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I started my period when I was 12, met my first boyfriend when I was 16, and in the four years between I was never able to insert a tampon, finger or any other damn thing into my vagina.
At first I wasn’t particularly concerned, because I felt ambivalent towards tampons and queasy about penetrative sex. After one uncomfortable summer as a lifeguard -- during which I dealt with my moon cycle through a combination of elaborately layered waterproof garments and ultra-thin Kotex -- it occurred to me that perhaps this whole tampon thing was worth dedicating more time to.
At this point I was nearly 16 and had only made a few half-hearted attempts at using a tampon, and despite following the instructions on the paper insert and puzzling over my junk with mirrors of various sizes, my vagina was stalwart in its resistance. But, I thought, perhaps I just hadn’t tried hard enough. I was menstruating, so if my vagina had an exit, presumably there was an entrance. Right?
So, with renewed determination, one day during a lunch break at school I accompanied a friend to the girl’s bathroom where she ceremoniously handed me a Pearl tampon, and provided a verbal tutorial from outside the stall. I used the toilet seat to balance myself precariously in the high lunge position, and as calmly and firmly as possible I jammed a feminine hygiene product in.
Well, except I didn’t. I tried my best though. I breathed deeply, I tried to play it as cool and nonchalant as one could be while they’re leaking blood onto the floor of a poorly-ventilated high school bathroom -- but to no avail. I left the stall and told my friend it was a no-go.
She paused, looked at me skeptically, and informed me I needed to go to the doctor.
I still held out hope that the problem would resolve itself, but soon enough my forays into what one might deem “heavy petting” with my new boyfriend revealed that my vagina had no intention of cooperating with Operation Fulfill Your Anatomical Purpose For Christ's Sake.
I explained to my mother what was happening (with the tampons, not the failed finger-banging) and so at the age of 17, I went to my family doctor to have my junk checked out. She performed a cursory pelvic exam, during which she picked up a speculum, looked at it, looked back at my business, and placed the instrument back down. She gently used her finger and a Q-Tip to look at my inner labia and the vaginal vestibule and announced that I had an "imperforate hymen."
I had no idea what that meant but didn’t want to say so. My face clearly illustrated a total lack of comprehension and so, in an effort to be helpful, my doctor drew me a picture of what appeared to be a partial solar eclipse inside a vagina. I nodded appreciatively, and wondered why the tampon instructions were so misleading.
She provided me with a reference for a gynecologist, I handed over my co-pay, and I drove myself home. I had only traveled a mile before I had to pull over because I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t see -- the exam had been painful and even after speaking with my doctor I still didn’t fully understand what was wrong with my body or why it wouldn't work the way I wanted it to.
I felt broken and abnormal, and could only imagine the horrors of my future as a maxi-pad wearing virgin deprived of the convenience of tampons or the excitement of, you know, a penis.
I took the gynecologist referral home, and my mother helped me schedule the appointment -- she even drove me there, assuming that I might get a little verklempt again and need her support. [Side note: I have to say, while my family is not very woo-woo about anything -- and are the first to roll their eyes and instruct their children to “walk it off” -- they were terrific about this whole ordeal. None of my siblings gave me crap about it. My dad even decided to share that his sister-in-law had the same problem but once she went to the doctor, you couldn’t get my uncle and her out of the bedroom. That is to say, her vagina worked again. Once I stopped projectile vomiting at the thought of Aunt Sharon and Uncle Phil having sex, I was quite touched by his earnestness.]
The gynecologist I saw was both empathetic and matter-of-fact, and she did a much better job explaining what the problem was and how the procedure would fix it. Basically, I had a large enough perforation in my hymen to allow menstrual blood to pass, but not enough to allow anything to enter. She informed me that while I could technically have the hymen removal procedure (called a “hymenectomy”) done in the office, it would be much more pleasant to be given general anesthesia and have it removed while I was sedated. I agreed.
And that is precisely how I spent one Spring morning in 2005. I remember exactly two things before and three things after the surgery. First, the nurse who was preparing me to go into the OR messed up the IV and managed to pump a bunch of fluid under the surface of my skin. This made me somewhat uneasy about the technical skills of their hospital staff, but I assumed the specialist who performed the procedure would probably not empty a bag of saline into my vagina, so, I let it go.
The second thing I remember is my mother deciding to defray my nerves by reading to me from the novel she was halfway through at the time. To this day I have no idea what book it was, but she chose to read out loud a passage that included dialogue between two adolescent boys discussing what they had heard about sexual intercourse. It featured the quote -- and I am not making this up -- “I heard sometimes girls moan when you put it in, on account of how much they like it.”
YUP. This was the section of the book my mom was on, and so it was the section she read to me, and while I love and adore her I am still incredulous that she shared this excerpt with me. Pro tip: If you want to read to your daughter moments before she’s about to get part of her lady flaps dissected, maybe choose “Goodnight Moon” or “Winnie the Pooh” or something that won’t haunt her for the next decade.
I don’t remember anything from the actual surgery, because I was knocked out by a very young and very attractive anesthesiologist. Luckily I had only a few seconds to dwell on this mortifying fact before I was fully sedated.
The first of the three things I remember after waking up is the nurse asking me if I wanted some juice. I requested apple juice, and it was legitimately the most delicious, heavenly thing I had ever consumed my entire life. Because I was high as hell. The next thing I remember is being wheeled out of the hospital and into my dad’s van, where they put a blanket on my lap to keep me warm and (still high) I thought this was very considerate.
The last important detail I remember of that day is that for the first and last time my mom made me ziti with Alfredo sauce (she doesn’t believe Alfredo is a legitimate pasta sauce) and it was second only to the apple juice I had earlier in its mind-blowing delight. Apparently fasting for 12 hours then having your vagina operated on (three stitches!) really works up an appetite.
I wish I could say that after I healed from my surgery, my life instantly became a highlight reel of joyful tampon use, PIV sex, and NuvaRing insertion. Instead, it took me another year to lose my virginity and another year-and-a-half to work up the courage to use super-absorbency tampons.
I (and my partners) had to invest time getting me comfortable before with putting anything inside my vagina. I imagine that part of this learning curve was psychological -- I associated penetration with so much anxiety and discomfort that I would tense up at the moment of truth. But boy howdy, once sex became less painful (and tampon use totally blasé) I was on a roll!
Like, I had/have a lot of enjoyable sex, and I’m pretty sure that would not be the case if I didn’t go through the hymenectomy. So, despite a rocky beginning to our relationship, I remain grateful that I was able to have the procedure and (eventually) get to know my beautiful, magical, resilient vagina.