Picture the scene: it’s 2016, you’re 15, and you’re on a week-long watersports trip with school. You return to your tent, weary after a long day of kayaking. You pull off your size-too-small wetsuit, and you notice the trail of blood making its way down the inside of your thigh. Your period has arrived. And you can’t use tampons. After a fruitless attempt by your friends to help you, which results in them wielding a Tampax and chasing you bare-bummed around your tent, the remainder of the trip is spent wearing jumbo pads under your wetsuit. The pads rapidly inflate as soon as they touch the water and feel akin to an adult nappy. You spend the rest of the week frustrated at your vagina for closing up shop without your permission.
I regret to say that 6 years ago, that was precisely the situation I found myself in, and unfortunately, it is an issue which I continue to face every month of my adult life. After a brief period of my teens spent in the absolute belief that I did not, in fact, possess a vagina at all, I finally came to understand that this could be attributed to a condition called vaginismus, an involuntary fear response to some or all forms of vaginal penetration where the muscles in your vagina contract, causing pain and making penetration almost impossible. It was reassuring to hear I wasn’t alone in my experience, but I still didn’t know how to solve it, and the thought of explaining it to my local GP sent shivers down my spine.
You may be familiar with the condition from its feature on the Netflix show Sex Education. In the show, Lily describes the condition to her friend, saying, ‘it’s like my vagina’s got lockjaw.’ Sadly, as it is a taboo issue, many women suffer in silence as they feel shame or embarrassment in discussing their problems with a GP. Even then, those who have the courage to seek treatment are often overlooked by their doctors. A 2013 study found that 35% of women in the U.S. spoke to a doctor more than 15 times about their vaginismus before it was properly diagnosed. Once diagnosed, it can be cured fairly simply through cognitive behavioural therapy or through the use of vaginal dilators. Lily’s story in Sex Education represented an optimistic shift in our attitudes and understanding of the condition and allowed many of those struggling to ask for help.
After my realisation, still afraid to seek medical help, I felt resigned to a life of pad-wearing. Great embarrassment was caused by the ultra-secure night pads I wore to school, which would rustle and crinkle as I sat down at my desk. In P.E., I had a hard time negotiating my jumbo pads with sports leggings and often sat out on days I was menstruating or wore long T-shirts which concealed the problem area. When my period caught me unaware, and I had to ask girls in my class for a pad, I dreaded the inevitable, ‘No, sorry… but I have a tampon,’ my request would so frequently be met with. In these times, I would trudge to the bathroom, tampon in hand, and make a futile attempt to force it inside me. Settling for a wedge of toilet roll wrapped around my pants instead, I would waddle back to class, defeated.
As I got older, I got sick of missing every fourth Wednesday swimming practice and decided to stop my periods altogether by taking the mini pill. However, either the pill itself or the fact I took it over the infamously depressing winter of 2020 caused me to feel pretty down. So I stopped taking it all together and reluctantly welcomed back my periods. After years of frustration, I’ve learned to live with the small monthly inconveniences of granny pants and sanitary towels, and other issues caused by my vaginismus have overtaken those of the pesky tampon.
Just like Sex Education’s Lily, my vaginismus, as far as I know, is caused by a perceived necessity for control. My mind discerns the act of penetration as an attack on this apparent control and instinctively ‘protects’ me from any damage it may cause. Ironically though, this defensive reflex ends up causing more harm than good.
I’m pleased to say that I have a clear sight of the light at the end of the tunnel (for want of a less euphemistic metaphor). After years of not understanding what was happening to me or why I’m well on my way to overcoming the condition. Either as a subconscious defiance of my vaginismus or through the natural process of growing up, I feel less need for control, and I’m learning that penetration isn’t so scary after all. Heck, it can be pretty fun! As I conclude this article, I’m recognising that the process of writing is in itself an act of relinquishing this craving for control. My period is due in 2 weeks. Fuck it, I’m gonna book a watersports holiday.