My experience with Vaginismus is not unlike a lot of stories you will read. That doesn’t mean that my story is any less important to raising awareness of it; a lot of the time reading a story similar to your own is extremely comforting. I am here to talk about the steps that I took towards getting a diagnosis. Although Vaginismus is not life threatening, it can become quite a heavy weight on your life, as the small impacts it makes start to build up.
There were two main signs for me that I realised my experiences differed from my friend’s. The first was using tampons. When I first began menstruating I started later than most of my friends. I began using pads because, like for many young girls, they were less scary than using tampons. I quickly learnt, however, that to ‘become a woman’ you had to use a tampon – a rite of passage into womanhood, if you will. Pads were perceived as gross and unhygienic, whereas tampons were cleanly. I noticed that if I ever started my period unexpectedly and asked around for help, it was rare that someone would have a pad in their school or work bag – only tampons. So I took the leap.
No one really told me what it was supposed to feel like, so I just assumed it was normal to be able to feel it all day. That not being able to sit comfortably and having to angle my hips so it wasn’t painful to sit down was what everyone else was suffering with too. I was wrong. A friend explained that she couldn’t feel her tampon at all. Maybe I wasn’t pushing it high enough or using a size that was too big for me. In the end, after endless leakages and hours of discomfort, I returned to using pads and just tried not to be obvious about it.
My second sign, which is the most common example in women with Vaginismus, was painful sex. We’re always told our first time is likely to be painful. And that’s why I wasn’t surprised when it was. However, over the course of my first long term relationship, that never got easier. Most of the time, it was so excruciating I would have to tell my partner to stop. This wasn’t the end of the world, as there are other ways to be intimate that don’t involve penetration, but in the end it did begin to take a toll on both my relationship and my mental health.
I would always tell my partner I wasn’t in the mood for sex. In actuality I was simply just so terrified of the pain. If I could sense a heavy make-out session was heading that direction I would have a panic attack. I was told it was all in my head. That if I did it more, I would get used to it and the pain would go away. I crushed my own self esteem in order to justify my pain.
That wasn’t normal. I never should have normalised it in my head.
Getting an initial diagnosis.
A fun fact about me is I have suffered with chronic pain my whole life. In my second year of University I was finally diagnosed with Scoliosis and started to take the steps towards managing my pain, beyond super strong painkillers. So a year later, so sick and tired with having this weight on my mind, I made the same decision about going to the nurse for the pain I was experiencing downstairs.
I made an appointment with the Nurse at my University clinic and one Tuesday afternoon I forced myself across the city to my appointment. To say I was nervous was an understatement. I was terrified the Nurse would have nothing to say, that there was nothing wrong with me, or even worse; confirm that it was all in my head. I was asked a plethora of questions; could you be pregnant, are you in a relationship, how often do you have sex, do you use lubricants? I could barely stop my voice from shaking as I answered the questions; detailing the pain I’ve experienced and how long I’ve had it.
The next step in the process was the actual examination. I felt ridiculous lying on a table and showing a stranger my vagina in broad daylight but I had to keep reminding myself that this medical professional has probably seen things much scarier than my hoohah. Now, a lot of women will have had experiences with a speculum before; I, up until this point, had not. When they tell you it’s going to be uncomfortable they are definitely not wrong but I was in tears. The thought of even trying to relax my muscles could not be heard over how hard I was trying not to sob. That wasn’t normal.
Once the examination was over, the Nurse let me get dressed before sitting me down at her desk again. This is when I heard it for the first time.
“I think you may have something called Vaginismus. Have you heard of it before?”
I had not. She went on to explain that it’s actually very common, and especially common in girls who are in long term relationships. A spasming and reflex of the muscles in the vagina tightening and causing pain. Although she was sure of this diagnosis, she made the decision to refer me to a gynaecologist anyway to confirm her suspicions.
Confirming my diagnosis.
The first thing I did when I got home was research what it was, the possible causes and treatment. The hardest thing I had to come to terms with about Vaginismus is there is a heavy mental aspect to it. Part of the treatment for Vaginismus, if you choose, is therapy but there is still a physical element and treatment for it, which was the biggest relief.
Going to the gynaecologist over the Christmas break, I took my mum. Not everyone is comfortable sharing the experience they’re going through with someone, especially a parent but I needed a hand to hold and I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to be ashamed of what I was experiencing. When you confide in a someone it helps lift the burden a little bit as you have someone to check up on you. If you don’t tell anyone what you’re suffering with, then how are they supposed to know?
The appointment ran quite similar to my first- questions followed by an examination. However, during this examination the Doctor noticed something different. She began to insert the speculum, I started to cry again but then she removed it and asked the nurse to bring her something different. Another speculum was then used and although I was still in pain, it was lessened by this change.
Afterwards, the Doctor told me she had to use the speculum they usually use on young teenage girls and that I should not have been in as much pain as I was in because of the adult one. This happened because I have a small cervix. Which not only would explain my difficulty with tampons but also my difficulty adjusting to sex. That, tied with the Vaginismus, had wreaked havoc on my mental health for years.
The aftermath and finding a cure.
I was prescribed a set of vaginal dilators. This is a set of plastic dilators that increased in size and width that I needed to use for at least five minutes a day- going up in size when I felt comfortable enough. The vagina is a muscle, and you essentially have to train it; a bit like a gym work out for your vagina.
Most people would not be happy about that news but I cried tears of joy outside of the hospital. I laughed and called my best friend to shout ‘I have a tiny vagina!’ down the phone. I was so happy that I could finally start taking the steps to managing my pain properly, instead of just berating myself or feeling like I was suffering alone.
Looking back at my experience, something I am extremely grateful for was how easy it was for me to get a diagnosis. I know this won’t be the same for everyone. I was extremely lucky to not only have had a female nurse, but a female gynaecologist. This is nothing against males who are in these positions, but being examined by females definitely made me feel more listened to and comfortable throughout the examinations. I am also lucky to have been examined by a nurse who was aware of Vaginismus as an issue. To have gotten a diagnosis straight away, and a referral ‘to be sure’ instead of a dismissal, meant the steps I could take to managing my pain progressed so much faster. This is why awareness of Vaginismus is so important – it means that if your process in investigating your pain is not as straightforward as mine, you can push for your doctor or nurse to consider it as a possibility and hopefully get you to a diagnosis faster.
So, what was the point of that super detailed story about my vagina?
My point is: don’t just suffer for the sake of pretending like nothing is wrong. Even a self-diagnosis of something like Vaginismus can help to ease the strain that it puts on your mental health. I may never be able to use tampons comfortably, I might always have to have a serious conversation with sexual partners about my pain, and occasionally, I might still laugh at the fact that sometimes I have to stretch my vaginal muscles with a piece of plastic. But I can tell you first hand, the relief you feel with a diagnosis when you have suffered for any amount of time with any pain, is one of the most freeing things you’ll ever feel.
Words by Lauren Peters
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