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I could never use tampons. People said I was doing it wrong, that I needed to relax, that I needed to “push back, not up!” I was embarrassed. It hurt. I didn’t know why it hurt, why I couldn’t do it right.
I had my first period at age 11 and it was, to say the least, an explosive experience. I got my period on an Enterprise rental car bus at the Orlando airport and there was a lot of blood. I mean, a LOT of blood (two pairs of shorts worth, six pads’ worth, endless trauma’s worth). My pediatrician at the time said really heavy first periods were occasionally normal, not to worry, just get on with life.
My periods basically normalized after that. One by one, my friends started menstruating, using tampons. I kept trying to use tampons but it was like I hit a wall, an excruciatingly painful wall, every time. My mom, a nurse, said she’d take a look at me, but there was no way my middle-school self was letting anyone look at my vagina. Everyone said I probably was just tight up there and would loosen with time.
Then, when I was 14, I had my first boyfriend. We held hands through alleyways, dry-humped in stairwells, declared our undying love over a soundtrack of Green Day and my always-crinkling Always pads. We decided to have sex for the first time on the last day of freshman year. It…didn’t work. It hurt like hell but there was no blood and no pop and nothing happened, really. I put my pants back on and we decided we’d try again another time.
I had several other boyfriends after that and we messed around a lot and I have no idea what they must have thought when they fingered me. Maybe they didn’t know any better than I did; we were just drunk kids heavy-breathing in the backseats of Volvos or rolling in a field behind the middle school. When they touched me, it didn’t hurt as much as it used to, but I still felt a blockage. As I got a little older, I started to think there was something actually wrong with me.
I Googled “can’t use tampons” one day and became convinced I had an imperforate hymen. Finally, when I was 17, I decided to make a gynecologist appointment. I wanted to see the physician’s assistant in the office, because she was female and I felt weird about letting my mom’s middle-aged male doctor look between my legs.
The PA tried to insert the speculum, stood up, and said, “I need to go get the doctor.” I laid with my feet in the stirrups after the PA left the room, staring at the ceiling. I knew it. I had known it.
The gynecologist came in, a tiny Indian man with haphazard hair and a huge, reassuring smile. He took a look. The diagnosis: imperforate hymen, a condition present in 1-2% of women. Suddenly it all made sense: the bloody mess on the bus in Florida, the terrible pain when I tried to insert a tampon or have sex. Dr. Singh made it seem like the simplest problem in the world: “We’ll just cut it right out, you’ll be fine! Imagine not being able to use tampons, terrible. Pads like diapers! I’ll fix you right up.” He said he thought that, at some point before my first period, a tiny hole had been made in my hymen, allowing me to menstruate (and making my hymen technically microperforate). If that hadn’t happened, the blood from my periods could have accumulated inside of me, causing all sorts of problems ranging from endometriosis to infection.
My mom remembered taking me to the pediatrician when I was a baby and asking the doctor why my hymen seemed so large and thick; that pediatrician dismissed her concerns. Dr. Singh said that an imperforate hymen was an issue that should have been diagnosed in the delivery room when I was born; he couldn’t believe I’d made it to age 17, menstruating for six years, with an imperforate hymen.
On the day of the hymenectomy, I sat down in the pre-op room with the gynecologist. He drew a little picture on a napkin of what he would be doing to my vagina. “I’ll make it look pretty, like a sun!” he said. I said that I didn’t really care what it looked like, just as long as it worked normally. There were several medical residents watching the surgery, because they explained to me that a hymenectomy was so rare they’d probably never get another chance to see one. I just nodded and laid down in my paper robe. I woke up with a little blood in my underwear; it flowed for a day or so. I used a tampon for the first time a week later when I got my period.
I’ve menstruated normally ever since the surgery: I have sex without problems or pain, I use tampons without problems or pain. Sometimes I wake up in the night in a hot sweat, convinced that those 17 years of the superhymen have somehow made me infertile. It’s unlikely, but it’s in the back of my mind, especially as I get closer to the age where I want to get pregnant.
I joke that I lost my virginity three times. Once, to that first boyfriend, fumbling on a mattress in a basement on a hot June night. Second, to my gynecologist’s scalpel. And third, with the boyfriend I had after the surgery, a fast and tender fuck high above the streets of New York. People usually wince and laugh, half nervously and half genuinely, but I don’t mind talking about my imperforate hymen. It’s too strange and serious an experience to go unspoken, too surreal not to have a sense of humor about.