Guest Post: Emily's Story
I’m going to guess that my story is one you’ve never heard before. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to talk about. It’s uncomfortable to hear. But I’m sharing it because I want so badly for this topic to become normalized in Christian culture. Until now, I’ve been extremely apprehensive about sharing my story publicly because of the deeply personal nature of it. But this part of my story makes up so much of who I am, and is where I’ve seen God’s faithfulness and provision in my life the most. I think it’s time to put my discomfort aside for the sake of potentially helping other women, and bring awareness to an issue that is so rarely discussed, largely misunderstood, and many times written off.
SEX. I said it. So, you can see where this is going. If your instinct is to stop reading, I get it. For those of you who are still with me, thank you. We can be adults about this.
I got married at 19 years old to the best, most handsome, hard-working, sacrificial, patient man in the whole world. On our wedding night, I knew something was wrong. We decided not to stress because we had an early flight to Hawaii for our honeymoon, so we just slept and said we’d figure it out there. We got to Hawaii and when we got settled, we tried again. The only way I know how to describe the pain I was feeling is that someone was trying to shove a knife inside of me. My body instinctively rejected what we were trying to do, what I was fully wanting to do, and consenting to do. I started to panic, “What is wrong with me? No one prepared me for this amount of pain!” My sweet husband said “We’re on our honeymoon. We have the rest of our lives to figure this out, so we’re going to have fun on our honeymoon and worry about this later.” Bless him.
Two days after our week-long honeymoon, we moved from California to another state to be a part of a small church plant sent out from our home church. We knew some of the people in leadership there well enough to meet with them when we got there to try to get some help. They offered some advice, which we tried, and did not succeed. At this point we’d been married about 2 weeks and had not had sex yet. I decided to make an appointment with a gynecologist to see if there was something wrong with me. She could not even complete an exam on me because my pain was too extreme. She sent me home with a set of very small dilators that I was to use every day for a month, and then come back for an exam. So I used them, and cried through the pain every single day. When I went back for my exam, the pain level had not changed, but the doctor forced inside to complete the exam anyway. She said, “I don’t see or feel anything wrong with you. But you know, sex isn’t typically comfortable the first couple of times so just drink a glass of wine and relax.” Thanks, doc. If I had a nickel for every time someone suggested I “drink a glass of wine and relax,” I’d be a millionaire.
To say I was discouraged that after a month of intense pain using the dilators, clinging to hope that this was the fix, only to find out that it had made zero difference, is an understatement. Ben and I met again with our pastor. He said that because a doctor had given me no reason to believe there was something physically wrong, and because I had never experienced any sexual abuse or trauma, then there must be something spiritually wrong. It was then suggested to me that I was living in fear of pain. It was suggested that I was creating this pain in my own head. It was suggested to me that I should be able to control my body’s instincts and repent of my supposed fear of pain, so that I could have sex with my husband. I didn’t know what else to do than to believe that was true. Was I really living in unrepentant fear? I begged God every day to fix me. We met with our pastor almost every week to discuss our lack of progress and listen to him try to give us practical suggestions for how to overcome this obstacle. I felt humiliated, vulnerable, terrified, anxious, and depressed. I didn’t understand how this could be as simple as a sin issue that I needed to repent of. When I was told that I was in sin, it only heaped on more shame. I wondered what I had done to deserve this burden. I felt that my husband didn’t deserve this either, but he never, ever made me feel guilty or pressured me. By God’s grace, we only grew closer together, rather than apart, during this season. My husband was my biggest supporter and lifeline. This went on for two years until we moved back to California.
Now, I need to take this opportunity to say something important. If you are reading this, and you are one of the people who tried to help us those first two years, I am not bitter towards you. I simply have to share this part of my story because it has so largely shaped who I am today. It’s extremely unfortunate that you had to face a counseling situation that you had not been properly trained to handle, but this is one of the reasons I’m sharing this story. The counseling I received during that time deepened my discouragement and led me into more depression and anxiety. We need to equip counselors to better understand that there are physical disorders that are not always obvious, even to doctors, and not to jump so quickly to the idea that a person is in sin. Even my own doctor didn’t know how to treat my problem. Most gynecologists are not fully educated on all sexual dysfunction and disorders, so I wouldn’t expect Christian counselors to be either. To those of you who have since reached out to me and sought my forgiveness for how the situation was handled, you were forgiven a long time ago, and I am thankful for those restored relationships. Unfortunately, there are some people out there who have been made aware of my story who are still skeptical that the problem was that of a physical nature, and not a spiritual one. This is very harmful thinking.
When we moved back to California, we started attending a new church. I fell head over heels for this church. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, filled with the most beautiful, kind souls. Every day, I felt like God used this church to repair my weary, tired heart. I’ve belonged to Jesus for a long time, but I believe it was at this time that I really discovered who Jesus is: his true, fierce love, his grace, his compassion. I experienced it all through this little church in Santa Clarita, California. Ben and I became close to one of our pastors and his wife. We decided to share our story with them in hopes that they might have some solutions. They had none, but instead, they responded with the utmost grace, and offered unwavering support and prayer for us. They never once made me feel like this was my fault, or that my unrepentant sin was the cause. I cannot stress enough how much this strengthened and encouraged our hearts.
The next three and a half years went by with no progress. We happily served in our church, made lifelong friends, and really enjoyed our life together in spite of the fact that we had yet to consummate our marriage. We hadn’t given up, we just didn’t know what else to do. I had gone to a different gynecologist who suggested I have a surgical procedure done that might resolve my problem, so of course I scheduled it right away. No luck. As happy as I was with Ben, part of me still felt like I wasn’t whole. I felt depressed and hopeless at times. I wondered if this would ever happen for us, if I would ever be normal, if we would ever have babies.
Then in March of 2015, Ben called to me from the other room, “Babe, you need to come see this right now.” I walked into our bedroom and looked at the computer in front of him, where he had a video pulled up. He pressed play. For 15 minutes, I watched and listened as a woman described exactly every single symptom I had been experiencing since our honeymoon. Our stories sounded absolutely identical. Until this point, I had never heard a single person describe an experience even close to mine. After the video finished, I started reading the website. It was a website belonging to The Women’s Therapy Center in Plainview, NY. I started reading about physical, sexual disorders that I had no idea existed, and the treatment that was offered for those disorders at this therapy center. The therapy center treats a vast majority of issues, but the most common are called vaginismus and dyspareunia (painful sex). Not only do they treat it, they CURE it. And they have a 100% success rate for women who have completed the entire treatment plan. The book “Private Pain,” which was written by the two doctors who opened The Women’s Therapy Center, defines vaginismus as “an involuntary, instantaneous tightening (spasm) of the pelvic floor diaphragm. This spasm causes the openings in the female genitals to become constricted and makes penetration painful or impossible.” It is so much more complex than this simple definition, and I highly encourage you to read the article linked at the bottom for further education on this condition. After reading all of this, I had so many emotions running through me, but the greatest one was pure relief. I wasn’t crazy! I wasn’t making up this pain in my head! I actually had a medical condition that had a name. A diagnosis. Validation. I cried and cried. Then I wrote out my whole story and emailed Dr. Katz and Dr. Tabisel, asking for details about getting treated. They wrote back almost immediately and confirmed, yes, I have vaginismus, and I can be cured. Ben told me the cost didn’t matter; I was going. This was God’s answer. So we booked my trip for August of 2015. In the months in between, I joined a private Facebook support group that was facilitated by these two doctors, and there were so many women going through the exact same thing as me, and also women who had gone through treatment and had been cured. That group of strong women was a balm to me, and ever so encouraging.
The treatment was going to take two weeks. I flew out to New York for the first week by myself, Ben would join me the second week. I was so terrified. But these angel doctors made me feel like I wasn’t just a patient. I was family. They so genuinely cared about me and empathized with me. When they began my therapy, Dr. Tabisel sat next to me and held my hand. She was the emotional support, while Dr. Katz was the tough love, the one who kicked me in the pants and told me I could do this. She pushed me and told me I was capable, that I was strong. After the second day of treatment was when I made my breakthrough. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and I knew that second day without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to be cured. Ben arrived at the end of that week, and at the beginning of the second week of treatment, we were able to have sex for the first time in almost 6 years of marriage. Pain-free. And, it has never been painful since. Just like that. Six months after I had completed treatment, I got pregnant with our son. Without these doctors and the passion they have for women like me, we would not have our son. They are unforgettable, incredible, strong, beautiful ladies who have dedicated their lives to helping women like me overcome our obstacles so we can live normal lives.
There is a massive ignorance concerning issues of this nature within the church. People in leadership are not typically trained how to counsel couples through these kinds of problems, because they are unaware that they even exist. I know this because I’m not just speaking about our experience. There are so many testimonies I’ve read or watched from Christian couples who went to their church leaders for help and were met with responses that no Christian leader in the church should ever, ever give. I’ll list a few responses from my experience, and also from others:
- “You are in sin. You’re not giving yourself to your husband, you’re being fearful and defiant towards God and towards your husband, and must repent.”
- “This is all in your head, mind over matter.”
- “You need to just force yourself into her whether she wants to or not. She’ll get over it after a few times.” (This is a dangerous, slippery slope that can very easily lead to rape. Rape happens within marriages all the time, and if this is happening to you, get out and get help immediately)
- “You can’t serve in leadership in this church any longer because your wife won’t have sex with you.”
- “Your marriage doesn’t actually count as a real marriage since it isn’t consummated. Technically, if you wanted to leave her, you’d need an annulment and not an actual divorce.”
- “I have never heard of someone not being physically able to have sex. God created your body to do this.”
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. You can see how these types of responses sent me spiraling into a depression our first two years of marriage. These kinds of responses are so common specifically within the Christian church and it is wrong. It is ignorant. It is my hope that we can start to educate people about sexual disorders/dysfunction/painful sex/etc, so that we can start directing women how to get the best, most effective help. I’ll be listing some resources at the end, so please, please take a few moments to read through them. We all need to know how to help others and raise awareness to this quiet, but not uncommon problem. Here’s the thing: sex should not be painful. If it is, there is an underlying cause, and a solution to be found.
Church, biblical counselors:
-Do not write someone off when they come to you with such a personal, vulnerable problem. Sit with them, listen to them, pray with them and for them, spend time researching for answers. You will cause so much damage otherwise. Bear one another’s burdens, don’t add to the existing burden. I’m begging you.
-If you don’t know the answer, don’t act like you do.
-Let’s also work hard to not allow the subject of sex to be so taboo. Why should it be? If it wasn’t, I truly believe a lot more people would be so much more open to discussing it and getting help. We’ve made it this way, so let’s work together to change that.
-We need to make sure we’re educating our daughters about their bodies and teaching them to view them in a healthy, positive way. They need to know how their bodies work, when to spot problems, and not to be afraid of their own bodies. So many parents do an amazing job at this, my own included, but many do not. They’re afraid to talk about sex with their daughters. It makes them uncomfortable. They shelter and teach their daughters that sex is not to be discussed, not to be questioned until you get married. This is so harmful, because it inevitably leads these girls to find answers to their questions in places they shouldn’t be finding them, or they just won’t find answers at all, which is equally harmful. It will very likely lead them to have warped views of themselves. Parents, create a safe space in your home to have these conversations with your daughters so that they feel completely comfortable coming to you with questions. Educate yourself thoroughly so that you can teach them. How can we send our daughters cluelessly into a sexual relationship in marriage? My personal vaginismus diagnosis was not caused by a lack of education or fear of my own body, but after researching and listening to others’ stories, this is often what can lead to a vaginismus diagnosis. If you intentionally or unintentionally teach someone to view sex negatively, or instill fear/uneasiness into their hearts & minds about sex, getting married isn’t going to magically change that.
No matter the cause, no one should ever feel shame because of a physical disorder. The church should be a safe and helpful place to talk. This is a story for those who feel stuck, hopeless, and beaten. This is for the ones who fight their battles within themselves when there’s no one to talk to, or when no one will listen. We are quiet warriors and if your story is similar to mine, email me. I want to talk to you! You are not alone.
My email address:
Women's Therapy Center: I highly recommend anyone to just read through this entire website. These doctors address everything related to female sexual health and openly welcome any and all questions you might have. They personally respond to you within hours. You will find multiple videos of women/couples who share their vaginismus stories and success in defeating it.
For information about vaginismus
For information about dyspareunia (painful sex)
My name is Emily, I live in Texas, I am married to Ben and mom to Holden. I want to share my vaginismus story in hopes of helping and offering support to other women, and also help the church know how to better counsel people through complicated sexual disorders/dysfunction.