When it comes to periods, I was a late bloomer.
I didn’t get my first period until I was 18 – a statement which often incites jealousy amongst my menstruating peers. Given that it came quite late, I was a little behind the eight ball when it came to menstrual products. I was a loyal pad user in the beginning, until my mum, auntie and several friends began praising the sleek, streamlined, sophisticated tampon. Up until then, I’d always been intrigued by the little cotton-shaped cylinders my mum carried in her purse (for a long time, I genuinely believed they were bullets of some description).
After finishing up a shift at my weekend job, I nipped into the supermarket to pick up a box of tampons. I was overwhelmed with the choices available; mini, regular, super? Tapered design (what does that even mean)? Applicator? Sport? Organic cotton? Worried I was drawing attention to myself by hovering nervously in the aisle, I settled on a tasteful box of minis.
Back home, I bustled into the bathroom, ensuring I locked the door behind me. I tore off the plastic and twisted open my cotton cylinder. It was so little, it was almost cute, and I felt a strange affection for it. I pulled down my pants, stepped my legs apart and reached down between them. I poked and prodded for a while, searching for the right hole. Once I was confident I’d hit the spot, I began to push. It felt…wrong. Very wrong. All kinds of wrong. It was kind of like a burning sensation, not so much painful as downright uncomfortable.
I hiked one leg up onto the bench, thinking a change of position might make this process a little smoother. But it still didn’t feel right. It was like I was hitting a wall down there. A burning, rigid, uncomfortable wall.
Half an hour, a few tears and several tampons later, I emerged from the bathroom, resigned to being a faithful pad wearer for the rest of my menstruating days.
I never told anyone about my tampon experience, and did my best not to think about it, until I came across an article by Madison Griffiths on Vice. From that moment onwards, I quietly suspected that I probably had vaginismus (a condition that refers to an involuntary contraction of the muscles around the opening of your vagina that makes penetration painful or impossible). I was so embarrassed, I chose to live in a state of denial rather than talk to anyone about it. I even deliberately sabotaged my first ever romantic relationship, afraid of their inevitable disappointment when they realised that we couldn’t have sex. I felt broken, ashamed and isolated.
It wasn’t until a few years (and several failed attempts at penetrative sex) later that I decided to seek help. I spoke to my GP and got a referral to see a physiotherapist who confirmed my self-diagnosis. It was a huge relief to have a professional validate my experience. It was also extremely reassuring to have them tell me that treatment was available, and I would be able to enjoy penetrative sex and use tampons.
My treatment involved the use of dilators (which are about as fun as they sound) under the supervision of my physio, as well as at home. I also saw a sexual counsellor who helped me work through the anxieties that I had repressed for so long. Over several months, I basically learned to train my body (and pelvic floor) to chill out a little. Vaginismus is quite a fascinating condition in that the thoughts in your mind truly manifest in your body. Working through it helped me develop a stronger mind-body connection, and also got me in tune with my pelvic floor in ways I didn’t even know were possible (seriously, gals, there’s a whole lot happening down there that we should talk about).
Since telling friends about my experience with vaginismus, I’ve been blown away by how many of them have had, or know someone who has had a similar experience. It’s so important that we share these experiences with each other. We seem to be comfortable talking about good sex, but it’s about time we got comfortable talking about painful, uncomfortable sex, too. Staying silent only perpetuates shame, stigma and isolation. And no one deserves to go through this alone.
P.S. I really do need to thank Madison Griffiths. Without her article, I’m not sure this one would exist.
Sarah is a sociology graduate and freelance writing living in Melbourne. She is fascinated by issues of gender, sexuality and psychology. She can often be found reading, listening to music and watching Broad City.