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I realized something was wrong a few weeks after I started having sex, around the time when Kelly Clarkson was crowned America’s first Idol.
Losing my virginity was painful, but I fully expected it to be. The problem became apparent when the pain didn’t seem to get better over time, even after lots of practice. I moaned through it, which only worked because my “I’m in pain” moan apparently sounded identical to my “Oh my God, that feels amazing” moan, or I was just a good actor. I don’t know.
Either way, I didn’t mention the pain to my boyfriend and took the ignore-it-until-it-hopefully-goes-away approach, popularized by cranky old men everywhere (and also silly teenagers who are easily embarrassed).
At first, the pain was easy to dismiss because high school sex lasted all of 35 seconds, so I just had to close my eyes and be like, “Oh yeah, that feels awesome” and it would be over before I knew it. The pain was also difficult to pinpoint. I could tell that the soreness was somewhere around my vaginal opening, but unfortunately the nerve endings in the vagina aren’t that helpful -- it would be like a visually impaired person trying to use the North Star to navigate a labyrinth…underground…where no one can hear you scream.
Sometimes the pain was mild and I could almost completely ignore it, but other times it was excruciating. My denial encouraged me to indulge various theories to explain the pain, including “The Conspiracy Theory” (i.e., maybe sex is really painful for all women and we all just fake it to make men happy) and my favorite and my personal favorite, the “It’s My Fault” (i.e., I’m doing it wrong; I just need to relax).
My exams and pap smears always came back normal, so I felt justified in doing absolutely nothing about it for several years.
At 22, I got engaged to my now husband and finally felt safe enough to admit that maybe something was wrong and maybe it could be fixed. I went to see my gynecologist and tried to explain my broken vagina. During the exam, she pushed on a section of my vulva and asked, “Is this where it hurts?”
I yelped. “Yes! That’s it!” She explained that there was a tiny flap of tenacious hymen that had never gone away (henceforth, “nub”) and would become sore during intercourse.
It turns out that the guy who helped me lose my virginity maybe didn’t do such a good job and I was left with this remaining tag of skin with lots of pain receptors because God hates women. (Just to be fair, it’s much more likely that my hymen broke way before my first sexual encounter, but it’s more fun to blame the high school boyfriend than my innocent childhood bike. It had tassels!)
But there was an explanation, and even a potential solution. I left the gynecologist’s office in full happy tears ugly-cry.
I had two options: undergo physical therapy or have the nub surgically removed. I chose physical therapy, envisioning some sort of pleasant gym that would involve bouncing on those fun exercise balls and maybe practicing my Kegels while eating pastries or something. I didn’t rule out surgery, but the thought of signing on for more vaginal torture didn’t sound like an awesome first plan of attack.
I dressed in layers for my first appointment. I had no idea what I was in for and, when in doubt, my mom always told me to dress in layers. The receptionist led me to a closet-sized room in the back of my regular gynecologist’s office with macro photographs of flowers adorning the walls, furnished only with a small desk two chairs.
Sitting behind the desk was “Marsha,” the vagina magician who would spend the next few months becoming familiarly acquainted with my lady parts. The first thing I noticed about Marsha, aside from her gentle Wisconsin accent, was her outfit. She wasn’t in a lab coat or scrubs or any of the things you would expect to find a health practitioner wearing. She wore mom jeans, sensible sneakers, and a different pink top every time I saw her and always smelled like baby powder and lavender.
After a brief chat about the nub, Marsha gave me some books about Vaginismus (Note: Not the name of a terrifying H.P. Lovecraft monster, but a legitimate medical term for vaginal pain and tightness; henceforth, “VaginaMonster”),
Marsha led me into the room where the actual physical therapy would take place. She explained that it was possible the nub could be causing all of my problems, but it was more likely that the pain was the result of my pelvic floor muscles clenching up as a learned response, thus increasing the magnitude of the pain from annoying to unbearable.
Aside from some dim lighting, aromatherapy, and frilly pillows, the room looked just like a regular gynecological exam room (i.e., no pastries). The primary therapeutic tool was this set of dilators, ranging in diameter from Pencil to Giant Erection.
Marsha had me remove my clothing from the waist down, turned me on my side on the exam table, and proceeded to attach electrodes to my inner thighs. The electrodes attached to wires and the wires plugged into a monitor that displayed my pelvic floor activity, which holds a top-ten spot in my list of the most fascinating things I’ve ever watched, right under "Breaking Bad." I wish I could afford one for home.
Marsha would leave the room and the monitor would show a flat-line of my pelvic floor activity, but the second she’d enter and I’d spot her gloved hand grasping a lubed up dilator, the line would spike way up as my poor vagina tried to prepare for blockade.
I quickly realized that my pride had no place in this weirdly feminine little room. Marsha entered and exited my vagina with all the grandiosity of a mailman on his daily route. She would have a hand in my vagina and we’d be casually discussing coverage issues with our respective wireless carriers or that week’s episode of "Lost."
When the first session came to an end, Marsha handed me a baggie containing the electrodes and wires that had tethered my ass to the monitor and reminded me to bring them to every session. I kept them in my glove box and was in constant fear that a friend would discover them and I’d have to be like, “Oh, don’t mind those. They’re just my vagina wires.”
I didn’t feel any physically different after the first session, but I felt a lot of hope. Taking the stigma away from the pain and removing the respect it demanded was hugely empowering. I set up weekly appointments with Marsha and dutifully read my VaginaMonster books and practiced with the dilators at home.
Every week or two, Marsha would graduate me to a larger sized dilator covered in a metric ton of lubricant, which was always at the ready in this crazy lube warmer contraption (another wonderful thing that I would like to own).
Each time we sized up, my pelvic floor muscles would panic and my vagina would be like NOPE, but we’d work through it until I figured out a way to connect my brain to those muscles to pep talk them into chilling out.
Several months later, when I was comfortable with the largest dilator (the Giant Erection-sized one), Marsha and I said our goodbyes. I continued our work on my own. Sex with my fiancé started to slowly become enjoyable.
At first, I had to engage in a really unsexy routine before intercourse, which involved pre-exercising my vagina with my at-home set of dilators, but my method worked. I finally started to understand why sex was kind of popular among human beings and it wasn’t just a liberal conspiracy.
Over time, I had to work less and less as pleasure just became more natural and expected than pain, and in the past few years, I haven’t felt the pain at all. I’ve almost forgotten what it felt like.
My health insurance company laughed at me when I tried to get them to pay for my vagina’s physical therapy, but the couple thousand it ended up costing is nothing in relation to what I got from it. In fact, I’d pay thousands more and read all the VaginaMonster books on the planet and invite all the soft-spoken baby-powdered ladies to help me sweet talk my vagina if that’s what it called for.