When I was 14 years old, I was on a beach vacation on the Mexican coast when all of a sudden, I felt an all too familiar jab in my abdomen. I got my period, and in an effort to salvage the remaining days of vacation full of snorkeling and swimming, I tried using a tampon for the first time. I was hunched over in a tiny, tile bathroom, reading the Wikihow on how to use the neon plastic tube in my hand. I followed all the rules: sit down, breathe deep, push in. And instead of mild discomfort, I felt sharp pain. I blamed the ordeal on being too nervous, stuffed the box of tampons into my suitcase, and tried to forget about the whole thing.
The forgetting worked for a while until I found myself in a classmate’s bed late on a Saturday night. His finger slipped inside me, and I screamed. He looked at me, terrified and confused. “What the hell did you just do to me?” I accused. He said he hardly did anything. We agreed that I was just nervous and watched a movie instead. A few weeks later, we tried again. And again, I screamed. Any sexual encounter was an endless cycle of expectations, pain and apologies. I kept telling myself I was nervous, a comfortable excuse at this point, and pushed it out of my mind.
But deep down, I really wanted to have sex. I was scrolling through YouTube on my phone one night, when I came across a Buzzfeed video about someone else who experienced painful sex. Every symptom she listed matched mine. Chronic discomfort? Check. Can’t use a tampon? Check. Sharp stabbing when I tried to have sex? Triple check. Maybe it’s questionable to trust Buzzfeed for a medical diagnosis, but I was convinced I had a condition called vulvodynia.
I made an appointment with a gynecologist ASAP. As soon as the doctor came into the examination room, I told her that I wanted to be tested for the condition. She was surprised, but she obliged. I lay down, spread my legs, and took a few deep breaths. “I’m going to touch you with a Q-tip. Tell me when you feel pain,” she instructed. A second later, I was begging her to stop the exam. “Was the Q-tip able to go in at least?” I asked hopefully. She shook her head no. I received confirmation of a diagnosis I already knew and went home. I felt broken.
So what happened next? If this were a movie, there would be a montage of doctor appointments, steroid creams, antidepressants, laser treatments and vaginal dilators. There’s no one cure. Instead, it’s a series of trial and error. Nothing about this is pretty. Nothing about this is attractive. Vulvodynia sucks and there’s no pretending it doesn’t.
Living with this doesn’t always make me sad, or angry, or scared, but sometimes it makes me all three. I was hanging out with a friend in my room, when suddenly I remembered I had physical therapy to do, so I asked him to leave. “Why?” he teased. “Do you have a guy coming over?” I looked over at my night table drawer, which safely housed my baby pink dilator and some lube, and said, “not quite,” before shoving him out the door. It’s at times like these that I feel the emotional pain of my condition the most. I feel it when there’s a sex scene on TV. I feel it when I’m swiping through Tinder. I feel it when my roommates get asked out on dates and don’t return until the next morning. I feel it even when I think I’ve forgotten about it, when it creeps up again without warning.
So on the nights that it’s hard to deal with, and I find myself scrolling through the comments section on the Buzzfeed videos that diagnosed me in the first place, I remember that I’m not alone. I remember that I’m not less deserving. I focus on the small victories, like keeping my dilator in for an extra minute or going a third day in a row without any discomfort. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have bigger victories in the future. That’s not always reassuring, but as I continue to have more good days than bad, I know they are right around the corner.
Sexless in Seattle is a student at Cornell University. The Virgin Diaries runs monthly.