Vaginismus: A Personal Photo Essay

I felt nervous and nauseous as the departure date to visit my long-distance love drew closer. Although we were not yet boyfriend and girlfriend, I knew that this was the next step in our relationship. Since we had first met in London in months previous, video chats online and texting became the basis of our Transatlantic romance. He was a sweet, talented musician, who possessed delightful British charm. However, the reality of being physically together and sleeping in the same bed brought its own challenges. I anxiously anticipated the struggles of sex, an act I could not engage in, a fact my twenty-three-year-old-boyfriend-to-be, Pete, was yet to be aware of.

Although I was certain there was something wrong with me, I didn’t know the reason why I had struggled with penetration for so long. Tampons or sex were out of the question. At the time, I nervously told Pete that I wasn’t ready to go that far yet, and he kindly respected my decision. This was far from the Notting Hill-style fairytale romance I’d dreamed of for years.

Two months later, sitting in a gynecologist’s chair at home in Toronto, the doctor attempted an unsuccessful pelvic exam on me. It was my third that year. As I sat on the edge of the table, she calmly explained to me that I had a condition called “Vaginismus.” It was a strange word that I had never even heard before, but it immediately did not sound pleasant; more like a bacterial disorder than a muscular one.

My kindhearted doctor described it as an involuntary pelvic floor spasm, which made any kind of penetration severely painful or in my case, impossible. She said it was likely that I was born with it, but that it was curable with intense physiotherapy and counselling. Today, approximately 2 in 1000 women struggle with Vaginismus.

At first, it was a relief to have an answer about something that I’d struggled with for a decade. This uncontrollable, spastic reaction was something that other physicians had always labeled as nervousness, something I never remembered feeling. I had always wanted to take part, but my body betrayed me. It became my biggest insecurity.

My inadequacy had been a concern that I put on the back burner, a weakness I wanted to shut my eyes to, urging it to disappear. This diagnosis ultimately took it to much higher levels. It was suddenly “official.” I felt numb.

As I boarded my flight back to school in New York after my appointment, I accepted that my love life, which had only just begun, was officially over. I would die an old maid, alone, and utterly virginal. I looked out the plane window, defeated and fighting to hold back my tears. What man would love a woman who couldn’t make love?

In the weeks that followed, I felt downright pathetic. I desperately threw myself into physiotherapy during my breaks from school, but none of the methods worked. I didn’t feel like a woman and I didn’t feel worthy of my boyfriend’s understanding. The pressure I had put on myself to get better was overwhelming. I found myself feeling jealous of other women who were physically able, which shamed me. I became extremely sad.

For a long time, I possessed this bottled-up secret that I hid from everyone I knew. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it due to the deep shame I was experiencing. How would I casually tell someone that my vagina didn’t work? That I’m still a virgin at the age of twenty-one when everyone I know is talking about who they casually hooked up with last week? That I actually couldn’t use that tampon my friend handed me when my period caught me off guard? It smothered my spirit. No one should have to feel so much anguish. I forgot all the good things my body had to offer, and that I was lucky to live in a healthy and a strong one.

I was in tears when I told my boyfriend over Skype about my problem. Expecting the worst, I received the best. He was more than considerate about my disorder, emphasizing how much he sympathized with the emotional and physical pain Vaginismus had brought me. He didn’t want to hurt me, he wanted to love and stand by me.

More recently, I have felt empowered by my condition in knowing that people do not judge me or see me differently because of it. I have had to learn how to accept myself and to ultimately ask others to accept me as I am as I wait for a time when I can fully immerse myself in therapy.

In my own relationship, the absence of traditional sex allowed my partner and I to put our efforts into communication while apart, establishing unwavering trust in the bedroom, and kindness towards our flaws. I’ve learned that love is so much more than just its physical embodiment; it is also something that can be represented through support. There are also, I have learned, multiple ways to have fun in bed.

Vaginismus does not define me or my ability to show affection. It is rather a physical discrepancy, a small blip in my overall being and my journey throughout womanhood. I refuse to let it win by letting it get me down and allowing it to tarnish precious moments in my life. Although I am not yet the success story I yearned for, I hold onto hope. Hope for my peers who continue to struggle in and outside of the bedroom, with this taboo and highly overlooked disorder.  

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Meredith Sherlock, 2018