Vaginismus: A Personal Photo Essay
Even in the beginnings of my promising introduction to young adulthood, I knew there was something wrong with me. The inclination started during my summers up at the cottage. I found myself stuck onshore and unable to swim for a few weeks each year due to my inability to use a tampon. All of my friends where doing it, so why couldn’t I?
Flash forward six years or so to Thanksgiving weekend of 2016. I found myself sitting in a gynecologist’s chair at home in Toronto, legs up in the stirrups, while the doctor attempted a painful and unsuccessful pelvic exam on me. It was my third that year. As I sat on the edge of the exam table, the doctor calmly explained to me that I have 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 a muscular disorder that results in an involuntary pelvic floor spasm, which makes 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 is curable with intense physiotherapy and counselling - emphasis on the intense.
At first, it was nice to have an answer about something that I had been struggling with for what seemed like an eternity. This uncontrollable, spastic reaction is something that other doctors had always labeled as nervousness, something I never remember feeling towards these fairly normal aspects of growing up. I had always wanted to take part, but my body would always betray me. It became my biggest insecurity.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself feeling suffocated and downright pathetic. I desperately threw myself into physiotherapy during my breaks from school, but none of the methods were working. For a long time, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it was slowly eating me alive. I didn’t feel like a woman, I certainly didn’t feel worthy of my boyfriend’s steadfast love and understanding, and the pressure I had put on myself to get better was absolutely overwhelming. I even found myself feeling jealous of other women who were physically able, a fact that I am so ashamed of. Every time I thought about it, or was made aware of it, tears would come. I had become extremely sad.
Now, before you cringe at my admittedly forward story here, know that it is commonly accepted that 2 in 1000 women have vaginismus. That’s one point two million women worldwide. That’s a lot of women. AND this number is expected to be much higher, as many of us not included in this statistic are misdiagnosed as being nervous, while others do not seek help at all due to their shame and embarrassment linked to speaking about such issues. It is particularly a problem in countries where sexual health is not as openly discussed.
But where are we? Where are our stories? And why aren’t we telling them?
For a long time, I possessed this bottled-up secret that I hid from nearly everyone I knew. I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it due to the deep shame and incompetence I was experiencing. How do you casually tell someone that your vagina doesn’t work? That you’re still a virgin when everyone you know is talking about who they casually hooked up with last week? That you actually can’t use that tampon your friend hands you when your period catches you off guard? It smothered my spirit. No one should have to feel so much shame and anguish over their own body. I forgot about all of the good things my body has to offer, and that I’m am so lucky to live in a healthy and a strong one.
More recently, I have felt increasingly 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.
For a long time, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it was eating me alive. I didn’t feel like a woman, I certainly didn’t feel worthy of love, and the pressure I had put on myself to get better was absolutely overwhelming. Every time I thought about it, tears would come. I had become extremely sad.
In my own relationship, the absence of traditional sex has allowed my partner and I to put our efforts into communication, trust, and kindness. I’ve learned that love is so much more than just its physical embodiment; it is also something that can be represented through things like support and understanding.
Vaginismus does not define me or my ability to show love. 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 ruin precious moments in my life. Although I am not yet a story of success, I continue to hold onto hope. Hope for not only myself, but also for my peers who continue to struggle in and outside of the bedroom, with this incredibly taboo and highly overlooked disorder.
Meredith Sherlock, 2018