The receptionist at the physical therapist’s office is warm and welcoming. I’m almost suspicious that she doesn’t try to sneak a glance out of the corner of her eye as she checks me in because I basically feel like I have a giant neon sign hanging over my head blinking, “Defective vagina! Defective vagina!”
See, it’s at this point that I’m wondering, “How did I get here?”
How did I end up at a pelvic health clinic for a physical therapy appointment that may as well be the picture next to the words “awkward” and “humiliating” in the dictionary?
I’m here, because 18 months into motherhood, my vagina has definitively waved the white flag of surrender. I vaginally delivered my beautiful son, who weighed nine pounds and one ounce. I am taking full credit for that one extra ounce. Leading up to his birth, my doctor scheduled ultrasounds every week for the last month to keep close track on his growth and planted the seed that I should be fully prepared for a cesarean, given how large he might be. At the time, I was devastated thinking that I might not have the perfect birth moment.
But, my son seemed to understand my anxiety. By wriggling around inside a space becoming much too small, he broke my water, prompting a rushed and excited drive to the hospital.
To my surprise, and maybe everyone else’s in the room, he emerged after about twelve hours of active labor and only forty minutes or so of pushing. I remember the nurse telling me, “Wow, you were born to have babies.”
I sobbed holding him in my arms for the first time, and my husband and I delighted in his solid thighs and bountiful rolls. He was perfect.
Days later, stitched up, terrified, exhausted but ready to roll, I found myself at home thinking, “I can do this.” I felt like I’d been in a boxing match, but I knew by taking it one day at a time, anything was possible.
Somewhere along the way, I popped a stitch. I just remember feeling like something was off – and that it shouldn’t still hurt to pee six weeks postpartum. But my doctor was hopeful that my body would heal itself over time. I tried to be patient. I tried to will myself to heal, to fix this situation, but to no avail.
Ten weeks postpartum and two weeks before I had to go back to work, I found myself lying on a hospital gurney under a heated blanket waiting for surgery. Waiting to have a repaired episiotomy.
“How did I get here?”
The surgery was a success, and after several weeks of extreme caution and baited breath, my doctor pronounced me fit as a fiddle. This meant sex. This meant exercise.
The working out part came as a massive relief, given that I hadn’t been able to do anything beyond day-to-day physical activity for about five months.
The sex? The sex part was terrifying. All of my friends who had already gone through this transition warned me that it would hurt, but that it would get better within a few months.
We planned the night carefully by having a nice dinner, knowing what was to come. I primed myself with several cocktails because to be completely honest, I was dreading it. I missed the intimacy and desperately wanted to reconnect with my husband in this way, but I was scared of the pain and deep down, scared that somehow my scar tissue would rip right open.
Unsurprisingly, the sex was awful. It felt like sandpaper, and we weren’t able to even go through with it. My body almost seemed to clench up in fear, my vagina screaming, ‘Don’t even think about getting up in here!’
I cried and several weeks later, we tried again.
Rinse, wash, repeat. More tears, more frustration.
At some point, I remember confiding in my best friend that things weren’t getting better. That sex was horribly painful, that I had anxiety and found myself coming up with excuses to not have it.
My husband, being one of the most patient, kind, and loving people I know, never pressured me and would tell me over and over again that it was okay and that he just wanted me to feel better.
18 months postpartum, at my yearly well-woman exam, my doctor asked if we were thinking about a second, and I laughed, blurting out, “We’d have to have sex for that to happen.”
“So, it’s still painful?” she ventured.
“Like you can’t even imagine,” I confessed.
I left the appointment knowing that I would receive a call from a physical therapist’s office that specializes in women’s pelvic health. My doctor had referred me to another expert, reassuring me that outwardly, everything looked great.
That is how I got here, to this day. More than a year and a half out from having a child and still feeling emotionally scarred and more than a little broken from it all.
I found myself undressing from the waist down, positioning myself on the hard bed with a sheet covering my vulnerability.
I’m telling this story because what happened over the next ten weeks is truly something that I did not expect, and if it can help just one more person, then putting this out there is worth it. Through the patience and kindness of a wonderful physical therapist — who held my hand and sat with me while I cried — I was able to begin my road to a real recovery.
This kind of pain, the kind that makes you cringe and squint your eyes shut is NOT normal. It’s just not, and we don’t talk about it. We keep the unmentionables to ourselves because no one wants to get too personal or scare anyone else. No one wants to seem like they’re whining or claiming their experience was better or worse than the next person.
Everyone’s recovery truly is different. Mine has lasted over a year and a half and is still ongoing. The psychological toll that childbirth and the following months had on me threw me for a loop that I hadn’t been prepared to handle. I wish someone had told me that feeling this kind of pain wasn’t normal and that it didn’t have to be this way, and there are people who can help. Again, the unmentionables.
I wish someone had told me there’s a thing called “vaginismus,” which means your vagina is basically subconsciously contracting in response to physical contact or pressure.
I didn’t even know that physical therapists that specialize in pelvic health existed or that I had another option other than to grin – more like grimace – and bear it and hope things would just get better at some point.
Physical therapy hasn’t been easy. It’s been painful, but it has also forced me to finally confront some of the demons lingering from months ago.
Sex still isn’t completely pain-free, but it’s worlds better than it was before, and I’m actually enjoying it again, learning to breathe through the anxiety and practice some grace.
I know there are other women struggling with this same situation. I passed them in the waiting room going in and out of my appointments, everyone sitting quietly, staring at their phones.
So please hear this: you’re not broken, you’re not alone, and things can and will get better.
Read More: After Giving Birth, My Husband and I Didn’t Have Sex for an Entire Year