at it, and that most girls are just tight at first anyway! But she also wrote me a referral to a physical therapist in downtown Manhattan for something called dyspareunia, which I discovered upon further googling is a blanket term for painful intercourse. While sex is virtually impossible with vaginismus, since your muscles involuntarily spasm, you can still do the nasty with dyspareunia––it just hurts like crazy. According to my doctor, I fell more into the dyspareunia camp, although they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive––both of these conditions can be the result of past trauma, such as sexual assault, but they can also be caused by vaginal dryness (which sometimes occurs after childbirth and during menopause), past surgeries, and the like. Or, frustratingly, they can simply be psychological.
I promised to follow up with the PT and then promptly didn’t call them for a year because I assumed it wouldn’t be possible for me to go for the prescribed twice a week for a month. And how was I supposed to explain these appointments to all of my male coworkers? MY VAGINA DOESN’T WORK I NEED TO FIX IT SO I’LL BE A BIT LATE THIS MORNING THANKS BOSS.
I’m sure some of this was psychological: Both Luke and I grew up in Christian households, which I don’t regret in any way––we are still practicing Christians––but sex was never talked about in my family. I knew you had it once you got married, and I knew it was to be avoided at all costs beforehand. In my youth groups I was always told, “Sex is a blast. It’s going to be so worth it to wait until marriage.” While I don’t regret waiting, I do wish I’d had more realistic expectations of the problems that could arise when I finally did have sex. Plus, it’s difficult to disentangle yourself from that abstinence-only mindset. It’s not like a switch––that as soon as you get married, sex is okay. That guilt and shame still lingers, sometimes for years.
After a year of procrastination, I finally sucked it up and called the physical therapy practice. I discovered that the clinic opened before my job started at 10 a.m., and they were only about five blocks from work, so I made a series of eight appointments at 9.
Like many medical offices in New York, the PT practice’s building looked like a legal firm from the street. My first appointment was scheduled for around 8:30 a.m. to allow time for the consultation and I was half-asleep and covered in sweat after power-walking around the Financial District, before I finally found what turned out to be a nondescript glass entrance with zero signage. I stepped nervously into a dead hallway from the elevator and spotted the practice’s name on the far wall and followed the hallway until a motion sensor doorbell assured me I’d arrived. “Uptown Funk” was playing from the receptionist’s computer, and surrounding the cramped waiting room were signs for mid-day yoga classes.
My PT ended up being an extremely nice, quiet woman whom I’ll call Sara. She explained that in our sessions we would be using a series of different-sized dilators to gradually stretch and strengthen my pelvic floor. We’d also be utilizing meditation and breathing exercises to relax my muscles.
The first thing Sara did after talking through my situation was put on a pair of surgical gloves, squirt some lube onto her index finger and state, “I’m going to work internally.” This turned out to be medical code for: “I’m going to finger you now.” It was super awkward at first, but just like getting a pap smear or breast exam, I got used to this invasion of privacy pretty quickly. She went around inside and told me to rate my pain at different trigger points on a scale of 1-10. I think I went up to six or seven that first day.
On top of my $25-per-session copay, I was told that I had to buy a cord with a doo-dad on the end that, once inserted into my vagina, was connected to a ThinkPad that I think my dad owned in the early 2000s. What looked like a Beta program (but turned out to be extremely effective) would monitor my muscle activity and show me how much––or in my case, how little––my muscles were contracting and relaxing. This biofeedback monitor cost about $150. I also had to buy the dilators, which cost $15 each. The prices were a bummer, but the devices are mine to keep, if anyone wants to borrow them (they’re cleaned after each use––promise!).
Sara next handed me the biofeedback monitor to insert, and I contracted and relaxed my pelvic floor muscles (essentially kegels), while I watched the levels go slightly up and down on the ThinkPad screen. It felt like getting an ultrasound, and the test ultimately revealed that I was to give birth to a monster of vaginal muscular dystrophy. Sara explained that my muscles were both extremely weak and extremely tight––the duplicitous duo! This was bad, and we wanted the exact opposite.
After each session, she would hand me back my new lube-slicked dilators and biofeedback monitor covered in paper towel, and I’d go down the hallway to the public bathroom to wash them off. I may as well have had a sign on my back that said, YES, IT’S TRUE: I CAN’T HAVE THE SEX. Sometimes I would pass another, generally older woman on the way, and we’d glance surreptitiously at each other, clutching our secrets. “What is this 23-year-old child doing here?” I pictured them thinking. “What could be wrong with her?” Afterwards, I would put the monitor in a Ziploc bag and return to the office, placing it in a basket with all of the other patients’.
At home each night, I was supposed to do kegels with whatever-sized dilator we were on and relax my muscles with a meditation app, except a fun thing about me is that I get distracted very easily. I tried to chill out and breathe slowly––I really did––but my mind wouldn’t cooperate. So each session, whenever Sara asked if I’d done the relaxation exercises, I would respond sheepishly that I’d tried. Sara tried to give me visuals to help, like, “Picture your vagina opening like a flower as you breathe out.”
After about two weeks of sessions, we moved up from a small-sized dilator to a medium. I winced as she tried and failed to insert the medium one into my clenched pelvis. We would be going up to XL but they could make custom sizes larger than that if necessary “to meet the patients’ partners’ needs,” she said, choosing her words very carefully.
During one appointment, Sara discovered that most of my pain occurred at the entrance during initial penetration. This was our most painful session, as she proceeded to manually stretch the lids of my vagina with her fingers. I rated that about a seven, and she later admitted that she couldn’t remember a patient ever reaching 10. My crotch stung as I walked out of the office, wondering how in the world women enjoyed the sensation of something ramming repeatedly into their secret places.
That was three months ago. Today, sex is definitely better, but it still hurts some––I’d rate it a three. I know it will improve if I keep using the dilator and remember to relax. My next goal is to somehow revive my sorely injured libido, and I think that will have to come slowly, once my mind discovers that sex doesn’t feel awful anymore.
But I can also count myself lucky. A few days ago, I lay on my PT’s exam table, watching the monitor go up and down, much more drastically than it had before. I realized I felt strong, and so did my pelvic floor.
Rebecca Patton lives in Queens but grew up in Papua New Guinea. She fills her days with podcasts, corgi Instagram accounts and the pop culture she missed while overseas.