Last week, I shared a video from the BBC on my instagram, about a condition called vaginismus, and alluded to my experience with dyspareunia (painful sex). I encouraged women to seek GP advice or talk to me if they were experiencing this. To my surprise, 11 people reacted or directly messaged me on the topic (I’ve assigned them a random number to be able to refer to them anonymously throughout this blog).
I have written about a lot of the things I have been through before, but I’ve only ever alluded to the problems I have had in my sex life; I was always wary of what people might think when it comes to talking about sex.
But now, I’ve seen the reactions that opening up has had, and I’ve recently read Emma Barnett’s Period book, so maybe that’s why I feel empowered to share my story. Or maybe it’s just because, to quote one of my favourite actress-turned-activist, Emma Watson, “if not now, when? If not me, who?”
That doesn’t mean I’m feeling confident about writing and sharing this blog. I’m not. I’m scared shitless, absolutely terrified. I know some will judge me for writing what I wrote below, and consider this a topic that should not be talked about. Maybe I’ll go down in some people’s opinions. But I owe telling my story to the few that it will help. I owe it to Two, who messaged me to tell me she had been going through it for a year and a half, that as soon as someone touched it, it felt like agony, and said “I just want it done now”. I owe it to Six, who told me “thank you for talking about these things, we feel less alone”. I owe it to Four, who said she struggled with it in the past. And above all, I owe it to the ones who are so terrified and private they could not reach out, but are desperate to feel understood. So here it is, for all of them, the good, the bad, the ugly, unfiltered.
I hope that whoever reads this finds comfort in reading something they relate to. I hope men read it too, so they know what it feels like and are able to empathise more if someone they know is going through it. I’ll say one thing ahead of starting: ladies, regardless of how complicated it might seem for your partner, it is a million times harder for you. To quote my wonderful mom’s text from September 2015: “Alex is adorable and patient, it must be hard for him, but to sort this problem out you need to be a bit selfish and to not feel too guilty because it probably isn’t helping”.
The problem I had was, without the shadow of a doubt, the most physically painful thing I’ve ever experienced. Mentally, the load I carried over the three years it took me to find a solution was horrible.
I’m not saying that I was made to feel that way. My then-boyfriend, Alex, was actually as amazing and as supportive as one could have been given the circumstances. I remember lying in bed, sobbing after yet another failed attempt, the physical pain still pulsating, but the mental weight of shame and disappointment crushing me. As I cried, all I could say was “I’m tired of this. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t understand, I just want to be normal.” Alex was holding me tight against him, and managed to calm me down with simple words: “but you are normal, otherwise there wouldn’t be a word for it”.
Actually, before I start, I want to acknowledge the men that support women. When sharing my experience, I’ve had plenty of men telling me they “couldn’t have”. So I want to acknowledge the men who do the right things: the men who tackled Brock Turner when they found him on top of an unconscious woman, Alex, who kept telling me “whatever it is, we’ll go through it together”, Nine’s boyfriend, who pushes her away as soon as things get too heated, because he knows she wants to celibate until marriage, even though he doesn’t… I don’t want to acknowledge all men, but definitely these ones.
Alright, Let’s start from the beginning
One of the biggest leitmotiv of going through this was wondering “why me?”.
You see, sex was never a taboo growing up. My father having worked on a hospital ward with terminal patients with AIDS, and having witnessed the ravaging impact that HIV can have when untreated, never wanted his children to risk going through that. As a consequence, I knew all about contraception before I even hit puberty.
I never had “the big talk”, I just always knew. I never had any problems asking questions for myself, or my friends. My mum bought me my first thong when I said I’d like to try wearing some. My dad made sure I had a contraceptive pill packet with me when I moved to the UK in 2013, just in case. From the moment my older brother reached a potentially-sexually-active age, we had condoms available in the bathroom. I once mentioned in passing that the box was empty, and my father leaped out of the table to grab a new box and told me to put it the bathroom. My mother was also quite opened about regretting having sex for the first time because she didn’t want to be the last of her friend group. She told me “the importance isn’t to be in love, it’s to want it”.
Those are picked out examples over the years; sex wasn’t an overly present topic of conversation, but it was just as casual to talk about as calling your mom from the bathroom when you just threw up or asking whether you can order pizza tonight.
I also built myself without a boyfriend, and have always been relatively independent and strong-minded. I went through my teenage years watching all my friends going through their relationship drama, losing their virginities, popping other people’s cherries…
My first relationship only came when I was 19. By then, I was strong in my opinions, confident, and already smashing taboos right, left and centre. I was in my second year of uni, and used to have condoms in my purse during Liquid nights on Wednesdays, just in case my friends needed any. Safety first.
So why me? Why was it made so difficult for me, who had never had any problem or shame talking about it, and advising my friends? Why was I going through this alone, with absolutely no one who had experienced anything remotely similar? Why was I the one trying to describe a pain my friends and family just couldn’t comprehend, having never experienced it?
After years of trying to describe the sensation in a way other people could relate to, the closest I’ve come to it is: “it feels like you’re pressing on an opened flesh wound with very dirty fingers, only worse”. For me, it prevented penetration point blank. The pain was too much, and we had to stop every time.
We didn’t realise something was wrong at first, we thought it was just because I’d never done it before, that it was just the hymen. That’s when the flood of “this must be the solution” started.
The first thing we tried, was adding lube. The first lube we tried was Durex’s tingling one. THE MISTAKE. It burnt like hell. There are no other ways to describe it. I had to wipe it off and jump to the shower. Needless to say, no attempt of sex was made that night. Still to this day, when walking past this lube in a Boots, I glare at the bastard.
We were advised to try baby oil, but since it is not compatible with condoms (PSA: oil-based lubricants can break latex condoms), we decided to try another lube. I can’t remember exactly how I ended up trying Durex’s Sensilube, maybe it was recommended by someone, but the fact is that this is the lube we adopted.
For some reason (still unsure how to this day, putting it down to being really drunk), sex had worked a couple of times before I went home, in May/June time. When I came back to the UK in July, to move out of my second year house and attend Alex’s graduation, it hadn’t worked, and had reverted back to being so painful it was impossible. So I did what I do in most situations, good or bad, and I texted my mom.
“I’ve got a problem with Alex. I mean, not with Alex, but related. We tried to make love, and I can’t do it anymore, so I’m starting to block on everything again, and now I don’t want to do anything at all anymore”
“You need to stop pressuring yourself. Massages, stroking, tenderness, that should make you want things again. And making love, it will come when it will come. When you’re home, it might be good to speak about it with Bidal [my GP ever since I was 5]? Do you feel like it’s physical or psychological?”
“Maybe, yes. I think it’s psychological. The mood comes and goes, a little bit like what I feel for Alex. Sometimes I see us last, and sometimes I think to myself that it won’t last a year. And sometimes, I have huge doubts on some things, but I can’t even tell you which ones. In those moments, I don’t want to talk to him, I don’t want to see him, etc… And when we tried again, it hurt me, and so I felt like I was a poop, and now I’m blocking. I don’t like like when he uses his fingers, I’m not even talking about penetration, just even playing around, I feel like it’s too violent (not what he does, but the signals my brain receive), and it makes me uneasy. Same for oral stuff sometimes. But all of this, he feels it too, and today he asked me ‘you don’t like it anymore when I play with you?’.”
That’s another huge point of having to deal with painful sex: it overshadows everything, and meddles with your feelings. How you feel about yourself or the situation can be projected. I had also started dissociating. For the next few years, I’d tell my friends “yeah, my vagina and me aren’t friends” whenever we’d talk about it.
The pain I felt slowly turned into resentment, not against anyone in particular. Remember that “why me”? It was often accompanied by “why?”. I started dreading sex.
I remember lying in bed with Alex, about to try it yet another time. I didn’t want to, I was scared, it was obviously going to hurt, I would cry, feel ashamed, Alex would be disappointed etc… but I owed it to him to at least try, right? Alex put himself in position, and just before we tried, said “right”, in the exact same tone you say before clapping your knees and standing up when you want to leave the pub. I burst out laughing, for about two minutes, the nervousness pouring out with every sound. Alex was patiently waiting for me to calm down. Once I did, I looked him in the eyes and said “I’m really sorry, I don’t want to try today”. He said it was okay, and we put Netflix on and cuddled.
At this point, neither of us really understood why it wasn’t working. And I started talking to my friends, about it, searching for answers. That’s when the advices starting pouring in
“Maybe you should just get really drunk”, “Have you tried lube?”, “Maybe you should just get high”, “You should just try doggy-style, that how animals do it in the wild, so must be more natural and therefore fit more easily”, “Just try being on top, you’ll be able to direct it better”, “Maybe just force it in”, “well, if he’s going at it really hard, no wonder it’s not working”, “yeah, every girl gets that when they start, you just need to stop overthinking it”, “just explore yourself first, and then you’ll know how to make it work with him too”
Just, just, just… because it really was that easy to fix.
The first advice that actually set me ever slightly so in the right direction was my father’s: “go to the gynaecologist and get checked, we had the same issue with your mother, she had a septate hymen, which made being intimate difficult too, and sometimes painful. Normally, the doctor should just cut it open with a scalpel, but no one did for your mom, and it actually complicated things when she first gave birth, so get that checked.”
Paging Dr. Dickhead
Being quite similar to my mom in many aspects, namely face, morphology, personality, and humour, it was a fair assumption that there was a strong possibility that I too had a septate hymen. Roughly, a septate hymen is when a remnant or a string of hymen is left in the middle, essentially creating two openings (1).
At this point, it was summer 2015, I had been attempting intercourse for a few months, and I was keen to get this shit sorted asap.
I booked an appointment at the gynaecologist that works in my home town, between the hairdresser who gave me the worst highlights I ever had (which my best friend Jade now kindly calls my “dead zebra” look), and the driving school which miraculously taught me how to drive well enough to pass the test.
Upon being told where I was going, my mom pulled a weird face, and told me “I’m not certain about how good that doctor is”, to which I replied, shrugging, “he’s a doctor, how bad can he be?”
Boy was I wrong, and I was about to find out just how bad a doctor can be.
When the day of the appointment came, I rocked up to the doctor’s office, and filled in the form. As soon as I sat down, he asked me whether I was on the pill, I said yes, and he refilled a prescription for me before I even had the chance to say I had enough with me. Only then did he let me tell him why I was there.
While I was sitting on the examination table, he asked me how many people I had attempted sex with.
“That’s good.” Then after a pause, “What about him?”
I gave him the number, which to give you a scale, was anywhere between one and a hundred. He stifled a small laugh.
“That’s rare. You’re being careful.”
Not being one to stand for such patronising bullshit, but also just wanting to have my vagina checked and get the hell out of here as soon as I could, I just clenched my teeth, stretched my lips into a thin smile, and shared a small laugh. “Yeah”.
I was then sat on the examination table, and for those who don’t know what a gynae examination is like, you’re butt naked with your feet in stirrups to give your doctor full visual and access. If you still don’t get it, Friends showcase the whole thing quite well.
He pulled his seat, and started examining me.
“You don’t have a septate hymen. Just because your mother had one, doesn’t mean you would have the same at all. There’s nothing wrong with your vagina, you have a very pretty vagina.”
“Err… thank you.”
Seriously, what do you reply to a doctor telling you you have a pretty vagina? What am I supposed to do with that information?
He then said he’d do a smear test, as it was routine. Sure, why the hell not. He pulled out a speculum, which is like a tool used to slightly open the vagina and allow access to the cervix, where cells get extracted out using a small brush before being sent for testing.
As soon as he put the speculum in place, the pain sprung. I tense my muscles, winced, and automatically said:
“Ouch, it hurts!”
“Oh come on, get a grip, a smear test doesn’t hurt”.
As my mom would point out later, when I was telling her how the appointment went, 1) what the fuck would he know about it, he doesn’t have a vagina, and 2) I literally came in to talk about pain so intense it prevents me from having sex, surely shoving something up my vagina was going to hurt too.
And you want to know the worst of it all? I never even got those smear test results back.
Vaginismus, more like Vaginis-must-we-really-do-this-right-now
As shockingly shit as my gynaecologist appointment was, it at least served its main purpose: checking whether there was any physical default. I was told there were none, and my hymen wasn’t in the way. So it must have been psychological, right?
Being my proactive self, I checked on what I could do to ‘unblock’ myself. That’s when my mom introduced me to Microkinesi therapy. The concept is something that started in France, and I have yet to find somewhere in London (or the UK even) that does it, so I’ll try my best to explain how it works, based on what I understand.
Microkinesi therapy is based on the belief that your body carries a physical, emotional and toxicological memory, which might block some of the currents of energy that you have in your body. It’s important to point out that it is only performed by fully trained, qualified and certified, physiotherapists, who underwent another training to be qualified in microkinesi. A lot of people that I know have gone, and it has helped with things from acne, to anger issues.
You’re lying on a physiotherapist table, fully clothed, and the physio is ‘feeling’ different parts of your body. They’ll then tell you “x years ago, you had a feeling of x”, and ‘unblock’ it. To be honest, it is surprisingly accurate.
The last time I went, in June 2019, it cleared a recurring headache I had been having. The first thing she found was “a refusal to accept reality, and struggle to understand your place in the family” when I was 19/20, which puts me right when Sacha died, two weeks before my 20th birthday. Understandably so, his death was a bit traumatic.
Anyway, back in summer 2015, I thought maybe it could help me. I booked an appointment, and rocked up to doctor for it. The session itself went well, and she found a few things that were blocking in the pelvic area.
Leaving the appointment, I felt good, hopeful. It must’ve helped. Maybe, now, it would work? I told this to my dad when I arrived home, and his answer was “you know Eloïse, I don’t really believe in all that stuff”. I felt everything block again straight away. And so my quest for answers continued.
Back in the UK, and after sitting my university resits due to being in such a bad place in first term of second year that I did not hand in any coursework and almost dropped out, I started searching more and more about what could possibly make sex so painful it was impossible. That’s when I came across Vaginismus.
Vaginismus is a psychological condition where the muscles of your vagina tightens up subconsciously. (2) You’re not aware of it, it’s like when you fall forward and put your arms in front of you to soften the fall: it’s a reflex.
It can be caused by a multitude of reasons: trauma from surviving sexual assault or a difficult childbirth, the thought that sex is wrong, either due to upbringing or religious beliefs, or even just the worry that sex might be painful (my life is a constant irony, I’ve learnt to live with it).
It is something I had already come across, when researching why sex could be painful, but didn’t think it quite applied to me. I, thankfully, have never been forced into anything sexual, I do not hold any religious beliefs, I have never given birth… Looking at the signs and symptoms of it, I had not fully recognised myself in there: I had never had trouble inserting a tampon (bar the fact that I developed an allergy to them, but that’s another story).
But a couple more months into this whole shit storm, I was ready to accept any explanation, fully throwing myself at anything that could possibly give this situation a sense and tell me why this was happening to me.
I looked at what the NHS website defined as symptoms of vaginismus: “If you: find it hard inserting a tampon into your vagina, struggle with vaginal penetration during sex, feel burning or tinged pain during sex, see a GP as these are common signs of vaginismus”.
Two out of three applied, so I ran with it. The plan was to wait until I knew for sure I was staying in the UK, then go to my GP, get referred for psychosexual counselling, sort it all out, and bang like rabbits.
It felt good to have a plan; finally everything wasn’t spinning so out of control. I had a problem, and there was a solution, something to work towards. The way to get through it was to focus on what it would be like once the problem was sorted. Surely, in a year, I’d look back and could not understand why it had been so hard to have sex, right?
I booked a GP appointment towards the end of September. I know doctors hate when you come in claiming to know everything that is wrong with you, so I went in feeling cautious. I wanted and needed the help, I didn’t want to be dismissed and continue fighting alone. Having already experienced how truly terrible the on-campus GP was, I had registered to the GP just behind Intu Uxbridge. Luckily, I had an appointment with an amazing junior doctor and I was referred to psychosexual therapy straight away.
The wait was a couple of months before I could see the therapist. My first appointment was in mid-November, and after that I was only able to have one appointment a month. On 23 November 2015, my brother died, and for some time, it eclipsed everything else. But once I was back in the UK, after his funeral, I still had all my problems to deal with, with the crushing burden of the grief.
Because of the dates of winter holidays, I wasn’t able to have another counselling appointment until January. And before that, I had to face my first Christmas without Sacha around. Alex was spending Christmas with me that year, because his family wasn’t around, but before he flew down, I talked with a pharmacist friend of my mom who recommended a hypnotherapist to me, which had worked well for her.
We booked an appointment for 6 January 2016. My mom and my godmother, who was in France for a week (she lives in New-Caledonia, near Australia), accompanied me to the appointment and stayed in the waiting room while I talked with the doctor, a GP who also happened to do hypnosis but did not advertise it.
He was a very nice man, with a very soothing voice. He warned me that we might be trying too much within one session, but we’ll see how far we can go. Now seems like a good time to say that hypnotherapy isn’t about making you fall asleep by touching your shoulder, it’s more some kind of guided meditation. He used a strong female lead from a book that I found badass (10 points if you can guess which one) to help me navigate my thoughts. We went through a few doors and then we started talking about sex. He asked me to imagine it happening without hurting, and I hit a wall. I tried to forced against it, but I ended up gasping so loud my mom heard it from the waiting room. My eyes shot opened and I started crying. “I can’t”.
During the drive back, I was quiet, and reflecting on the session, which had lasted about an hour. After that, my godmother told me my mother was worried, because they had heard my gasp.
Once again, I was asked whether anyone had ever forced themselves onto me. Once again, my answer was “not that I remember, no”.
My father had asked me once before, a couple of months earlier, when I was explaining what vaginismus was, because, and I quote, “if I need to kill someone, I’d like to know”. I then said “no… I mean, I was once kicked there really hard in school when I was 8, but that’s about it”, which he dismissed.
Anyway, in January 2016, I flew back to the UK, ready to smash the end of my final year, the vaginismus, and the patriarchy.
Back in my last psychosexual therapy appointment, I had been prescribed something called dilators. These are about as sexy as they sound.
They’re about five plastic tampon-shaped objects, with a different diameter each. The idea is to get your vagina used to accepting a foreign object in, step by step, until you can handle the width of a penis. Because there’s nothing more relaxing than lying on your back, trying not to tense as you gently force in a lubed-up suppository up your vagina.
I picked up the said dilators after my second appointment mid-January, during which I had a physical exam. She found that I had a tear on the fourchette (the skin between the vagina and the anus). This could have occurred during one of the multiple attempts that Alex and I had of just pushing through the pain. I was told to buy a healing cream and apply twice a day for two weeks, and that should just sort it out.
And so I did. As always, I was sharing any progress and update with Alex. This was something we were going through together, so I was often discussing it with him, thinking together of what we could try, or what the reason could be. We decided to try to have Alex apply the cream the weekends he was around, to also help me relax with him operating in the area. First he looked, and try to see the tear, then he applied the cream. I think we did it once, it wasn’t the most comfortable thing, and it was just easier for me to apply it after a shower.
In February, after talking about the issue with some friends, a girl called Yohanna told me about one of her friends from back home (Sweden), who had experienced similar symptoms. That person did not feel comfortable talking to me directly, so Yohanna acted as a middle ground. It was the first time I was talking to someone who had experienced something similar to me. It wasn’t exactly the same, as she had been diagnosed with endometriosis, but it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders: I wasn’t alone anymore. Someone else, in Sweden, had experienced a similar struggle. And she found a solution – so, surely, so could I.
The weeks and months went by. I had a hour-long appointment each month with my psychosexual therapist, during which we discussed everything that could possibly block me from having sex. Was it the pornography I stumbled upon when I was 10? Was it my low self-esteem? Was it just that I was unable to “let go”, like I should during sex? Who knows. It was always an easy discussion, I never left her office reflecting on what we had said, or feeling drained. I should’ve known we were only scrapping the surface.
Finally, we reached summer. Those last few months had been exhausting, I was “doing CPR to my degree”, which meant lifting it from a 3rd to a 2:1 – successfully. During the last few weeks of term, I had daily crying fits, often followed by sending a list of reasons why I was so stressed to my mom, to which she replied “one step at a time”. After my dissertation was handed in, on Sacha’s birthday, I allowed myself to relax for a week or two.
I went home, and finally got around to doing a session of EMDR therapy that the hypnotherapist had recommended. EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing” and is meant to help people recover from traumatic events in their lives. (3)
My appointment was with someone local, who is actually the mother of one of my older brother’s friends.
She asked me what I saw when I was thinking about painful sex, what I was associating with it. The image that came to me straight away felt as if it had been burnt onto my eye lids.
I was lying in my uni room, naked on my single bed. From my eyes, I could see the rest of my body lying there, and Alex at the end of the bed, naked, hands on the mattress, his jaw clenched, looking straight ahead, at my wall and my desk, unable to look at me. Sex had failed, again. I had failed, again.
That was the image I associated with failing to have sex. It wasn’t the physical pain as much as letting Alex down. Him being disappointed every time it failed. I felt terrible about not being able to provide that to him. It was my failure; Alex had never had a problem with that before, so it must have been my fault. Several times, over those three years, I told him to go and sleep with someone else, because I just could not do that for him. He always told me that he absolutely was not, and that he forbade me to mention anything like that again. We were in this together, we would sort it out together. But I always felt awful about failing to do that with him, and disappointing him.
Now, in hindsight, and having talked about it with him, I know that what was playing in his mind wasn’t that. Yes, there was disappointment, but Alex was convinced that my body was rejecting him personally, because he had hurt me too much in the past (the story of how we fell in love had been a messy and complicated one). That’s a conviction he carried with him for nearly three years, until l was able to show him that it wasn’t that.
Back to the EDMR session in May/June 2016, she asked me to choose a place where I felt safe and at home. I didn’t have one. She then asked me to choose a word which meant a lot to me out of a list, and the one that resonated the most with me was “love”.
If you’ve met me before, you’ll know that I believe there is nothing stronger than love, and that I love love, always encouraging the people I care about to give love another chance. I am full of good advices I don’t apply to myself.
Using the word “love”, she made me follow a pen with my eyes, and we worked on the image. By the end of the session, instead of feeling like it was vividly burnt in my eye-lids, it felt like I had a memory of having had this image, but it was more fuzzy.
That summer, I also explored the idea of switching from the pill to a copper IUD. I had started the pill when Alex and I first started seeing each other, as an extra precaution, so I had never really experienced sex without being on the pill. Maybe it was a contributor to the difficulties? I needed a back up, before purely and simply dropping it.
I went to a gynaecologist back home, this time a good one, and explained all that to her. She examined me. The moment her glove touched the area, it burnt, it was painful, I was tense, begging for her to stop. She said she could not possibly insert an IUD while it was still so painful. She told me I had a tear (“again?” I thought), and asked me in three different ways whether I had every been forced to do anything. Because this is what I looked like, a rape survivor. My answer was still no. She gave me a cream to apply three times a day, for two-three weeks. Let me tell you, having a thick layer of cream down there at all time doesn’t smell nice at all.
Alongside all that, I found myself being thrown in at the deep end of being an adult. Finishing uni hit me like a truck. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to be done with uni, I never wanted to go back again, and I had managed to secure my 2:1, which meant I could potentially find a job.
I extended my contract in halls until July to allow for job search while in the UK. In July, came graduation, and giving away my room. I was essentially homeless and had nowhere to go, so I went home in France a little bit, stayed at Alex when I could (only some weekends and a random week here and there). That July, my nan with whom I was very closed passed away, and my relationship with Alex started to crumble. It was still within a year of Sacha dying, and I could not handle it. I went into auto-pilot.
Life became a check-list. First apply to jobs, then sit through interviews, and eventually land a job. From there, I could find a place to rent and have a home again. Then, and only then, would I be able to allow myself to feel anything. I didn’t have time for emotions, I simply could not afford to feel anything.
From July to October, I was a shadow of myself. I stayed at Alex’s sometimes, my friend Toni let me stay at hers for two weeks, I visited Bristol, Brighton, and Oxford just because I could, I stayed at my mom’s cousin’s place, on an inflatable mattress in the veranda, which I had to put out of the way every morning for a few weeks, and I slept two weeks in a hostel.
This obviously impacted my sex life, which is what this blog is really about. It was purely and simply gone, inexistent. Even alone, I did not have any urge to feel any pleasure. Alex felt the change in my attitude, and we ended up having a whole argument about it, where I would say something that would deeply hurt him, and we’d take over a year to recover from it.
“It feels like you don’t want sex anymore, or even just me to touch you, you just roll over, you’re not affectionate anymore.”
“Of course I don’t want to have sex, and to be honest, when I think about touching each other, I want to throw up.”
Understandably, Alex felt a bit rejected by that, and it had a ripple effect on our whole relationship.
Finally, I landed a job while sleeping at a hostel. On the same day, I had the job interview, the offer, and secured a viewing for a house I liked. Everything was falling into place. And I had the biggest breakdown of my life that evening.
It was as if my brain had gone “alright, things are looking up, OPEN THE VALVE TO ALL THE EMOTIONS SHE’S SUPPRESSED THIS SUMMER, she can handle it now”. Alex, who was in Thailand that week, woke up to 105 messages from me (we counted). Which is why I now laugh at the face of people who say they would never double text.
I was now able to get my life back on track. I loved my job and my office, but I struggled mentally, and decided to reach out to a new therapist, after reaching a particularly low point.
I went privately this time, not wanting to wait and be assigned a crap therapist. I was lucky and met an amazing one, whom I am still seeing today. She worked in Farringdon, just behind my office. She was amazing in the sense that she made me reconsider and think about things. She was also very empathic, and I once left her office texting “so I made my therapist cry today, lol” to my mom, which is the digital version of throwing a peace sign to yourself in the mirror when you’re ugly crying in your room.
I saw her every Thursday lunch breaks, and we explored a range of subject. We talked a lot about how I had always felt different, like a stain in a pretty picture. How I had never really fitted as a child, not matter how hard I had tried. How my interests had been so different from the other girls in my class in middle school: namely brushing my hair wasn’t a priority, and I really liked reading (no, I’m not exaggerating here).
Eventually, we talked about sex. She asked me what sex was for me. “A game. I like to play, it’s fun”. She asked me why I tried penetrative sex the first time.
“Because that’s what sex is supposed to be, that’s what everyone does.”
“Well, maybe that’s what everyone does, but maybe that’s not what you want to do, or what sex is for you. Maybe you like the other things, the game, better. Maybe penetrative isn’t the sex that you want, and it’s okay to not want it.”
That truth bomb shook my house. You know what, she was right, I did not have to do like everyone else did, I never had, I was allowed to not want it.
I felt empowered, like I hadn’t in a while. I was in control again. I didn’t have to keep on trying and failing on something I didn’t even want.
I told Alex. A bit unsettled, he accepted. He wasn’t going to try to change my mind or convince me to do anything I didn’t want to do, that just wasn’t him.
For about three weeks, I walked around feeling empowered about not wanting penetration.
After three weeks of feeling liberated of the weight of expectation, and guilt, I started feeling that little tickling that made me reconsider what I wanted. Alright, so I did want penetration. How was I going to go about it?
At this point, Alex and I had been trying to have penetrative sex for well over a year and a half. As a consequence, we had explored each other a lot, and had become quite creative in our sex life, which meant that I was left with a choice every time: stop what we’re doing, attempt penetration, and be in a lot of pain, or continue and undoubtedly have an orgasm.
The only way I was going to attempt penetration was if I thought there was any chance I was going to feel any pleasure from it. I needed to find what felt nice for me. And that’s how, on 31 January 2017, I rocked up to Honey Birdette in Covent Garden, ready to buy my first sex toy.
After explaining my situation to the sales person, we looked at what they had, and I chose one that had a bit of a thicker end, but was still relatively thin, with different vibrating settings. It was available in black or pink, but if I was going to buy a sex toy, I was going to do it right.
That’s how, that evening I psyched myself up, armed with a fuchsia vibrating toy. I hadn’t told Alex yet, the plan was to enjoy it on my own, and then approach the question with him again, so I would not build expectations I might not be able to meet.
I felt it straight away, but because it was thinner/more flexible that what normally caused the pain, I took the time to analyse where the pain was coming from, rather than being “all over”. It was at the entrance of the vagina, at the bottom. Once the thicker bit was through, and it wasn’t pushing anymore, it didn’t hurt anymore.
It was that fucking tear. It was still there. It was making my life hell.
I started searching only for a solution to get rid of that stupid tear, a surgery of some kind. And I found a French gynaecology paper, talking about the surgery needed to remove it.
The surgery is called a “vulvoperineoplasty”. Reading about it, I found that it was particularly used for new mothers whose episiotomy didn’t heal well. I looked for a forum of new mothers discussing whether they should do the surgery, and explaining what they were experiencing. For the first time in two years, I was seeing someone else describe exactly what it felt like for me. There’s something quite indescribable about finding someone who can understand what you’re going through, rather than simply sympathise.
This was it, this was the solution. I discussed it with my friends and my parents. Explained how the surgery worked, what could be expected etc… And I set on my way to get it done.
I thought I’d check whether I could get it done in the UK first, so I went to a doctor, but when she examined me, she couldn’t see the tear. I was a bit unsettled by this, but I knew what I had felt, I knew it was still there, so I continued.
My mother gave me the email address of a gynaecology surgeon in my hometown, and I wrote her an email. Maybe it was my fault, and I was too brief in explaining my issue, excited about sorting it out, but mid-February, while I was visiting a friend in NY state, I got her reply: “This sounds like vaginismus, which can be sorted in LONDON”.
Yes, the caps included. Bitch.
I decided to look up whether either of the authors of the French paper were still working. Dr Pierre Panel was, he was the Head of the gynaecology department in Le Chesnay’s hospital.
By this point, I was exhausted, worn out, and I just wanted it over and done with. I wanted to talk to him, not his secretary. So I reached out to him via LinkedIn, saying I’d like to discuss his paper.
I took my time in giving my history, including what I had tried, and ended the message in “I’ve been trying everything for two years, and I’m desperate. I would like like to be able to discover a normal sexuality. Do you think I might be a “candidate”?”
He kindly answered:
“Your story is a good example of the necessity of a global and interdisciplinary approach for those often complex pathologies, often intricately somatic and psychological, that we call “vulvodynia”. Your journey has allowed you to progressively identify different obstacles and to define that tear. In your situation where the psychological work has been done and where creams have failed, a surgery is often necessary, and sorts the problem out in 95% of cases.”
I could have screamed, and danced. Finally, something tangible to work towards, that had proven results. I booked an appointment with him via his secretary, and met him on 16 March 2017.
I sat on the examination table, and he examined me. Before he even laid a finger on me, he said there was an “obvious tear”. He examined it. It was large and deep, and ran for 0.5cm. This may not sound like much, but the area between a vagina and an anus is about 2cm: my tear was a quarter of the way.
He then inserted a finger and pressed down on the tear. Shots of burning pain came, and I tensed everything, and begged him to remove it. My fists were clenched, my mouth and eyes were tightly shut.
“Please stop. Please please take it out”
“Can you try to push me out?”
I tried, but I could not move a single muscle, all were paralysed by the pain. He finally removed his finger, and said:
“You have an obvious tear, it’s deep, and inflamed. And actually, I also teach gynaecology, and I was wondering if, with your authorisation, I could take photo?”
“Am I that much of a textbook case?”
I was. It was obvious, and yet so many had missed it.
I agreed on him taking the photo. So long story short, my genitals are now used on a PowerPoint. I hope it has the whole “Female, 21, presenting with painful sex” blurb. If it means that future doctors can learn from it, spot the signs, and avoid another woman going through the same hell I had been through, put it on a billboard for all I care.
I have the photo, and have cropped it so that I could show the tear only to my mom and Jade, and they both defined it as a “canyon”. I showed Alex the photo when I saw him a few weeks later, to show him that there really was a physical problem. I didn’t bother cropping it, he was familiar enough with the area at that point.
“It looks awful on that photo”
Next step was to schedule the surgery. I decided to have it on 29 May, a bank holiday in the UK but not in France, and it left me enough time to get logistics sorted.
I needed to get some blood tests done, as I was going to be put under generalised anaesthetic, the area being too inflamed for a local one. As I needed to get them done in France, I did a day trip to Gare du Nord, which is where the Eurostar arrives and which has a lab.
On 24 May, I met with the anaesthetist, and on 29 May, I was ready to go under the knife. My father had agreed on paying for it to be done privately, to ensure that the surgery would be done by Dr Panel rather than any gynae surgeon. He wanted it to be sorted, and thought it was safest to go with the most experienced person.
The surgery went well, and now, every 29 May, Jade texts me “Happy Vaginaversary!” (Get yourself friends like mine).
When Dr Panel did his post-surgery check up, he told me exactly what he had done, which included cutting out a bit of hymen that was in the way. Honestly – how crap was that first gynaecologist I saw?
I had stitches, which were uncomfortable, and was on painkillers for the first 72h. I could not wear trousers for two weeks. Again, if you’ve met me, you’ll know I rarely wear dresses, so it was a challenge.
But it healed, slowly.
In July, I had my mandatory check up. For the first time ever, it didn’t hurt, it was bearable. It was still stinging on one side, which was on the border of where he had cut. It was decided I needed to wait another couple of months, and if it was still painful, I should book in a laser intervention.
And so I did. At this point, I had moved to Edinburgh to study a Master’s Degree, and popping down to Paris wasn’t as easy as it was when I lived in London.
I attempted to book the laser for when I was on Christmas break, and originally was meant to happened on 21 December. After checking out the dates, I realised I was likely to be on my period, and the appointment had to be moved to January 11.
Finally, on 11 January 2018, I rocked up to the clinic, ready to be lasered. I was given a local anaesthetic, and some transparent glasses to protect my eyes. The whole thing felt futuristic, I was in a dark room, surrounded by healthcare professionals (one doctor and two nurses), we were all wearing transparent glasses, my legs were up in stirrups, and a big red laser was being pointed at my crotch.
As Dr Panel started lasering the area, I started smoking. No, not cigarettes, there was literal smoke coming out of my genitals, and it smelled a bit like chicken. I found the whole thing hilarious.
I gave it some time to heal, and then tried penetrative sex again. And this time, it finally worked.
It took a huge weight off my shoulders: finally, I was done jumping through hoops and looking everywhere for an answer. All that was done to do, was discover this whole new part of my sexuality.
So, what now
Now, first of all, if you’ve read it all, congratulations, impressive. I did not expect it to be this long when I set off writing, and I think you can tell I got tired towards the end. But I do not regret writing this.
We need to talk about sex. We need to talk about sex when it goes right, and we need to talk about sex when it goes wrong.
The three years it took me to get sorted were filled with pain, crying fits, and failed attempts that I have not mentioned here. Almost every weekend, we failed. For three years, I had people telling me that they couldn’t do it if they were Alex, that they would definitely cheat, that he probably was. They were unaware of how often I told Alex to go sleep with other people. I thought about breaking up, because if I couldn’t have sex, then I couldn’t give him children one day. Some people also told him that he should break up, because sex is a huge part of a relationship.
During those three years, I also had the chance of having a great support system around me. My family, my friends, Alex, they all encouraged me to find a solution and persevere.
So I want to talk about it. I want to talk about my story, I want Two to find the reason it’s not working for her, I want Six to find the help she needs so recover from her trauma and have a healthy sex life, I want Nine to keep true to herself, but not experience any issue on her wedding night. I want to normalise sex, so that people don’t suffer on their own. Eleven people replied to me on Instagram on the topic. They are spread across North America, Europe, and Australia. They have different beliefs, upbringing, culture, backgrounds. But they all felt it was relevant to them.
Right now, it starts with a ridiculously long blog. But I hope that one day, I can pull an Emma Barnett, and say on national broadcast “hi, my name is Eloïse, and I’ve had problems in my sex life. I had a tear between my vagina and my anus. Yes, I can imagine you cringing right now. But it concerns half the population, so let’s fucking talk about it”.