What happens when a fundamental piece of your relationship is excruciating?
Imagine your significant other: boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, favorite goat. Now, picture not being able to have sex—not because you're uninterested in sex, not because you're separated by oceans and continents, connected only by steamy emails. Instead, sex feels like a dull, rusty steak knife being twisted and jabbed where no dull, rusty steak knife belongs. Doctors can't seem to diagnose it, much less treat it. Bleak, isn't it? When I was 24, sex just hurt, for no discernible reason. Eight long months later, I learned I had a condition known as vulvodynia, a medical term which roughly translates to "no sex for you, missy."
I come from sturdy peasant stock, so the discovery that sex was about as pleasant as a nail file being raked down my cheek was rather shocking. With my bone structure I should not only be able to have sex, I should be able to give birth to a Volvo while casually discussing the peccadilloes of George Clooney. We all know that sometimes sex hurts the first time; weeping discomfort is not the stuff of bodice rippers, but I don't think there's a reasonable human being alive who expects the reality of the first time to match a story featuring brawny men with flowing locks. But when sex remains excruciating, the problem ceases to be a mere annoyance and begins to burrow into your psyche.
My boyfriend was as patient and understanding as can be expected for a man who hadn't had much of a sex life in almost a year. Nobody wants to hurt the person they love, especially not during the most instinctual demonstration of that love, one that is, incidentally, supposed to be rollicking good fun. Reality can be brutal, and the reality of vulvodynia is that the lightest pressure on my inner thigh felt like someone dug a pointy fingernail into my skin and yanked downward. Nerve centers fired rapidly, causing the interior muscles to quiver in pain until they were so exhausted they simply gave up.
Sometimes it hurt to walk. For over a year it hurt to use the bathroom. A year without sex, a year in which my relationship frayed at the seams, a year of feeling entirely deficient because the tenets of basic human biology didn't seem to apply to me, and I had no idea why. A year spent tamping down the primordial urge to throttle anyone who tried to shuffle me out of doctors' offices with a cheery, "Use more lube and it will go away on its own!"
My state of mind was what most people would categorize as "witheringly depressed." I was young and didn't realize that I wasn't, in fact, the only person in the world with this problem. Maybe it was vestiges of my angst-ridden, teenage woe, but I'd never heard of anything like this. My friends didn't talk about it. Painful sex wasn't what made the headlines in popular media. I didn't know it existed. My doctors didn't know it existed. Yet, statistics show that as many as one woman in six might suffer from vulvodynia in her lifetime, often thanks to unknown causes.
Finally, I unearthed a specialist (there aren't many). When I told my new physician that my last gynecologist tried to pawn me off on a psychiatrist—the problem being all in my head, of course—this debonair, 70-year-old man started banging his sparsely covered skull gently against his walnut desk. After my exam, I walked into the afternoon sunshine with a diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a hefty bill. If you were wondering, validation tastes like a $500 cone of caramel fudge ice cream.
But it still took two more years of experimentation with gels, antidepressants, physical therapy, and doses of electro-shock therapy to my delicate bits before sex was comfortable. It was a long two years, years in which my self-esteem plummeted and my relationship splintered and finally dissolved. Sex is a fundamental part of a romantic relationship, and when that aspect isn't an option, it becomes hard to hold the other parts together. Fortunately, I am completely cured, but I occasionally have a flareup and will visit my doctor for follow-up treatments.
All of humanity, most of the animal kingdom, and half the world's flora have sex—and now I do, too. It was a frustrating and sometimes devastating journey, plagued by the persistent fear that I might never have a normal sex life and gnawing guilt that I was keeping my partner from the same. But there is treatment, which means there's hope for misfiring pain receptors in groins everywhere. Sex is rollicking good fun, and I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have firsthand experience.
Amber Adrian is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She likes green sneakers, coffee beans, and clean sheets.