A Tale of Pap Smears and Gyn Exams: A Case for Hope
18-28 years old – Ignored the fact that I *should* see a gynecologist because I was terrified. I couldn’t insert tampons, wasn’t sexually active, and was convinced something was wrong with me but rather than do anything about it, my go-to coping skill was to pretend everything was fine and ignore it.
29 years old – Convinced myself that it was time to be an adult and just go. It was a horrible experience. I was able to complete the pap smear, but the pain was intense.
The doctor was dismissive. The one good thing I guess that came from this is she told me my anatomy was normal. Good, I guess? But the pain was real and terrible. I decided I wasn’t ever going back!
30 years old – I convinced myself to try again. I reasoned that the previous year was my very first visit to the gynecologist so hopefully the 2nd visit wouldn’t be as bad. Wrong.
It was terrible. I mean, are they trying to kill me in here? Because that’s what it felt like.
31 years old – 45 years old – Stuck my head in the stand. Just completely ignored the fact that I *should* go back. Carried that secret around.
When coworkers or friends shared stories of their visits, I laughed alongside their funny stories and agreed with whatever they said and hoped they didn’t ask any more questions.
Avoided intimate relationships. Only used pads. So much shame.
I Decided that the gynecologist who told me my anatomy was normal either lied to me or missed something because I still couldn’t insert ANYTHING into my vagina.
46 years old – (Yes, 46! Bravo to all of you who found courage to address vaginismus at a younger age. I wish I did. But it’s never too late!) Started therapy and got the courage to tell the therapist that something was wrong with me. I would never be able to have sex and I couldn’t wear tampons and I avoided annual exams because it felt like they were cutting my insides open with a knife and I wasn’t exaggerating.
I love my therapist!
She listened, empathized, and convinced me to make an appointment with a different doctor who she recommended as being kind and compassionate and ask to have a conversation with her before undressing.
Two weeks later, I walked back in that therapist’s office and she handed me a piece of paper with the word “vaginismus” on it and said “I’ve been researching and consulting with colleagues. I think this is what you have.” I had never had a name for it and somehow just having a name started to ease a little of the shame.
Also 46 years old – made that appointment for an exam with gyno. She talked with me first and was kind and compassionate. She went slow, used the pediatric speculum, talked me through everything, and was kind. It was still absolutely excruciating.
She suggested physical therapy and wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant (and a muscle relaxer – which didn’t help at all). I seriously was in pain the entire rest of the day from that visit.
Also 46 years old – Found WTC through research once my therapist had given me the name “vaginismus”. Shared the website with my therapist and asked if she thought it sounded crazy. She said no – she thought it sounded great.
She got excited for me which helped me have the courage to make the phone call and have the initial consult visit.
47 years old – Spent two weeks in NY at WTC for my vaginismus treatment. I flew there in a pandemic. It was early in the pandemic, pre-vaccines, and when flights were almost empty. I had to quarantine the entire two weeks at the hotel except for my visits to WTC. It was the very best investment in myself! I went home cured!
Also 47 years old – Went back to the gynecologist with a smidge of nervousness and a lot of excitement! Told her I was “cured”. She said great – she was happy for me. But she was skeptical I could tell.
She told me since my pap smear the year before was normal, and because that visit had been so traumatic, she was willing to skip the pap that year and just do a visual exam.
I said NO!
I told her I needed her to do the whole exam, pap and all, and to use the regular speculum please and while kindness was always appreciated, I needed her to treat me like a very routine patient.
I couldn’t believe I was actually ASKING for the very thing I had avoided forever! She did. It was easy and completely pain-free, and she was amazed.
I left there on cloud nine.
48 years old (today) – Went back for my “annual” exam. But really it had been about a year and a half just due to unrelated life circumstances.
I felt no excitement this time, but also no dread or fear. It was just something on my list of things to do today. “Call the pharmacy, get my exam / pap-smear, work meeting at 2:00, pick the dog up from the groomer, etc.”
Seriously – just a routine thing. It was again quick, easy, and pain-free.
I left the exam thinking: “Check that off the list. What’s next?” and I was mentally moving on with my day to the next thing I had to do.
Then it hit me!
I remembered talking with doctors at WTC about how the goal was for exams to become just neutral. I mean, most people in the world don’t get excited about them. But they are part of life and being healthy – like going to the dentist.
Actually, for me, I can go to the dentist just fine, but I find that process more tense than I do a pap now. Those exams that I avoided for most of my life and that caused so much fear, shame, and pain, truly are completely neutral to me now.
That is amazing! Thank you doctors!
D.C. (January 2022)