Finding Healing Through Destigmatizing Pelvic Pain

Content Warning: The following is a firsthand account of a pelvic health patient who remains unnamed to protect their identity. It contains strong language and mature content regarding sexual health. If the nature of this content is triggering or uncomfortable for you, please stop here.

"When I had sex for the first time, it hurt like hell.

As a rugby player, I know pain. I don’t crumble easily, but this was agony. I felt it deep in my pelvis, in my lower back, in my stomach. I remember not wanting to cry, but I physically couldn’t hold the panicked sobs in. Was this normal? Afterward, I texted my close girlfriends. “It’s probably normal,” they said. “It always hurts a little the first few times.” Eventually, I determined that I was just overreacting. I decided that this pain was normal. To combat it, I told my sweet, gentle boyfriend that we just had to keep trying. I told him it was probably going to be ugly, but I wanted this with him. I actually thought that I had to be broken in.

For an entire year, we tried. My physician recommended more lube and thinner condoms. My friends recommended getting drunk and high. When I couldn’t take the pain anymore, I stopped trying- that’s when it started to get in my head. I can’t have sex. My boyfriend deserves better than me because I can’t give him what he wants. No man will ever want me because I’m broken. No matter how many times my confidants (my boyfriend included) refuted these statements, I couldn’t get past it. As time passed, the only thing I could do was pretend it wasn’t an issue, put it off, and block it out.

One night, my roommate was watching Sex Education on Netflix. One of the characters, Lily, was shown struggling with pain similar to mine, and the show defined it as “vaginismus”. My roommate called me over and showed me the clip. I was intrigued and began hunting around online- the symptoms described were exactly what I had been feeling. The hope inside me that had long been quashed started to reignite when I saw that many women had found relief through something called pelvic physical therapy.

In January 2020 at my one-year appointment scheduled with my OBGYN to check on the status of my endometriosis laparoscopy performed in 2019, I finally told her about everything and asked what could be done. She agreed that it could be vaginismus or any number of other things and suggested that I look for a therapist near me that she could refer me to. After the appointment, I made a few calls. I could only get on several month-long waitlists, so I hopped on a few and resigned myself to the idea that help would come eventually.

Suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic closed offices everywhere and dashed my hopes of relief indefinitely. When places began to reopen in June 2020, I found Performance Physical Therapy and gave them a call. I was surprised to find that there was no waitlist, and they immediately booked me for an appointment with a pelvic physical therapist.

I was so nervous about my first appointment- I had absolutely no idea what to expect. At this point, I couldn’t even be touched without crying- not by my boyfriend, not by any doctors. I didn’t know if pelvic physical therapy would ever work. Enter Dr. Danielle Moreau. The moment she walked in, she made me feel like it was going to be possible to heal. Danielle knew exactly how to make me feel safe and comfortable in a situation that terrified me. After officially diagnosing me with vaginismus and later vulvodynia, she promised me that I would get through this. Throughout my time working both with her and on my own, those words have stuck in my head.

The first leg of my journey towards healing was understanding why. Danielle helped me to understand that vaginismus is both a mental and physical condition that often results from a fear of sex for any reason. That helped me to make sense of what was happening to me- as a teenager, I was absolutely petrified of sex. Despite growing up with three sisters, it was never discussed in my house. It felt incredibly taboo to me- even at seventeen years old, my friends’ mention of sex made my blood run cold. Sometimes I would have to leave the room to cry. I didn’t even know sex could be enjoyable- I just thought it was how babies were made, and teenage pregnancy became my biggest fear. Once I came to terms with the fact that I wrongfully viewed sex as horrifically taboo, I was able to start reforming my views and see it for the beautiful and healthy thing that it is.

At first, Danielle and I worked on the muscles through palpation and stretching. After a few weeks, I started to warily practice the insertion of my finger. In September 2020, I got my first set of dilators. Size 1 was no bigger than my pointer finger, and I felt bile rise in my throat when I looked at Size 4. I remember saying, “How the HELL am I going to get that inside me?” It was a slow progression from dilator to dilator. Flash forward to February 2020, I’m successfully working with Size 6, a dilator big enough for me to wrap my hand around and barely touch my fingers to my palm.

Despite what I’ve just described above, I’ve learned that there are no “flash-forwards” in pelvic physical therapy- it takes time. In order to have success, I had to let go of the idea that I’d get better instantly. Patience has never been a virtue of mine, and I’ve always been particularly hard on myself. Honestly, I think one of the hardest parts of my pelvic physical therapy was allowing myself to relax, place my trust in the process and let it heal me.

I had ups and downs throughout my practice- I still have flashes of doubt sometimes. There were days when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and there were days when I felt like everything was fruitless. My old demons returned from time to time, telling me I wasn’t good enough to be anyone’s partner, that I would never heal. I’ve learned that ups and downs are normal- the key is not letting the despair drag you under. When I confided in Danielle about this, she encouraged me to write my successes and goals down so I could read them when I was in a rut. That helped more than I can say.

Now I’m seeing the results of my resilience and my efforts, and I can truly say that pelvic physical therapy has changed my life, my relationships, and my outlook on sex. It even helped improve both my body image and general self-image. This is the first time I’ve ever written about my struggles with vaginismus. Although I’m still working on the physical process, I think my next challenge is using my experience to help educate others about vaginismus, vulvodynia, and pelvic health in general. I never want another girl to think that her pain is normal. I never want another girl to think that she just needs to be broken in. I never want another girl to think she isn’t good enough for anyone because she can’t have sex (yet). Thanks to Danielle, I’ve found the road to fully healing- both mentally and physically. And someday soon, I’m gonna have hella good sex."

If this story sounds like you or someone you know, contact Performance Physical Therapy at 401-726-7100 to schedule an appointment with a pelvic floor physical therapist in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.

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