Breaking Free From Pelvic Pain

I apologize for my absence last week. The end of the summer has proven to carry about as much emotion as I can handle. There has been tragedy, about which I don’t have the heart to write yet, and there has been joy. The two juxtaposed together feel incongruous to my deeply feeling heart, but in reality, it’s just the way of nature (a topic perhaps I will be able to verbalize in the coming weeks).

Today, though, I want to talk about something incredibly personal and vulnerable. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me make reference to my sexual abuse. What I haven’t mentioned were the physical effects that abuse caused.

Vaginismus is a generalized term that doctors use to describe pain in the vagina, usually related to spasms or contraction in the vaginal wall with insertion of any object. Doctors “don’t know exactly why vaginismus happens,” as WebMD bluntly puts it, and six years ago when I first started to experience the excruciating pain associated with vaginismus whenever I tried to have sex, get a pelvic exam, wear a tampon, or even go to the bathroom, I was told that not only was the cause unknown, but so was the cure.

Basically, I was told I would live with near-constant pain all the time, and the best that I could do would be to stretch my stubbornly shut vagina with smaller objects before I had sex…if the pain wasn’t so bad as to prevent me from having sex.

Last year in April, I went in for the dreaded pelvic exam that I get every year. It was also the year that I had to get my merena replaced, and what was supposed to be a “painless” process of removing the merena and a “mildly painful” process of inserting a new one was so excruciating that I was doped out of my mind on tranquilizers and still managed to scream loudly enough to have a sore throat later. Ripping my uterus out would have probably been less painful.

I had the procedure done at Planned Parenthood, and the gynecologist who worked with me took some time to talk to me about my pain. It was the first time any doctor had ever sat down long enough to try to understand it. She wasn’t able to do anything in that moment to make what I was there for any less painful, but she mentioned that there was a physical therapy that could help me with my pain.

Naturally, I was afraid to hope. If it were treatable, why hadn’t I been told sooner? But I let her write me a referral to a physical therapy center in my area…and then I sat on it for two months in absolute terror of what physical therapy might include.

A year ago this month, I finally went to my first appointment and began a journey that has ended Friday with some of the happiest tears I’ve ever cried. I learned that the cause of vaginismus isn’t quite as “mysterious” as other doctors would have me believe. I learned that it wasn’t all in my head due to sexual anxiety triggered by the fear of flashbacks and memories of abuse; my pelvic muscles had suffered physical trauma just as my soul had suffered emotional trauma. No amount of talking therapy was going to address the injury that had occurred to my vaginal wall when I was a child.

But pelvic floor physical therapy could.

It was awkward as all hell going in to see a woman who would stick her finger inside my vagina once a week to teach my muscles how to relax. I think I wouldn’t have been able to do the work if I had gone before last year because there’s nothing in mainstream society that teaches us that vaginal insertion and vaginal massage can be anything other than sexual. It was something I had to learn through my voracious reading of feminist and sex-positive books.

It was painful as all hell too. Initially the only way to get my muscles to release their tension was through trigger point therapy, which basically stresses the muscle until it releases from exhaustion.

And, of course, it was hard as all hell. My muscles were so used to being contracted that relaxing them took effort, concentration, and training. I had to do internal work on myself in between my appointments in order for them to be effective. And the emotional work of my therapy definitely came in. In fact, I learned that muscles often hold memories and emotions. Releasing the muscle releases a flood of things that my mind has buried.

But this week, I finally graduated from my physical therapy with the majority of my vaginal and pelvic muscles at normal tension and tone. The therapist couldn’t fix everything. There’s permanent damage in some parts of my pelvis, but for the first time in my life, I can go entire days and almost weeks without spasms. I know what pain-free sex feels like. I know how to manage my pain and release the spasms when I have them.

So on some levels, the doctors were right. I will never be entirely free from pelvic pain.

But they were so so so wrong because managing my symptoms and pain now means reminding my body how to get to a pain-free place again rather than ignoring the pain.

Why am I writing about this?

Partially because I think we need to slough off the shame of talking about pelvic health. If I were having epiphanies associated with menstruation, I’d be writing about that too.

But mostly because I know there are other women out there who have pelvic pain and vaginismus, whether because of sexual abuse, a physical accident, or anything else.

And I know that they’ve likely been told the “cause” is unknown.

And I know they probably believe there is no treatment for it.

And I want them to now know that that’s not fucking true. There’s a difference between “complicated and caused by multiple factors” and “unknown causes.” There might be some ways in which this is “incurable,” but it’s not untreatable. If doctor’s believe the unknown and untreatable bunk, it’s because women’s sexual health isn’t taken as seriously, but there are people out there who care and who focus on helping women (and some men) heal themselves.

So as the successfully former patient, I’m here to say: There’s hope.

Four Ways to Legit Pamper Your Vagina

Every year, as some are aware, I have a month dedicated to honoring the female body and celebrating the vagina. It usually involves a party, reading, and lots and lots of crafting, followed by a post (like this one) passing on something I created, learned, or did in the hopes that more women will get inspired to celebrate their beautiful bodies.

This past year, I’ve also been undergoing physical therapy to treat damaged muscles in my pelvic floor. I discovered that physical therapy involved a lot of self-care in order for it to be effective. I also discovered that many of the books I’ve read don’t really go into vaginal self-care in depth, and it reminds me that, even with some fantastic sex/body-positive books for women, we still have a long way to go in disseminating all the information a vagina-possessing person could use.

So today, I’m going to share some of my favorite yoni luxuries.

1. Massage!

I love massages. If I could afford it, I would be getting a professional massage on a weekly basis. But for some reason, I had never thought to try massaging my belly and pelvis. I’m guessing most women haven’t because it’s not exactly the kind of thing you see Cosmo printing on the front cover.

However, there are lots of little muscles in the lower abdomen and around the outside of the vulva that can get tired and sore. The pelvic muscles benefit from a little bit of kneading just as any other muscle (especially around menstruation).

Obviously, it’s easiest if you have a partner who gives good massages and wouldn’t mind offering a non-sexual spa hour to your outer pelvis and abdomen; however, if you don’t have the partner or the willingness from the partner, there are ways to give the gift of a massage to your own belly. You can even create your own massage oil with coconut oil, olive oil, or sesame seed oil.

2. Yoni Steam (aka, vaginal steam)

Douches are bad for your vag. Let’s just put that out there. The vagina is a brilliantly functioning, self-cleaning machine and DOES NOT need to be washed out. Douching will only knock out of balance the flora of bacteria and yeast that keep that pussy healthy.  (Just look at these wet pussycats to get an idea of how angry your vagina gets when you douche.)

That being said, steams are awesome and super simple. Basically, bring a pan of water to a boil. Remove from heat (and probably turn off your stove), add in some herbs or essential oils. Some of the ones I’ve loved and that are beneficial for the yoni are rosemary, rose, calendula, and lavendar. Then sit over the steam pot, naked at least from the waste down, at a comfortable distance from the heat so that you feel it but aren’t in pain. You can get special chairs with holes in them, or you can just improvise in your own way to find a comfortable arrangement. The steam rises and relaxes the muscles, and the essence of the herbs works its magic on the mind and body. If you want to contain the steam for longer, wrap a blanket around your legs.

There’s been a recent surge of interest in yoni steams as a “beauty treatment,” which saddens me because it’s such a luxurious experience of self-indulgence and love on its own that it almost seems sacrilegious to turn it into yet another beauty standard. But it remains one of the “beauty treatments” that actually offers pleasure and health benefits, like a sauna for your lady bits.

3. Baths

This one seems so common-place that I shouldn’t have to put it down, but I do because I was told for years that baths were bad for women only to find out that it’s just the opposite. The first thing my physical therapist assigned to me when I began treatment was to take lots and lots of baths. Heat and water are healing and supporting, and I don’t know why we have developed a fear of their power.

4. Yoga

Add this to the list of health benefits for yoga: makes your vagina happy.

It’s more about the stretching actually, but yoga is my favorite way to get the stretching in. Poses like cobra, the arching cat, happy baby, child’s pose, goddess pose, garland, and basically any pose the stretches the abdominals or relaxes the pelvic floor is great.

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So go pamper yourself. Or help your partner/friend/whatever pamper herself. Not everything that happens “down there” has to be sexual or medical. Sometimes it’s just plain sensual. Happy yoni-loving!