GUEST POST: My Life With Vaginismus

I have often wondered why vaginismus has the emotional impact that it does. Why is the inability to carry out that one physical act so distressing? I guess there are a few different possible reasons that I can think of; other people may have different ones:

  • in our society sex has such a high profile everywhere that if you can’t do it you feel so excluded, almost as if you haven’t really made it into the normal adult world.

  • it is a part of relationships that is pretty much taken for granted – something that should come naturally to you. I have even read that a marriage could be annulled if it wasn’t consummated - I’m not sure if that’s true, but it shows the importance given to this aspect of a marriage. I certainly always felt that, because I couldn’t do this, I wasn’t a “proper” wife.

  • it is something you expect to be a pleasurable experience as part of a close relationship, so if it is missing there is a real sense of losing out.

  • obviously there is the impact on the chance of having children, which can be very distressing on its own.

  • it is such a taboo subject that you feel unable to talk about it to anyone. I have never once seen or heard it discussed in the media or anywhere else. Probably very few people have ever heard of it or even imagine the problem exists. And so you carry this strange, completely unwarranted sense of shame, as if you have a dark secret, feeling like you are living a lie - presenting a completely “normal” front to the world when you feel anything but “normal”. That brings about a massive emotional strain.

Anyway, I’ve set down my story below, in quite a lot of detail in the hope that different bits of it might help different people reading it.

I have lived with vaginismus for over 25 years – I’m now 51. For several years I didn’t know that I had a “condition”, I just felt like I was the only woman in the world who was unable to have sex. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, alone and basically a failure.

Talking to anyone about it could not have been further from my mind – it’s not the kind of thing you drop into a conversation with your friends and family, and I didn’t think anyone would be able to help me anyway. And so it remained our “secret”, always there in the background, hanging over us.

My husband is a gentle and patient person but doesn’t find it easy to talk about emotions.  I’m not particularly good at it either, so we just told each other it didn’t matter and carried on, hoping maybe it would get better on its own - we both thought it was our fault.

Something that should have been a loving and pleasurable experience became instead a source of great stress, anxiety, disappointment and frustration – of course, because of the nature of the condition, the more times you try and fail the worse it becomes, until eventually you stop trying because it is just too painful.     

I often wonder what caused my vaginismus but I don’t really know – I was never abused or raped and didn’t have any other bad experiences. I guess my upbringing was quite old fashioned by today’s standards but no different from lots of others in my generation so I can find no reasons there. I didn’t have any serious relationships before meeting my husband-to- be so I was certainly pretty naïve and inexperienced, but again lots of other people must have had that background without getting this problem. I can remember feeling a little apprehensive about it, a bit worried that I might be “too small” and/or it might hurt, and I was possibly anxious about getting pregnant at that stage, but again probably nothing that unusual. Whatever the cause, it came as a shock that the first time we tried it was like hitting a brick wall – it wasn’t supposed to be like this and I was so worried that it would happen again, which of course it did...

However much we pretended to ourselves that it didn’t matter, after a while the strain started to tell on our relationship. The impossibility of any children, which we both wanted, was certainly an important factor. In the seventh year of our marriage, notoriously a tricky stage anyway, we were going through a very rough patch and I became involved with another man – a friendship that developed into something more. Maybe I subconsciously thought that as I wasn’t a “proper” wife anyway it wouldn’t matter that much; maybe I thought that things might be different with another partner and I could learn how to do it with someone else – I don’t really know, I was pretty mixed up at the time, but I couldn’t carry on with the affair so I ended it within a few weeks and told my husband what had happened. Not surprisingly he was very hurt and we then had a very tricky spell, which we had to try and hide from everyone around us. While we were still trying to recover, my mum became very ill and died within a few months. It felt almost like a punishment for my affair and I also felt guilty that I had not produced a grandchild for her during her lifetime – I was 33 at the time so many people had babies by that age.

Some time afterwards, a good friend, noticing that I really wasn’t myself, persuaded me to go to the doctor and he told me I had depression. I was so lucky to have an understanding and sympathetic GP and I managed to tell him about my problem – the first person I had ever told. Only then did I discover this was a known condition that other people had and they could help me with. In those days the online resources we have now were not available to find out about things for yourself.

So I was referred for help and started to make some progress doing the exercises they gave me, to try and train my mind and body not to react in the way they always had. After maybe about three months I was still scared but ready to try again. It was really just like a training exercise the first time as we had to “practise” before my next appointment with the therapist. I didn’t really think we’d done it properly but something happened and again a couple of days later, so the therapist was very pleased with our progress.  

Soon afterwards I started feeling really tired and unwell – I couldn’t believe it when the doctor suggested I might be pregnant, as how could that have happened from just two “practice” attempts? But somehow it had. The doctors were quite worried about me trying to give birth but I said I’d give it a go – I ended up with a caesarean but by some miracle we had a baby, something we had never thought would be possible.

So you might think all the problems were solved? No………. Of course we wouldn’t have changed it for anything, but because the pregnancy happened so quickly the therapy stopped and we stopped the “practising” – partly because I had dreadful morning sickness for about 3 months and after that I was scared of doing anything which might harm the baby as there was the thought this could be our only chance – I was 36 by then and was told throughout the pregnancy that I was an “older” mother and high risk for everything!

With the exhaustion of being new parents and then me going back to work, we didn’t have the energy to go back to the therapy stuff on our own for a while. When we did, I found that the progress had all gone and we were back to square one. And that’s where we have stayed for the last 13 years – I never went back for more help as I felt embarrassed to ask again.

With such busy and tiring lives, up to now it has always seemed too difficult to try and tackle it all over again – we both work long hours and now with a teenage daughter we’re always kept occupied, not to mention there isn’t much privacy! We pushed it to the back of our minds and resigned ourselves to living without sex – you can always tell yourself that it’s not important and there is so much more to a relationship. But you can never really get rid of the hurt, however much you try to ignore it.

Until recently I had told only two other people in my life about my vaginismus and I don’t think they really understood it – I’m not sure you can unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. But a few days ago I was chatting to a friend who I’ve only known for three years but is very easy to talk to. We were discussing the fact that we only had one child each and this then led onto the reasons – for the first time in many years I felt able to talk about it again. My friend wasn’t shocked or surprised and our conversation left me thinking that  maybe it isn’t too late after all to still try and overcome this.

The thought of this is quite uncomfortable at the moment – it is something I have tried to lock away and forget about, but it has always been there, so with this new encouragement I have decided to face it again. This new motivation also led to me discovering The Vaginismus Network. I actually cried when I read the introductions that Lisa and Kat had written, because it was there in black and white that somebody else had all those feelings that I had experienced for so long but had been unable to express. Suddenly it seemed OK to feel like that, not over-emotional or self-indulgent. I’m hoping that I can go forward from here, not sure quite how yet but I think this network will really help me.

So that is my story so far. I’ve written this account as when I joined the network Lisa invited me to share my experiences if I would like to. I’ve found it very therapeutic to finally get it all out of my head and I really hope that some of it will be helpful to anyone else reading this who has been through the same thing.