But as much as I’d love to completely indulge in hyper-cynicism, I have to admit that dealing with pelvic pain has, in some ways, made my life better. And yes, that includes my sex life.
I know. Bear with me.
I wiped myself, shuffled back to bed, and waited for the next urge. My urethra was on fire. My clitoris felt like a screw someone was straining to tighten with a pair of pliers. Two minutes later, I was up again, Solo cup in hand. It would be another long night.
During the day, I carried the pain around with me, squirming in my seat during class, steadying my voice when I spoke, and envying those people lucky enough to merely be bored during a lecture.
I was also on a steady diet of antibiotics. My PCP, determined to treat my symptoms as a urinary tract infection, was prescribing me a marathon of meds. I ended up being on antibiotics for eight weeks straight. But the pain remained.
In the meantime, she sent me to a urologist. This man, after prodding me with catheters, urethral dilators, and various other devices, began medicating me for his diagnosis of bladder spasms.
But still, the pain remained.
I couldn’t have intercourse anymore, either. Before my symptoms started, rough, hard intercourse was one of the many flavors I comfortably enjoyed as part of my sexual diet. Now, it felt like my partner’s penis had suddenly been wrapped in sandpaper, and my vagina was having exactly none of it. Even the most cautious level of gentleness, preceded by extensive foreplay, was too uncomfortable to handle. I couldn’t even let my partner enter me.
As if that wasn’t enough, my clitoris – my once trusted sidekick, the source of (what used to be) my greatest pleasure – was now too painful to touch. Even during non-sexy times, my clit felt like an open wound someone was holding a lemon juice-soaked cotton ball to. And oddly, sometimes it was just the opposite, like my clit had switched off and was unable to feel anything. (It’s disturbing when you realize that you’ve gotten to the point where you’re grateful when your clit is numb.) Orgasms, if they came, were like my favorite song being blasted through a megaphone up against my ear: an odd, unsettling combination of a little familiar pleasure and intense, sickening pain.
As someone who loves physical pleasure, this forced celibacy and inability to feel good were heartbreaking. And what was worse, my doctors didn’t seem to have any solutions. I felt exhausted. Damaged. Confused. And trapped in a body that hated me.
She diagnosed me with pelvic floor muscle dysfunction (I’ll call it PFMD). The kind I have is hypertension—too tight. You know those Kegel exercises that Cosmo cheerfully guarantees will make your sex life the envy of all your friends? Well, my vagina, for whatever reason, was in a constant state of Kegeling, and instead of giving me a porn-level ability to cum, it was wreaking havoc on my nerves, my bladder, everything.
Apparently, all those “bladder infections” I had been treated for were really just healthy, normal levels of naturally-occurring bacteria in my urine. But if it acts like a UTI, it must be one, right? Right? And my so-called “bladder spasms” were just a shot-in-the-dark diagnosis by my urologist. I learned it the hard way: some doctors just throw pills at you if they can’t figure out what’s wrong. And their patients suffer for it.
It also doesn’t help that PFMD is severely under-researched in the medical community. Even though nearly 1 in 4 vagina owners will experience symptoms of it in their lifetime, most doctors don’t know jack-crap about it. And getting insurance for the specific kind of physical therapy needed is another pain-in-the-pussy (pun intended). Since this problem usually affects those with biologically female genitalia, you can thank good ol’ patriarchy for that one.
To be clear: if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms I was, it actually might be something that requires a prescription: a UTI, an STI, or something else. So get it checked out. But maybe drop the words “pelvic floor muscle dysfunction” during your visit, just for kicks.
She explained to me that because the bladder, urethra, vagina, and clitoris are so close together in the body, sometimes they act like four babies in a stroller: if one of them freaks out, they all start to freak out. Hence, my vaginal tightness messes up my bladder function, and my bladder pain is being referred to my clitoris (like how heart attack pain is sometimes referred to the left arm).
She taught me to use a dilator (imagine a very skinny, desperately boring dildo) to massage the trigger points inside my vaginal canal (like when you get knots in your back muscles). She also stretches the skin around my clitoris to free it up, and taught me how to “roll” my skin so I can do this to myself at home.
She taught me core exercises to do too, to reduce the overall strain on my pelvic muscles. I debated whether I should include some images of these exercises, but I’m not going to, because sometimes, an exercise that is therapeutic for one person will exacerbate a problem with another person. So, if you’re experiencing PFMD, it’s best to base your exercise routine on the advice of a PFMD physical therapist who knows your body.
My core exercises were picked specifically for me by my PT based on the positions in which I was least likely to clench my particular pelvis. There was a lot of trial and error involved, including performing these exercises at varying intensities with my PT’s fingers inside my vagina so she could feel when and to what exact degree I was clenching (imagine going through a Pilates class with someone’s fingers inside you!). This fingering-Pilates experiment helped us determine that I should only perform these exercises at 25% intensity; any more than that and I end up tightening my muscles and am in more pain afterwards.
She also taught me to “belly-breathe” into my diaphragm, which stretches my pelvic floor, and to let my pelvic floor “drop” throughout the day.
Finally, she constantly underlines the importance of taking care of my mind in order to take care of my body. She taught me specific yoga poses to stretch my hips, thighs, and butt, and encouraged me to seek out “Yin” or “Restorative” yoga to keep tightness at bay and improve my mental health. She assigned me short daily meditations, too.
After months of PT (and some help from a prescribed numbing cream), I began to be able to have intercourse again. But sex for me these days isn’t the rough, wild stuff of my yesteryears. Now it’s tentative, slow, and still, at times, impossible. My clitoral function wavers from (almost) back to fully functioning to distractingly painful even during non-sexy times. I’ve regained the ability to pee decent amounts again, and sometimes, it feels fine. And sometimes, it still hurts like hell.
Yeah. It all kind of sucks.
So, why does this happen to me (or to anyone)?
So, what’s the upside to all this?
1. I stay healthier now.
2. I have a greater appreciation of my mind-body connection.
3. I am a more compassionate lover.
4. I’ve learned to see the beauty in “boring” and savor the subtle.
Sometimes I compare my sexual sensory ability to a bloodhound’s ability to smell. There are plenty of times when I wish I couldn’t “smell” so well. I do miss the thrill of having my men rub my clit with abandon and pound me as hard as they could. At the same time, however, my body is so hyper-sensitive that now, just my boyfriend squeezing my thigh can make me wet. Our sex is slow, connected, teasing, forbidden, and, sometimes, intensely erotic. And our high level of bedroom communication has brought my lovers and I closer together.
5. I’ve destigmatized my body and its functions.
6. Finally, I’m a better advocate for myself in bed.
But I would be lying if I said that I haven’t gained anything from my pain either. I’m more proactive about taking care of myself. I’m unashamed of my body and its needs. And best of all, I have more feminist sex.