I knew there was a problem when I was 16. I was at the park with some high school sophomores, male and female, and we were talking about the body and sex. I couldn’t understand the concept of anything entering my body, and the thought of using tampons had also always unnerved me. Girls and women had emphatically told me numerous times that tampons are more comfortable and convenient than pads. I just couldn’t bring myself to try. That night at the park I realized that I had no idea how my body worked. I did not even know where this opening was that could fit a tampon, finger, or even a penis. I figured that I should try to use a tampon to prepare myself for the other stuff, which still seemed to be in the distant future. As much as tampons had always freaked me out, pleasuring myself or allowing someone else to were thoughts I was not ready to even consider.
My friend, Katie, and I decided that we would both try tampons during our next periods. I couldn’t wait. Somehow I thought I’d feel more grown-up, more like a woman, once there had been something in my vagina. With the pressure of womanhood along with the fact that my friends all knew I was trying tampons, I was understandably nervous when my period arrived.
I marched alone into the bathroom and read the instructions on the box. It said nothing about how to find the hole that the tampon would be inserted into. The box simply instructed me to relax, place the tampon applicator into the vaginal opening and gently glide it in. I was confused, but my friends would be waiting for the news so I had to figure out a way to make it work. I applied pressure with the tampon to the general region, but that part of my body felt completely solid; no area gave way to the pressure of the tampon. Overcome with fear of my body and devastated that something might be wrong with me, I let the tears stream down my face. After settling for a pad I sat on the bathroom floor, staring at the tampon box with disbelief that I was a failure at something that EVERY woman can do.
When my friends found out about my lack of success they made suggestions about using mirrors and trying to relax. They even brought me to the bookstore and we looked at pictures of exactly where the opening should be. Disconcertingly none of the pictures seemed to resemble what I could see in the mirror. For about a year, I kept trying every once in a while, using new tricks and relaxation techniques. I would not let anyone else try to help me or even be in the bathroom with me. Being an excessively private person, I would just have to deal with it on my own.
The situation became a joke among my friends. At some point their joking caused me to stop thinking about the seriousness of what I was going through. I could live without tampons and without masturbation. Also, since most of my friends were still virgins, I didn’t feel pressured to have sex. My casual attitude toward the matter was also encouraged by the fact that no one really believed that I didn’t have a hole. I guess my friends figured it was just an attention ploy. It wasn’t until I figured out just how known the story had become that the jokes stopped being so funny.
One night I was at a concert in my town and an older guy who I had never seen before came up to me and asked, “Aren’t you the girl without a hole?” Shocked and horrified I turned and ran out into the parking lot. I stood in the dark trying to breathe. The night air spun around me. There were a few stragglers outside, but I had never felt so alone.
My empty feeling began to subside when in the spring of my junior year Shane, a guy who some of my friends were obsessed with, asked me out. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I said yes. One night he asked me if I’d ever had sex. I instinctively returned to my joking mode and said that I couldn’t because I didn’t have a hole. I was surprised that he hadn’t heard. He laughed thinking it was nonsense. “What am I going to do with you?” he asked playfully. “I don’t know,” I answered honestly, but with a deceivingly lighthearted smirk.
After a few months of dating, Shane and I did attempt intercourse. We had been drinking a little and the situation was not something we had planned. He was not a virgin. Supposedly he was quite experienced, so naturally, I thought that he’d be able to simply find my hole and make it work. No such luck. We poked around together and I just became upset. It was useless and I felt like a failure once again. This was the end of Shane and me, but more importantly, it was the proof I needed to make everyone understand that I really didn’t have a hole. I recently found out that Shane and his friends made fun of my lack of a hole when I wasn’t around. They had actually challenged each other to try to sleep with me to see who could be the first to find it. I was not aware of this as it was happening, but I am not sure it would have mattered.
I only cared about being like other people my age. I was dumbfounded as to why my body didn’t work. By this time I was so fed up that I asked my mother to make a gynecological appointment for me. Two days before my eighteenth birthday I went to see a doctor. I couldn’t explain myself without a burning feeling in my eyes and pools of water forming above my cheeks. Unfortunately, the doctor was not nearly as moved by my story as I was. It seemed as though she didn’t believe me any more than Shane had when I had first broken the news to him.
In the examination room, the gynecologist said that she didn’t need to use the speculum on me and that she’d start with a Q-tip. I was shocked that she’d even mentioned the word speculum. The thought of anything at all inside me seemed impossible. I certainly hadn’t been considering that she might attempt to fit a speculum into my nonexistent opening. The doctor neared the area with a Q-tip, but it didn’t make it past the surface. I was crying violently. It really did hurt. She tried several times and then told me to get dressed. I was so disappointed in myself. I had thought that everything would be better after my visit. Once again, my friends were waiting to hear the news. Professional confirmation of my fear that I didn’t have a hole was not the news I’d had in mind. When the doctor returned to the room to talk to me she said that one of her friends had been like me and she had “gotten over it”. She said that psychotherapy might help and gave me the number of someones local, but I didn’t think there was any point in seeking therapy for a problem that really did not exist. I was devastated and hopeless. I was not any better and I was not even headed in the direction of overcoming my problem. I thought I was destined to be “holeless” forever.
A month or two later my friend, Scott, was reading an informational sex book at my house with another friend. The thought of sex made me too sad to pay attention to them, so I sat alone watching television. Suddenly Scott jumped up and rushed the book over to me. He pointed to a bold print word and exclaimed, “This is it! This is YOU! This is what you have!” Vaginismus, it read. There was only a tiny blurb, but it did describe me. This was what I had! That night I searched the Internet and printed out a folder’s worth of information. The steady stream pouring from my eyes blurred my view of the screen, but I could see enough to experience the relief of knowing that my problem had a name and I was not alone.
One day, shortly after that wonderful night, I tucked my folder under my arm and returned to the office of the same gynecologist I had seen a month earlier. “I know what I have,” I said bravely, pointing to the label. “Yeah, I know,” she said, “I have it written down.” She showed me her notes. Vaginismus was scribbled on the page. I was speechless. When I had composed myself a little I asked through tears, “Why didn’t you tell me?” She answered that she thought it would have been pointless because I had never heard of vaginismus. I told her just how much better I had felt when I had discovered it was a real disorder with a name, something that other people had, too. She shrugged her shoulders and reminded me that she had told me about her friend who had it. Obviously, though, she hadn’t made it clear that what her friend had “gotten over” was a disorder. I left her office feeling angry and let down. The doctor did schedule a meeting with a psychotherapist for me, though.
I started seeing Terry, the psychotherapist, in February and stayed with her until August, right before I left for my first semester in college. Terry knew nothing about vaginismus or how to cure it. In fact, during my second visit, she had to pull out her medical dictionary and look it up. She spoke to me of possibly going to treatment with dilators. As far as I could tell I would never be ready for that as long as I was completely impenetrable. Looking back, I think her sessions may have hurt me further. Terry was a religious woman and she tried convincing me that wanting to have sex at this point in my life was wrong. Before I started therapy I hadn’t thought that way. My parents had always seemed to have a more open view of sex. Even before I had started my period my mother had “the sex talk” with me. She told me that I was to let her know as soon as I wanted to “be intimate” with someone so that we could take the appropriate precautions.
Terry wasn’t going to be able to change the beliefs I had grown up with, but she did set me off course for a while. She carried her belief to the extreme and reiterated often that I should concentrate on finding someone who didn’t want to have sex. She thought that if I met the right person I’d magically be cured. I did not think this was true, but I could not make her understand. Her little explanation didn’t cover the tampon problem, but arguing became tiresome and I guess I kind of gave in and started living according to Terry’s words. I began hanging out with a new set of friends, one quiet boy in particular, who hadn’t wanted to have sex with his last girlfriend, my close friend, Jessica. Nothing really happened between him and me because, although I valued him as a person, I realized that the main reason I had developed feelings for him was that he didn’t want to have sex. His attitude towards sex potentially could change at any time.
Once I realized that I’d been doing this and decided, undoubtedly, that I did not want to live according to Terry’s relationship advice, my goal for my therapy appointments shifted. For the last three months, we only talked about college and how to cope with meeting new people. Terry would not let me say that I was different from the people I’d meet.
When I arrived at college, however, I discovered that I actually was different. Everyone talked about sex. The few students I met who didn’t have sex had made a conscious decision to wait for various admirable reasons. In contrast, I felt embarrassed and hopeless. At least these people knew they’d be able to have sex someday if they wanted to. I felt more out of place than ever.
With refreshed determination, I dove into the Internet again. This time I discovered The Women’s Therapy Center, a place that actually specialized in vaginismus! I nervously made a call to the center, expecting to wait for months before being fit into the schedule, but they had an opening in less than a week. I was also lucky that my school schedule worked out so that I didn’t have Friday classes and therefore had that day open every week for appointments. The setback was that the place was located almost four hours away from my school and about two-and-a-half hours away from my house in Connecticut. My family had to make sacrifices to overcome the distance. My parents, who have been supportive all along, agreed to help me with transportation since I didn’t have a car. On Thursday nights my father would pick me up and drive me to our house, which is two and half hours away from school. On Friday mornings I would drive to Long Island for two-hour appointments and then drive back home. In the evening one of my parents would drive me back to school. This arrangement was to take a larger toll on my energy and therefore on my academic work and social life than I had anticipated. But at my first appointment, I knew it was the right decision. For the first time, I felt real hope that I had a chance of getting better.
Once involved in appointments the problem was that trust is a big issue with me. I don’t trust people in everyday life and two professionals, the gynecologist, and the psychotherapist had both let me down. Being able to trust Ditza Katz and Ross Tabisel was going to take a miracle.
Privacy was another big issue. The thought of other people looking at and touching my body anywhere was more difficult for me than anything I’d ever been through. Because it was that part of my body in particular, which had already been checked out without success, made the situation seem impossible. I hated the idea of someone getting to know my private parts through what seemed like inspection, week after week.
But I stayed. And I moved right along, each session with something new. By the end of the treatment, I could clearly say that I do feel better about relationships and about myself. I mean, I can wear tampons, can have a thorough gynecological exam, and can have intercourse. Also, due to my therapy, I am quite knowledgeable about sex. Even my most experienced friends come to me with questions, which was never even a glisten of a dream in my mind. As I approach my twentieth birthday, my confidence is ten times as high as it was a year ago.
Best of all, I am no longer known as “the girl without a hole!”*
* Results may vary from person to person