Updated: Apr 27, 2018
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day for darkness is as light to You.” Ps. 139:11-12
It was the worst phone call I ever had to make.
I was sitting in our first apartment, legs tucked beneath me on our 70’s inspired floral couch, one of my hands clutching the phone at my ear while the other dug tiny red marks into my thighs.
“What’s the reason for your visit?”
My heart started hammering. “Um…I just have some questions. And—uh—I’ve been having some pain.”
“What kind of pain?”
My eyes screwed shut, and for a glimmer of a second I was glad I was at home instead of standing red as a beet in front of an OBGYN receptionist. “Just some pain. During—uh—during sex.” Half a truth. I tried to swallow.
“Have you visited any other clinics?”
“No.” I dug my nails harder into my leg, hoping the pain would distract me from the tsunami of embarassment washing over me. “No, this is my first time.”
“Ok. We’ll try to get you down. Now, I’ll just need a copy of your insurance…”
And so the conversation continued as I rattled off insurance information and tried to power through the awkwardness. And I knew this wouldn’t be the worst part. This was just the call to set up the appointment. And so it was set, for mid-October, and I tried not to think about how ridiculous I was going to seem with my legs propped up on an OBGYN’s table and my story about how I was still a virgin after nearly 3 months of marriage. It was stupid, I thought. I’m stupid. Stupid and apparently faced with a problem that I didn’t even know could physically be a problem. Looking back, I don’t know the words to express the amount of shame I felt making that phone call. The shame I felt by nature of the fact that I even needed to make that phone call. I felt crazy, and alone, and like somehow my marriage was less than authentic because I hadn’t lost my virginity on our wedding night.
But I went anyway. I sat in the waiting room and filled out a new patient paperwork form, and when I reached the section reading ‘Are you sexually active?’, my eyes blurred and my cheeks grew hot. I circled ‘no’ and pulled the clipboard further into my lap, lest I bear the added shame of anyone else glancing over their shoulder and accidentally seeing my ugly secret.
When the nurse called me in and took my vitals, she had me sit on the little bed covered in thin white paper and give a more detailed description of why I was there. So I tucked my hands under my legs and told her the whole story: that I was a virgin, even though I’d been married three months. That I experienced intense and burning pain whenever my husband and I attempted to have sex, ultimately resulting in our inability to consumate our marriage. At that point, my embarrassment bubbled over and suddenly I was crying, and the nurse gently put her hand on my knee and gave me a box of tissues. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” she said. “You don’t need to cry.” But I did cry. And I cried hard. I cried because I was twenty one and a newlywed and somehow I couldn’t have sex. I cried because I was embarrassed to even be talking to someone about this ugly secret I’d kept for nearly three months. And I was crying because I felt like somehow I’d been cheated out of something good. Something I'd spent most of my life guarding and saving for the night I became a wife.
But I didn’t have the energy to communicate that to the sweet nurse with the purple scrubs who probably didn’t want to take back the snotty tissue she’d given me. So she picked up a trash can and brought it to me, let me catch my breath, and then calmly asked me to undress from the waist down and wait for the doctor.
A few minutes later, the doctor came in and examined me. It was my first gynecological exam, and I had no idea what to expect. She didn’t talk while she moved around and probed me with icy cold instruments. I cried silently, reaching up to try and stifle a sob when she moved the speculum in a way that felt like something was ripping. “Just relax” she said, obviously irritated that I was moving around so much. Just when I was sure I couldn’t take it anymore, she stopped, put the instruments back on the side table and asked me to sit up. I have a lot to say about what went on next during that appointment, but I’ll come back to that sometime later. Long story very short—I was diagnosed with relatively severe primary vaginismus.
Now, for those of you who may not know, or for those of you who have found this blog and know all too well what I’m talking about: vaginismus is a form of sexual dysfunction in women “that causes the involuntary contraction of the peri-vaginal muscles (lower third of the vagina), resulting in a condition that prevents or makes vaginal penetration painful or even impossible.” There are two forms of vaginismus: secondary and primary. Primary meaning that the woman has never been able to achieve penetration of any sort (sex, tampon insertion, genealogical exams, etc), and secondary, meaning that the vaginismus has come from a trauma or change after vaginal penetration and intercourse has already been achieved without a problem. Doctors still aren’t sure what causes vaginismus, and because it’s such a ‘hush hush’ topic among women, it’s hard to discern how many suffer but then go undiagnosed. As a personal voucher for that, I had never even heard of vaginismus until that first OBGYN appointment. Even the idea that there was a medical name for what I was experiencing was a complete and total shock.
I wish I could say that that diagnosis changed everything. I wish I could say that I left that office enlightened and empowered. That I rested in the knowledge that I wasn’t really crazy.
But then I wouldn't be here.
So I went home and scoured the four corners of the internet searching for information about vaginismus. Stories or medical journal entries or WebMD articles that would somehow reassure me that this was a somewhat normal thing to experience. I found a few things here and there, mostly on weird forums or as brief sidebars in articles detailing the general aspects of sexual dysfunction in women. My heart sank deeper and deeper as I typed up “women with vaginismus in the US”—and every other variation of that combo of words—into a google search bar and came up with almost nothing.
It was months before I stumbled across Sheila Wray Gregoire and her blog “To Love, Honor and Vacuum”. Author of the book The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, she was the first woman I came across who had a detailed account of her struggle with vaginismus in the early years of her marriage. I remember sitting in our apartment and pouring over her blog posts, sobbing because I related so much to her words of pain and isolation. I read them over and over, soaking them in, stunned that I had finally found someone whose struggle reflected mine. And even more, she’d worked through it. Her words gave me something that I’ve come to believe is critical in the struggle with sexual dysfunction: hope.
But the shame—the embarrassment—and the crushing sense of being alone in that pain—physical and emotional—is why I felt compelled to start this blog and tell my story. In those early days, I would have given my right arm to have found just one woman who claimed the same sort of pain and brokenness that I felt buried underneath. And when I did, I held on to her story like a lifeline.
But one story isn’t enough. Or even two. Sexual pain and dysfunction is a topic skirted by churches all across the world. Women are taught about purity and the sacredness of sex and how we should give ourselves to our husbands. But we aren’t told about the “what-ifs” or the estimated 2-17% of women who don’t experience a joyful, body-and-soul bonding experience when they become one with their spouses. And so those of us who suffer underneath the umbrella of those statistics—hidden from the church and hidden from our friends out of shame and an inability to vocalize how we can’t reconcile ourselves with broken bodies—suffer in silence. Afraid to speak up because we fear being misunderstood, and because sexual dysfunction seems like an ugly, dirty thing, too raw and close to home to be communicated over coffee and snacks at small group.
And so the lies take root. The lie that we are alone in our pain and frustration. The lie that our marriages are a sham or that our husbands resent us for not being able to perform sexually. That sex and pain and depression are out of God’s arena of interest.
I believed those lies for so long. I wept in silence, I let bitterness take deep root, I secretly envied and resented the women I knew who enjoyed great sex with their husbands. Out of all the ways for God to humble or grow me, I thought, why did it have to be this? Why did it have to be something that so intensely affected my ability to love my husband, or someday bear the children I wanted so badly?
It took me two years of hidden pain, a year of depression and anxiety, doctor's visits and a total shattering of the plans I had for my future before I was finally able to speak my pain. First in long, difficult conversations with trusted friends and then on my knees, crying so hard my whole body felt sore the next day, I spoke my pain out loud to the One who tells me He does not change, and that His grace is sufficient.
To let go of shame is an ugly, gut wrenching process. It feels unnatural and uncomfortable to bring out the dark pieces of our heart and ask God to see them even when looking at them makes us cringe. I know I've had to audibly repeat the promises of God’s healing and forgiveness to myself during the darkest periods of this struggle. My brain tells me that I am broken, with an undesirable body that can’t satisfy my husband, and my heart tells me that the pain I feel can’t be conquered, and that it will sit heavy inside me like a boulder until I finally crack beneath it. But the Lord tells me that He is my refuge [Ps 46:1-2], that I am forgiven and cherished [1 John 1:9, John 15:9-17], and that His love will cover all of my shortcomings and sins [Galatians 2:20]. I am anchored in His love and mercy, and I am enough because I am the work of His hands.
I speak as one who has stayed hidden under a blanket of shame and secrecy for too long. The tears are flowing freely as I type out these words, because I know that I have been silent long enough, and that I have a story to tell of the love and promises of God. I hope with all my heart that this blog encourages those who struggle under the weight of vaginismus and other forms of female sexual dysfunction. My heart is breaking for you. No words of mine can take away the inadequacy and frustration that you are experiencing, but I am here to let you know that while you may suffer silently, you do not suffer alone. You are seen by a God for whom darkness is as bright as the day. He knows your pain, and His arms are strong enough to carry you as you mourn the things your heart has ached for.
I’m sitting here now, thinking of the way my story has evolved since my wedding night, or since the first OBGYN appointment or the first time I dared open up to someone about my diagnosis, and I know with great certainty that the story doesn’t end here. I am still in the trenches of my battle with vaginismus and my soul is still learning how to grieve the loss of things I wanted for my future while learning to rejoice in the sufficiency of grace and the Lord’s plans for me. So, I want to chronicle this journey. Not just for my own sake, but to reach out across the digital expanse and connect to other women who fight the same fight. To seek transparency of the most intimate kind and let my experiences point towards a God who listens and loves us with undying passion. In the words of the Psalmist, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” [Ps. 19:14]
Until next time,