health

'An open letter to the doctor who traumatised me after I worried I couldn't have sex.'

According to the Women’s Health and Research Institute of Australia (WHRIA), Vaginismus is “an involuntary spasm or contraction of the muscles surrounding the lower third of the vagina with attempts at any form of vaginal penetration.” It is thought to affect 1-7 per cent of the female population, with no single known cause. Women who are affected cannot use tampons, undergo routine vaginal examinations such as Pap smears and usually cannot engage in penetrative sex. Many GPs have never heard of the condition and women sometimes live untreated for months or years.

To the doctor who hurt me:

I was one of your patients in 2016. Probably a pretty nondescript one – I usually came in to ask for routine blood tests and prescriptions. But one day I took a deep breath and I told you something that had been terrifying me for years: I couldn’t use tampons, and I didn’t think I could have sex.

I still remember your brow furrowing.

I knew, as I climbed onto the examination table and draped the cold white sheet over my awkward nakedness; I knew that you would find the same impenetrable wall that I had. But I hoped (how I hoped!) that by some miracle, the speculum would prevail.

Cold at first, alien. Then pain that sent my pelvis jerking towards the ceiling, desperate to escape what now felt like a butcher’s knife plunging deep inside me. I remember exclaiming (politely), just saying “Ooh, that hurt!”, just managing to hide the deranged scream that longed to escape me. Because surely this was normal.

I let you try again.

This time, I almost kicked. Anything to make you stop. Desperate for reassurance, I scrutinised your face. But you looked as though the last pesky screw of a new IKEA table just wouldn’t fall into place. You sounded exasperated when you told me “I’m not even in yet!”. You never met my eyes, just frowned frustratingly at the vagina that had thwarted you. My vagina. Me.

Of all things, I felt guilty. Like I had been the difficult one.

Watch: A video about how vaginismus affects women, and how they can find help. Post continues after video. 

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Fully clothed and sitting by your desk, I searched your face again for answers. You didn’t know. That’s okay, we don’t always know everything. But you treated me like an exception to the rule. You shrugged your shoulders. Half-heartedly suggested I see a gynaecologist (but you didn’t know what they would be able to offer). Your closed mind didn’t have an ounce of curiosity to spare for my predicament, no offer of problem-solving, no genuine attempt to instil hope in me. Just your own ignorant frustration.

Maybe you were having a bad day. But Doctor, I went home and I cried. I cried for a reason that today, seems like the most ludicrous cause of tears I could ever imagine: I cried because I thought I didn’t have a vagina.

The next week, I walked back into your room for the last time. I asked for a referral to a specialist I’d heard about. You seemed nonplussed, surprised that I cared so much. I second-guessed myself for a minute. But that referral changed my life.

Doctor, do you know the first thing my specialist said when she examined me? She told me I was completely normal. I had to ask her to say it again. I asked if she was sure. She was.

Do you know why she had to say that, Doctor? Because of doctors like you.

She gave my pain a name: Vaginismus. She was gentle, and kind, and reassuring. She never hurt me. I learned about my pelvic floor muscles and how to use dilators. Six months later, I could use tampons. Two years later, I had my first pap smear. And sex is possible.

Doctor, I was angry, but now I’m just worried. Worried another young woman will come to you with vaginismus. Worried she’ll be less resilient than me, less informed. I’m so, so worried Doctor, that she too will go home full of shame and empty of answers.

I hope I was the first case of vaginismus you ever dismissed. Let me also be the last.

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