What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I met Simon at a girlfriend’s wedding. (Name changed to protect identity) That fateful day changed my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
See I call this my own personal Greek tragedy because what started out as a fairy tale about love and cupids arrow sparking a happy ever after story turned out to be one of heartbreak, confusion and pain, both physically and emotionally.
Fourteen months after we were married, I was diagnosed with Human Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity –- an allergy to semen.
But that’s not when it started. We had a whirlwind courtship because we just knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together and saw no need to wait; to date for the required amount of time.
We announced our engagement to shocked family and planned our wedding day for 10 months later.
I can still remember the day things changed in 1987.
“Ouch, that stings” I exclaimed. Simon looked at me strangely and inquired “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know but I’m in pain, like I’m burnt.” That was the beginning of a confusing, overwhelming and frustrating journey.
Every time we had sex, there was immediate pain and a burning sensation. The area would become red and swell up, then over the next week the skin cells would shed and fall off. I would be left in agony and the pain lingered for days.
I was 23 and pretty shy about talking about private matters. I booked an appointment with my GP and when I described what was happening, she thought I was suffering from thrush. Our five-minute appointment hadn’t allowed for a physical examination. I went away with a script.
But nothing changed. I returned to my doctor a few more times and received new scripts but still no physical examination. I was starting to get frustrated by this, as you could well imagine. I was young and soon to marry the man of my dreams and this wasn’t part of my plan.
She decided to pull out the big guns. “Maybe an iodine pessary will do it,” she said on my next visit.
But back home I winced in pain as the pessary burned and stung me. You know what happens when you put iodine on an open wound, right? That was my breaking point.
“I really think you need to examine me,” I demanded on my next visit.
The doctor took one look at me before agreeing I needed to see a gynaecologist.
I felt a little relief, thinking it would all be sorted in time for my wedding day and even when the gynaecologist recommended cauterization to stop the cells from shedding, I agreed. It was incredibly painful but I just wanted things to be sorted out in time for the big day. Sadly, they weren’t.
A couple of weeks later I stood at the aisle and said my vows not knowing that the procedure hadn’t fixed my problem. It was a scorching hot day that reflected my reality even though I didn’t know it yet.
The honeymoon wasn’t as pleasurable as I’d hoped. Sex was still incredibly painful and the swelling and burning was getting worse and lasting longer.
Returning to my GP didn’t help. She had no answers for me and in the end dismissed it all by saying to me "It’s all in your head.” I was devastated.
Angry at being blamed for what was happening to me and frustrated that I had now been to several doctors, I decided to research for myself. It’s 1988, the Internet and Google wasn’t available to me. I collected every book on the reproductive system I could from a local university and started reading.
There it was. Not much, just two sentences but it was enough for me. It was like a light bulb had gone off in my head and I realised that I was reacting to Simon’s semen. He went off to his family doctor who declared “There can’t be anything wrong with you, I’ve been your doctor since you were born. Just go home and tell your wife she needs to have more sex. She’s just making up excuses, women are like that.”
Simon was a very brave man to tell me that! I hit the roof and demanded that he go back to see this idiotic man and request he provide the service he is there to deliver. I wanted that doctor to test Simon’s semen. He refused and said “I’ll only do a sperm count. I don’t believe anything can be wrong with your semen.” That door was closed for good.
I didn’t give up but I was exhausted from the constant pain and stress of having no answer to explain the burning, the swelling and the irritation.
Finally I got a referral to another gynecologist and when I described my symptoms, he suggested I was allergic to my husband’s semen.
It might sound odd, but I was ecstatic. Not because of what it was, but because it was the first time someone could actually tell me what was wrong. I felt for sure they would be able to fix it.
Excited, I exclaimed “What do we have to do to prove it?” He described the rudimentary testing that would occur. I was up for it; anything to have an answer because I was positive that once I had an answer then I’d have a solution.
I spoke to the gynecologist a couple of days after the testing was completed to give me the results.
“You’re definitely allergic to him,” he said. “But there isn’t anything we can do to help. There isn’t a cure. You’ll just have to learn to live with it.”
My world came crashing down. The next few weeks were filled with tears and I truly felt shattered.
The doctor suggested we use condoms, but one of the side effects of the symptoms is I had an allergy to latex, too.
Over the next four months, many deep and meaningful talks occurred with my husband. He desperately wanted to become a father and I didn’t want to deny him his dreams. This wasn’t something we could live with.
We eventually made the heartbreaking decision to separate.
“We’ll stay friends though won’t we?” I asked through the tears.
“Of course,” he replied, drawing me in for a hug.
It was around that time that my friends waited for me to have a breakdown. When I look back, I don’t know how I managed to keep going.
I worked as a teacher in a disadvantaged area. The young people had many problems and I loved working with them. On the inside every day was a challenge for me, but I found I would rather go in and help these vulnerable and precious young ones, than sit at home and cry. Something inside just made me carry on.
“Have you ever thought of natural therapies?” one of my colleagues asked one day.
“If doctors can’t fix me then how could natural therapies help?” came my reply.
“Well, what have you got to lose?” she asked.
Her words rang in my head and I realized things couldn’t get any worse. Within weeks, I sought help from a naturopath.
Over the next year, they helped me detox my body and get ready to build myself back up. It was a slow recovery because the remedy that would eventually cure me wasn’t yet available in Australia. That product was called Reiishi mushroom extract. Eight years had passed since my diagnosis and for the first time, I was offered hope of a cure. The liquid extract changed my life. The pain that had haunted me for years disappeared and when I started a new relationship, I could take the liquid and there would be no swelling after intercourse. After two years, I didn’t even need to take the remedy. It had healed my body. I was 34.
I was so drawn by natural healing that I left teaching and became a naturopath myself.
And I started writing a book too. I wanted to share my skills of being able to carry on, even when life had dealt me a blow. My book is called "Making Sense of the Insensible" because that’s what I had to do. I experienced many injustices over those years but I grew beyond them and I want to help others learn how to do that, too.
If I had to do my life over again and nothing could change I would. I know that I would rather have had the love of Simon for that brief time than never have known him.