Saturday, 31 March 2012

How does Vaginismus feel?

Well hi there! Come and pull up a chair, join me on the porch why doncha? Have some lemonade; it’s made with real lemons you know. Come on; settle down, that’s it. How’s your Dennis these days? Still got that dodgy ticker?... Well, as I’ve been sat here, I’ve just been thinking. It’s a funny thing, memory, isn’t it? When I first started trying to figure out what was wrong with me way back when, I hadn’t heard of vaginismus and had no idea what was going on with my body. Now, having got so far on the journey to “recovery”, I sometimes forget what it felt like not to know what in the heckins was happening to me.

If you find yourself where I was then, experiencing difficulties and not knowing what’s going on or why, you might want to know how vaginismus feels to see if it is something that resonates with you. Today then, I present to you my guide to how V feels. I’m not saying this is exactly how V is to everyone, but just personally how I have experienced it*, there will of course be variations from woman to woman.

This being a *whisper itsexual disfunction, it has to be put in terms of a sexual situation so buckle up; things are about to get steamy, yo…..

Picture the scene: You’ve managed to insinuate yourself into the solo company of some delightful creature who likes Murakami novels and rides an up-cycled bike to the local farmers market for his weekly shop. He’s got a delightfully mischievous smile and come-to-bed-eyes and is most DEFINITELY looking at you in a very promising way indeed. Together you’ve polished off a very good bottle of wine from Tesco (when I say very good, I mean drinkable for under a fiver) and finished discussing that TOTES EMOTIVE film you just watched together at the local picture house before popping into his for a night cap. His housemates are all out. Things are getting interesting. You both DEFINITELY want it. Then, this happens:

  1. To begin with, everything feels fine. Good, even, if Mr up-cycle knows what he’s about. Vaginismus itself doesn’t prevent you being turned on, and the physical process of the body becoming aroused is the same, so for this part things are pretty exciting. V doesn’t prevent orgasm either.
  2. You’re approaching the main event… but when any sort of penetration is attempted, things start to go wrong. First off, it hurts. You try to breathe through it. Then it really, really hurts. It feels a bit like you’re being ripped in half, right down the middle. This is due partly to the psychological side of V kicking in (of which, more later), but it’s primarily because the muscles physically clamp themselves closed. They are not keen on that weird looking thing coming towards them and trying to force its way in, in what is - quite frankly – a very pushy manner. The muscles, instead of relaxing and widening, start to spasm, which forms a sort of physical barrier. It’s the pushing against this wall of muscle that hurts, along with the actual spasms themselves.
  3. It feels impossible, like there’s no physical way on earth anything is going in there, let alone anything THAT size, you horrible brute! That can’t even be NORMAL can it?! That thing is like a missile or something! The pain makes sense, you think, because obviously it’s going to hurt if you’re trying to push something fairly sizeable through an impossible barrier.
  4. Finally comes panic – waves of butterflies and sometimes frantic tears, and then the indisputable need to be right out of that situation. RIGHT out. At this point, it is the gentleman’s duty to cuddle and reassure. You hear me gents? PUT THAT THING AWAY AND CUDDLE AND REASSURE!
  5. You don’t necessarily know what’s happening or why. Before I started therapy I didn’t know that the muscles were spasming, all I was aware of was the pain and the feeling of physical impossibility. I thought that perhaps there was something physically wrong with my anatomy, that perhaps I didn’t have a fully formed vagina, or maybe I had an intersex condition I wasn’t aware of. I didn’t know why it was happening or what to do about it.

Crucially with vaginismus, there is nothing physically wrong with the vagina. Everything anatomically is the same** Vaginismus is, at heart, a psychological issue. Something - of which you may or may not be conscious – is telling your body that whatever is going on down there is very wrong and needs to be blocked, so your body reacts as above to prevent it. This could be due to an experienced trauma such as sexual violence, or there could be absolutely no obvious reason for it at all, as in my case. Sometimes shit just happens.

Through therapy and the use of vaginal dilators, you can train your body to stop reacting in this way. It is a totally treatable condition, and not one to be ashamed of or to be blamed for. If Mr up-cycle is worth his salt, and realises how flipping well amazing you are he will be there on the journey with you, but if not then obviously he is a massive dick and can cram his pretentious art house films right up his a-hole. And who does their weekly shop at a farmers market it anyway?!

*Please see my disclaimer page - I am not a medical doctor, my understanding of vaginismus is personal and not something I have been medically trained in. Also, I am straight, so I’m going to be talking about this from a straight woman’s perspective, but v obviously affects lesbian as well as straight and naturally therefore can affect someone who enjoys penetrative sex, whether that be with a man or with "sex aids".

** There may of course be other conditions which accompany vaginismus, and also of course there is the possibility that the vagina may in some way be slightly different. I'm literally at this point just describing vaginismus

Friday, 23 March 2012

An interview with a man about vaginismus

The other day, a thought penetrated my usually water-tight bubble of narcissism, and the thought was this: Here I am writing all about Vaginismus and how it affects me, and how it makes me feel and maa maa maa, isn’t my vagina RUBBISH, and I haven’t once written about how it affects my boyfriend. My attention was drawn to this by a friend of mine who also has v, who asked me “but… does he cope with it?!”. I’ve said it before that I’ve been really lucky in general in not encountering arseholes who freak out when they hear about Vaginismus, but I know that this is by no means the norm. 
My boyfriend and I obviously talk about it together, but I thought it might be nice to do an interview with him, to show vaginismus from a man’s point of view. I know some people may be surprised that a woman with primary vaginismus can enter into a relationship (I've not discussed primary and secondary vaginismus yet, I'll do so soon...) but it is really not as surprising as you might think.
So, that being the case, here he is. He has requested that I call him “The Cure”, demonstrating that his levels of narcissism equal, if not exceed, mine (not to mention his optimism!), but this is asking a little too much, so I will call him “Robert” instead. Fnar.
Hello Robert. How are you. How was your day?
It was ok. I cut my finger though (Robert proffers finger for inspection)
Sorry about that. Do you want me to kiss it better? (Robert holds his finger to his chest and pouts) No? Ok then, on with the interview! Tell me, how did you feel when I first told you about my having vaginismus?
The first thought was confusion. I didn't understand what it was...Basically, that was the first thought. 
Had you heard about vaginismus before?
No, never. 
So, when I explained what it was, how did you feel then?
Still confused! But i understood why you couldn't have sex (Robert breaks off to say - Ooh, I quite like being interviewed!) and for a brief flash I thought you were just using it as an excuse to make me think you were a virgin, because "apparently" men like virgins! (Keeks glares at him) Obviously, I didn't really think that, but it did cross my mind, when I was trying to figure it all out!
I see.... And did it put you off pursuing a relationship with me?
No, not at all. 
What did you expect sex to be like?
I thought it might be painful for you, and obviously you don't want to have sex with someone who it feels painful for. I didn't know really, I wasn't sure where the limitations were and I didn't want to get carried away and end up hurting you. I guess I was a bit nervous about it.
And how is the sex, is it what you expected?
It's fun!

How have you found ways around the issue of penetrative sex?
Well, there are lots of other things we can do. Oral sex. :) (Robert looks very pleased about this)
Is it worse going out with someone with vaginismus? 
It doesn't feel any different really, it's just a normal relationship with the normal feelings, there's no difference whatsoever. In some ways it's more exciting, because trying to find different ways to have sex is a whole new game! But sex isn't the be all and end all of a relationship at all. 
What would you say to a man who found out someone he was seeing had vaginismus? (Robert needs this further explained, because he hadn't realised that most women - unlike Keeks - don't tell men on the first date about their sexual conditions)
Wow, you make vaginismus sound like it's something really awful! (Er....!) Hmmm....So I would say to that person, to go for it, see how things goes, if they can't handle the vaginismus then they are too immature to deal with an adult relationship really, and it's their loss. Relationships aren't all about sex anyway. It is sad when men are obsessed with sex, it's a bit stupid. 
I've since found out that people can have preconceived ideas about vaginismus and think that the girls should just power through it, which is so bad. To those people, I'd say how wrong you are! If the person you are going out with has vaginismus you need to do your research and support them. Trying to make them "push through" the pain barrier is only going to make things worse, and is a pretty shitty thing to do.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Shall I do a big feminist rant like you? (rude!) At the end of the day, a relationship is not all about sex, it's about you and your partner and how you get on. If your partner is only in it for the sex then you know what you should do! Plus, sex is still good, because there is more to sex than just the "p in the v", and you're lacking in imagination if you think that's all it is. 
Well done Robert. You did good. 
Can we watch the apprentice now?

Monday, 19 March 2012

The little C's

Hi Vaginistas,
The desire to become a mother is obviously a significant contributing factor to women who seek treatment for Vaginismus. When I first saw the gyno she kindly reassured me that V is a very treatable condition, and told me about a cousin of hers who had been diagnosed with it a few years before. She had been successfully treated, and had even recently become a mum. This is a wonderful story, and another example of how very treatable a condition vaginismus is. It also demonstrates the way that to lots of women vaginismus can seem a big barrier to conception, which can naturally be very traumatic for women who want to start a family. It is naturally for many women one of their primary reasons for wanting to be treated, and understandably so. For me however, this isn’t the case.
I’ve reached that age when you look around at your friends and realise with a shock that they have grown up. Ten minutes ago it felt like everyone was happily juvenile, then you turned your back and by the time you’d whipped back around, “what’s the time Mr Wolf” style, everyone had become “uh adult”. Lots of them are married or as good as, and a lot of them are even now……*gulp* starting families. This is a horrible betrayal, and I am angry with them all. Obviously I’m actually happy and excited for them; becoming a parent fills people with love and joy and fulfilment (so I’m told), and no doubt all of my friends will make wonderful parents – they’re already wonderful people, so it seems a logical step. I’ve recently met a friend’s baby who was beautiful and her parent’s couldn’t be happier and I’m super excited for them, it’s an amazing thing, it really is.
But now I’ve given the proper disclaimers, I can say that on a purely selfish level I also feel horror and dismay. I mean, come ON now, my friends want to make children! Actual, real-life, screaming, snotting, poo-making children!
When I (very occasionally) have dreams that I’m pregnant, they usually start with me looking down in horror at my poor swollen belly, wondering how in the jiminy-crickets it happened and who the wanker was that did it to me, and end in me crying loudly and unattractively, snot and tears streaming from various orifices, grabbing the nearest person to scream at them “But I CAN’T give birth, I CAN’T! YOU DO IT FOR ME!! WHERE ARE THE DRUGS??!!!!” while I shake them with all my might. When I wake up I am always relieved.
“Ah” people who are usually perfectly reasonable will say to me when I tell them that I don't particularly want children. They’ll half-close their eyes, flash a small, smug smile and nod sagely “You say that now, but you just wait. You wait for those hormones to kick in. Then you’ll change your tune!” I’m not sure exactly what these new hormones I’m waiting for are, and why they weren’t gifted to me at puberty with the other confusing nonsense, the hair and the irrational periods of rage, and the blood, DEAR GOD THE BLOOD. Maybe it’s something new, something that’s been developed by proctor and gamble? Mumstrogen perhaps? (Fnar). But then, people have been saying these sorts of things to me since I was 16 and starting to look slightly less like a scarecrow made of toothpicks and a little more like a confused teenager. To them I say, I still love “Smooth” by Santana, which I had on single (tape, natch) and played on repeat all day way back then, and I have it on my ipod now. Quite literally, I have not changed my tune.* In a less literal way, I have no plans to change my biological tune either. Maybe these people are right, maybe I will suddenly wake up one day and realise that I just have to be a Mum, but it hasn’t happened yet and frankly I don’t expect it will.   
Some people who know about my condition have asked why it matters for me to have treatment for V if I don't want children. After all, it’s not a particularly fun process, and all told quite a lot of effort for what some people would think is not necessarily that crucial an issue. It's not as if sex can't be fun unless penetration is involved. Further, it’s not a condition that puts my health at risk, in fact it’s quite the opposite – a sweet widdle virgin is far less likely to be at risk of cervical cancer for one, not to mention the many sexually transmitted diseases floating around out there. I understand why they are asking, because what after all is sex for, if not procreation?** Really though, a lot of the time what people are really asking is: “How can you say you don’t want children?”
This certainty that a woman must want to reproduce seems to be something that people like to bring up a lot. There’s something about being a woman in your 20s that makes people assume you are simply desperate to reproduce, in a way that isn’t assumed of men. Perhaps it’s presumed that women have an inherent need to nurture, and men may have this need, but it’s by no means a given that they will. Well then. I DO have a nurturing side, absolutely, but it manifests itself in other ways. Rabbits, for example. I particularly love rabbits. Little, sweet, happy bunny rabbits with fluffy ears reduce me to a wobbling mass of squeaking joy. Rabbits are BRILLIANT. Rabbits don’t scream, and cry, and when they wee on you it means LOVE. Their poo isn’t a stinky goopy mess, but neat little pellets, which don’t smell because they’re mainly made of grass, and which they clean up themselves anyway by eating. Efficient! If they’re scared because there’s a cat in the garden in the middle of the night, they will stamp their feet until you wake up and scare the cat away, and then they stop stamping because you have rescued them. Rabbits are sensible. Babies don’t do these things, because babies are humans.
Now, I obviously don’t expect babies to be like pets. It’s just that babies don’t have the effect on me that it’s assumed they should have. When a rabbit stamps it's feet because it’s scared I want to bundle it up and cuddle it until it’s happy again. When a baby starts crying I want to cover my ears and run away screaming. I started writing this yesterday, and since then have seen several mothers with babies. Every one of them looked exhausted, exasperated, and all were occasionally forced to say things like “Monty! Monty, stop that! No, stop that Monty!” while little Monty blithely carried on with whatever mischief he was up to. I didn’t once look at little Monty, happily pulling the stuffing out of a bus seat and cramming it into his mouth by the fist-full, and think “OH, IF ONLY I HAD A SON!”
But really it’s more than just presumption that women must want to be mothers, it’s also a societal pressure. A judgement. There’s still this general feeling that for a woman to be truly fulfilled, she needs to be a mother. This was highlighted perfectly in the dreadful Dr Who Christmas special last year (Moffat – the guy just can NOT write a convincing/inoffensive female character. Don’t get me started on the Dominatrix in the recent Sherlock Holmes. I nearly punched my own ovaries right out of my body in disgust). In the story the little girl who stumbled upon a magical wood was almost right for the job of saving an entire alien race of trees from extinction, but much like a bear-sized bowl of porridge, she wasn’t quite “ready” yet. Good old Mum, that’s who they needed, a woman who had realised her full womanly potential by virtue of being a Mother. She not only accomplished the, in itself herculean task of rescuing a wood-full of alien tree spirits, but her pure maternal power also contrived to direct a foundering WWII fighter plane piloted by her husband safely home. All because she was a splendid old Mummy! Hip hip, hooray for Mummy what what! And then presumably she still had the time to get silly old Daddy’s dinner ready and put the kidlets to bed before finishing off the pile of ironing.
Of course, I'm not saying that it has to be cut and dry, that women are either desperate to be Mothers or like me really, really aren't. Personally, I think that for as many people who absolutely do want to have children, there are as many who just aren’t really sure either way. Maybe it seems like the next logical step in their life journey, after getting a steady job and stable relationship, maybe they are afraid of being lonely when they're older, maybe – like someone told me during a recent wine-fuelled Saturday night argument – they want to know they’ll have someone to look after them in their old age.
You know what? I think it’s fantastic that people want children, I really do. I wouldn’t be here if my parents hadn’t after all. I’m just saying that I don’t understand why it is still assumed that it’s something we all want. Personally, I’m quite looking forward to being the crazy rabbit lady, with a garden and house full of bunnies with names like “Lord Wifflington the third” and no children whatsoever, and that, dear readers, should be OK. If the bunnies don't mind it, then I don't see why anyone else should.
*I don’t just listen to that one song, that would be weird.

** I know that this is a huge and complex debate, I'm dealing only with attitudes towards women in their 20s and children here, but I do know there's loads of implications tied up in this question.

Monday, 12 March 2012

An ode to music....or something.

Hello vaginistas,

I’ve got a bit behind with this blog, partly through general laziness (I load up the laptop to write a blog post; the next thing I know I’m an episode of “don’t tell the bride” and a kitkat down and have lost an hour of my life), partly through life having become pretty hectic of late (I mentioned "don't tell the bride", right?) and also because I haven’t really known what to write about.

The thing with V is that there aren’t really dramatic daily developments which I can squeal about; like most things in life progress is a gradual process, with all the minor victories and set-backs you’d expect, and while there may be the occasional “eureka!” moment, in general it’s just pretty….well, normal. But then, that’s why I wanted to write this blog. Because Vaginismus is normal.

Instead of any dramatic new developments for you then, I’m just going to say that things are ticking along nicely, and then I’m going to talk about muscle memory.

When I was 10 I started having weekly piano lessons at school and quickly and irrevocably fell in love. I had found my soulmate. I loved the feel of the cool, smooth keys, I loved slowly learning how compressing them a tiny fraction harder or softer achieved an astonishing range of sounds, I loved learning this secret new language laid out in dancing black icons in the music books. I even loved how comfortable it was sitting upright on the stool, with my hands “just so”, fingers curled neatly, elbows down, spine straight. I loved the whole experience. At lunchtimes I took it in turns with the other pupils who had also signed up, to practice on the piano in the hall. I sat there as the other students filed passed me to the playground and I never felt a sense of jealously or loss, not once. Honestly. I’ve never properly mastered the piano, again mainly due to my own laziness, and part of me still hopes that I’ll find the time and energy to do so, but nevertheless ours has been a love affair that has endured through my whole life.

I also learned something extraordinary through playing the piano. In general, the older I’ve got the smaller my attention span has become. In the days of facebook and twitter I can’t seem to concentrate on something for longer than 7 minutes before flicking to something else, wondering what I’m missing, who’s written 140 characters or less about a "totes amaze" sandwich they had for lunch, how many new videos of cats trapped by other cats in boxes have been posted since the last time I looked (OMG! He won't let him out! LOL!!!). This shit just can't be missed, after all. Like most people of my generation, this never used to be the case. 

When I first started learning the piano I could sit in front of that instrument for hours. Sometimes it would be hideous and frustrating, I would find myself gritting my teeth, and when I fumbled a phrase for the nth time would slam my fist down onto the delicate, innocent keyboard in a fit of embarrassment and rage. It would bleat, sharply, loudly, protesting "why Keeks? Why?!" And I'd sob, and apologise, and stroke the poor, abused keys. I was a bit of an intense child. 

For the main though, it was bliss. I would practice a tricky phrase until it was perfect, over and over and again. If that sounds annoying, it probably was, and when I eventually got a piano at home (rescued from a bonfire by a friend of my parents, and an absolute wonky delight) my practices were usually accompanied by the rhythmic slamming of doors around the house as they tried to contain the noise. Over and over again I’d play the run of notes, memorising the finger patterns, starting slowly and building up speed, over and over again until I was sick of the sound myself. Essentially, I acted much like everyone who has fallen in love with learning to play an instrument.

But the truly wonderful and miraculous thing that I learnt was that I really wasn’t teaching myself these phrases. I was teaching them to my fingers.  

I can sit down at a piano now and rest my fingers on the keys and know that they can conjour up a phrase from a little piece of music I first learnt over 15 years ago, all on their own. It’s really not me doing it. It’s my fingers. This is an extra treat, knowing that I am playing it with my whole body, knowing that I don't need to look at the sheet of music in front of me because it's already there, embedded in my fingers. 

Muscle memory. 

In essence, I'm doing the same thing now, when I practice with my dilators in their lady-pink bag, willing my body to let in the cold, hard, plastic phalluses, leading up to final hurdle of "the hubble". As I sit, breathing deeply and promising my vagina "it's OK, this is what you were built for", waiting for the odd widening sensation, and honestly feeling as perturbed as my muscles by the whole bizarre business. I'm teaching the muscles their new shape, I'm showing myself, gently and slowly - and with plenty of lube - that it can do wonderful things. I know that we all know it, but really and truly, isn't it amazing what the body can do? My fingers can remember songs that I taught them 15 years ago! My body has decided, for whatever reason, that it thinks sex is bad, but it can - and truly will - learn that it isn't really, not always. Come on now, that really is amazing.

Eventually, I hope, I'll realise that it's not me doing it any more, it's the muscles themselves, they've learnt a new tune. And just like when I sit down to a piano and play the opening phrase of Bach's "Solfeggietto in C minor" a little shakily but more or less right, I'll realise, with delight, that my body has learnt how to do it all on it's own, and the rest of the tune will come naturally.