Vaginismus: opening up, literally and figuratively

I’d been in my friend’s bathroom for 20 minutes now, and the tampon was not going in. It was eighth grade, and my vagina felt trapped behind a brick wall that triggered excruciating pain at the slightest pressure of insertion.

When I finally tossed the tampon away in defeat, I walked out trying to express what it felt like. My friend said I must’ve been doing it wrong. I didn’t think so, but I also didn’t know how to explain that, instead, there might simply be something wrong with me.

I’m not sure when I first noticed the symptoms of my vaginismus. But I remember that at some point, either late middle school or early high school, I’d tried to insert a pinky into my vagina — and couldn’t get past the fingertip before the sharp pain compelled me to stop.

I used to think I was just unusually “tight” down there: I must be the unfortunate owner of a small, inflexible hole that likes to seal itself shut. But, that’s not actually the case. And the more I learned about the medical condition vaginismus, the more it made sense.

This tightness has nothing to do with the physical build of your vagina. It isn’t the result of any conscious muscle tightening, either, because no amount of mental relaxation alleviates the pain of hitting that wall. (And no, the wall here is not the hymen.)

This “wall” effect results from the involuntary tensing-up of your vaginal muscles, and the process is purely psychological. A common culprit behind the condition, according to medical experts, is a history of sexual abuse or trauma.

As a child, I was sexually abused in my home by two male family members, both of whom acted separately, on multiple occasions. I can’t remember how old I was or how long these incidents carried on. I do, however, remember throwing a tantrum out of fear and frustration one night when I couldn’t take it anymore.

I had unwittingly sealed those memories into the recesses of my mind until I started exploring my sexuality as a teenager. It was after those first miserable attempts at penetration prompted my research into vaginismus (and the likely causes of it) that I realized I had to come to terms with my molestation.

Not only did this explanation help me piece together the puzzle of my defective vagina, but it also illuminated other abnormalities I hadn’t even shifted my focus to yet:

Whenever my first high school boyfriend would move to touch my chest, my upper torso tensed up instantly — without any direction from me — the same way my whole body tensed up in fear whenever one of my abusers would try to touch me.

But my then-boyfriend only ever did it with permission. He always respected my boundaries, and I felt safe with him. Yet, it took conscious and strenuous mental effort to relax, and the always-lurking anxiety made it so that kind of touch just wasn’t enjoyable.

I still sometimes feel resentful toward my abusers for the physical and emotional agony they continued to inflict on me, in the form of vaginismus, for years after the acts themselves ceased. My ability to have a normal sex life was stolen from me before I could fully understand what sex was.

The first friend I opened up to about my condition encouraged me to speak with her mom, who’s a nurse. I was so excited to finally consult somebody who’d understand. Then, when I did, she immediately doubted vaginismus could be the case — simply because it was so (allegedly) rare.

Resources online also tend to paint vaginismus as a rare condition. But after opening up to more friends about it, especially during college, I found multiple other women who suffer the same symptoms.

That’s when I really began to question whether this affliction is truly so uncommon. Perhaps, it’s really just under-diagnosed. (It’s easy to imagine a slew of possible explanations as to why.)

Anyway, I pushed myself to heal over the years. My family didn’t have health insurance, so I was apprehensive about seeking a gynecologist. Of course, being a minor and living under my parents’ roof didn’t make the search for confidential and accessible health care easier.

Any time I could muster the courage, I would try to insert more of my pinky. When I got that down, I moved on to my index finger. Eventually, two fingers. Then one day, junior year of high school, I successfully inserted a tampon.

The toughest thing about vaginismus, and the biggest barrier to recovery, is the way your brain learns to associate penetration with pain. So, each time it happens, your vagina is prompted to contract even harder, thus causing more of the same pain that validates your trauma response. Do we see the cycle? What should be a step forward can often force a step back.

It wasn’t until freshman year of college that I first experienced penetrative sex without pain. It did hurt pretty intensely during the insertion, and then for the first minute or so after that. But it wasn’t unbearable like it used to be, and I wanted to keep going to see if the pain would fade.

It did.

That’s kind of where I’m at now. I’m in a long-distance relationship, and whenever I see my boyfriend after more than a few months apart, the vaginismus comes back — but only during insertion and, even then, only for a few days. For the most part, I’m now able to have sex without a problem.

At 19, I’m still extremely young. That’s part of why I’m so grateful my body has managed to come so far. Not only can I have painless sex at this point in life, but I’m even learning to enjoy the experience like everyone else seems to.

What helps, I think, is actively reminding myself that I’m safe with this person, that I can trust him to never hurt me. I’d already known these thoughts to be true, but repeating them in my head helps diminish the subconscious anxiety that had gone into overdrive about a decade ago.

I can’t fault my vagina, though. All of that effort was to protect my body from more potential intruders, and that serves to demonstrate the extent to which our brains are willing to do anything behind the scenes to keep us safe.

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